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Waiting in the Wings

If there is a mayoral vacancy, there's no dearth of people wanting to fill it.

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The wildly fluctuating odds on a MacArthur-like return of Mayor Willie Herenton to the vacant Memphis school superintendency went up when some of the five finalists in the school board's vaunted national search had second thoughts and started to drop out, one by one. They went down when Herenton overplayed his hand by calling the remaining candidates "third rate."

In fact, Herenton's odds go up or down on a daily or even hourly basis, depending on whether he or his chief backer, school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., are blowing hard or keeping it civil.

Right now, neither the mayor nor Whalum are contenders for the Congeniality Award, and Herenton's prospects for a job switch are correspondingly dim. If that scenario holds, it will disappoint an increasingly crowded queue of candidates who hope to succeed His Honor in the mayor's chair:

— Criminal Court judge Otis Higgs was the first serious African-American mayoral candidate in Memphis history when he ran unsuccessfully in 1975 and 1979. Higgs confided to the Flyer some weeks ago that he would be willing to resign from the bench and serve a several-month term as interim mayor if the school board should hire Herenton away as a full-time superintendent.

— City councilman Myron Lowery met with several council colleagues last week to assure them his hat would be in the ring in a special mayoral election. Professing no fear of current Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who would be the initial favorite in such a race, Lowery said candidly that he preferred not to wait until he was eight years older to make his own run.

— Mayor Wharton answered, "Yeah," when asked by the Flyer in early April if he would be interested in running to complete Herenton's vacated term. This was after he had made it clear that he had closely consulted with his Memphis counterpart on the latter's plans to resume control of Memphis City Schools.

— Former city councilwoman Carol Chumney, runner-up in the 2007 mayor's race, virtually announced for the office on the day of Herenton's premature "resignation" bombshell in March. As for Wharton, Chumney made it clear in the days following her defeat in last year's race that she would have welcomed the presence of both the county mayor and Herenton in the 2007 mayoral field, believing that a split of votes between the two would have benefited her.

That questionable thesis might appear sounder if applied to a 2008 field including Wharton, Lowery, and three other recognizable black candidates.

— One of those is Whalum, as outspoken on the school board as Chumney had been on the council, as unpopular with his mates, and as determined to march to his own set of drums. He may also have the same sort of cachet with restless voters wanting as abrupt a change as possible at City Hall.

— There are also James Harvey and Thomas Long. Harvey, a first-term Shelby County commissioner, has made it clear that he will be a candidate for city mayor at the first available opportunity. Long, now serving his fourth term as city court clerk, was quick to say, at the very beginning of Herenton's Willie-or-won't-he resignation drama, that he would run for any resultant vacancy.

And Chumney may not be the only well-known white candidate, either; her predecessor, both as city councilman from the 5th District (Midtown, East Memphis) and as chief council nonconformist, is John Vergos, anything but an admirer of hers and someone who has nursed mayoral ambitions himself.

But the probability of mayoral wannabes having to wait until 2011 is the going scenario according to this week's odds.

Of course, the mayor might leave office early for some other reason, even if he doesn't become superintendent again. And there could be all sorts of unforeseen consequences from the current budget chaos in both city and county government, especially if the Young Turks on the City Council, boosted by Herenton's apparent complicity during his tête-à-tête with the council last week, should follow through on threats to cut or eliminate city government's share of school funding.

In any case, if there should turn out to be a mayor's race this year, we have a basic cast of characters in waiting — and there's probably room for more.

Senior editor Jackson Baker writes the Flyer's Politics column.

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