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Turning It On

City candidates come front and center, but will the voters turn out?

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With the Memphis municipal election scheduled to take place on October 6th, less than a month away, the candidates are stepping up their efforts to vie for public attention. One milestone in the campaign year was Sunday's all-candidate forum sponsored by the NAACP at Mt. Olive CME Cathedral Church, an event which was open to candidates for mayor, city council, city court clerk, and three city judicial positions.

Another, more specialized forum was held Monday night at the Hooks Main Library for council candidates in Super Districts 8 and 9.

Concerns that voters might in large numbers bypass the election were underscored by the scanty turnout — of candidates and audience — for the Super District forum.

The event, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, featured only two circumstances in which competing candidates appeared. Challengers Mario Dennis, Isaac Wright, and Rosalynn Nichols, running for the Super District 8, Position 2 seat, were on hand, but incumbent Janis Fullilove was not.

Both candidates for the Super District 9, Position 2 seat — incumbent Shea Flinn and challenger James A. Sdoia — were present. But Joe Brown, the incumbent in Super District 8, Position 1, and Tammy Warren, one of his two challengers, were absent. Another challenger, Mark Coleman, was present.

A brief statement was read by a spokesperson for Brown, however, and the absent Paul Shaffer, challenger to Super District 9, Position 2 incumbent Kemp Conrad, was represented by his son.

Neither of the two unopposed Super District candidates — council chairman Myron Lowery in 8, 3 and Reid Hedgepeth in 9, 3, were present.

Questions and answers at the forum tended to be of the boilerplate variety, but there were, here and there, some notable statements. Incumbency, and the advantage it conveyed in familiarity with the processes and current issues of city government, paid off for Flinn and Conrad several times. When the subject was transportation, for example, Flinn went off on a well-informed tear regarding the need to stop using CIP (Capital Improvement Program) funds for MATA's operating expenses, while Conrad launched into a discourse on the value of the current bike-lane initiative in diversifying city transit possibilities.

Sdoia and Flinn found themselves in agreement on the need for new paradigms in the internet age for the city's municipal libraries, but they found some areas for disagreement, as well. The challenger took issue with the arrangement whereby the city undertook some heavy leveraging to land the forthcoming Electrolux plant. While Flinn agreed it was a questionable deal, he suggested that "because we've been asleep at the switch for the last few years" in matters of industrial recruitment, the city had little choice.

Interestingly, the challenging candidates in all races tended to argue that members of the council had a responsibility to police their own ranks on questions of ethics, while the incumbents, though not renouncing internal responsibility, argued, as Conrad put it, that "it is not necessarily our job to hold council members accountable."

Flinn agreed, saying, "It's not appropriate to go after colleagues." Both suggested that voters, by their actions at the polls, were the main agents in enforcing ethical standards.

Responding to a question about a prospective anti-discrimination ordinance, most of the candidates affirmed their opposition to discrimination in a general sense, though few took on the issue of gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons, who had been specifically mentioned in the question (as in the proposed resolution). Flinn was one who did, however, noting, "I sponsored [the resolution]."

Conrad demurred on that one, saying that, while he supported state and federal strictures on antidiscrimination, "I don't support the ordinance as written."

• Consistent with the consensus among pol-watchers and word on the street, too: That's the bottom line of pollster Berje Yacoubian's latest tracking poll on the 2011 Memphis mayor's race. In a nutshell, Yacoubian finds incumbent A C Wharton headed toward an easy victory, but there is data, too, that shows weaknesses in the mayor's support.

On the favorability scale, the latest survey, taken this month by Yacoubian Research, shows that 63 percent of 273 persons polled in the Memphis section of the poll would rate Wharton's job performance as either "excellent" (25 percent) or "good" (38 percent). Another 24 percent rate the mayor's performance as "average," while 3 percent would rate him "below average," 5 percent regard his performance as "poor" and another 5 percent are "not sure."

Matched against his best-known opponents, Wharton is the likely choice of 54 percent of 229 persons polled. Runner-up is former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr., with 7 percent. Perennial candidate Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges has 1 percent, and no one else, including Shelby County commissioner James Harvey, has earned a full digit. Some 5 percent would prefer "someone else" unspecified, while 33 percent profess themselves "not sure."

Wharton gets his best favorability scores from Memphians in the 65 to 74 age-group category; he is weakest among members of the youngest demographic polled, respondents aged 18-24. His scores rise proportionate to the educational status of those polled, as well as to the income status of respondents. The mayor fares well in all geographic areas, with little variation, but his best scores are among East Memphians.

Democrats (59.6 percent "good" or "excellent") like the mayor, but not to the degree that Republicans (71.8 percent "good" or "excellent") do.

Perhaps the most interesting of Yacoubian's findings is that Wharton, an African American, fares significantly better with whites (74.4 percent "good" or "excellent" with males, 72 percent with females) than with blacks (62.4 percent "good" or "excellent" among males, a mere 50.4 percent among females).

Only Ford comes close to challenging the mayor among the various demographic groups and only to a modest degree. The former councilman is neck-and-neck with Wharton only among the 18-24 group, a sample consisting of only six people. Ford gets double-digit ratings (and low ones, at that) only among African Americans and the group making between $10,000 and $20,000 annually.

Yacoubian noted that his poll results were taken just before a recent rash of publicity regarding opponent Ford's endorsement by several labor groups, and he regards it as possible that the former councilman may rise higher in subsequent trackings closer to the October 6th election date. But Yacoubian sees it as highly unlikely that Wharton's reelection can be significantly threatened.

Mike Wissman, already vice chair of the Shelby County Schools Board and soon to be a member of the interim all-county school board, picked up yet another public office Thursday, winning the four-way race for Arlington mayor with 745 votes (38.78 percent of the vote) to 626 votes for fourth vice mayor Hugh Lamar. Brian Groves (known professionally by his former radio DJ name Brian Elder) was third with 297 votes (15.46 percent), followed by alderman Brian Thompson with 252 votes (13.12 percent).

Wissman succeeds Russell Wiseman, who opted not to run for reelection as mayor.

Although the prospect of his serving in two public offices at once became a campaign issue for his opponents, Wissman, a Memphis firefighter, has indicated he will keep his school board post while serving as Arlington mayor.

Wissman made the issue work for him, though, as he countered that his familiarity with the issues of the forthcoming merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools equipped him best to deal with an uncertain educational future.

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