Politics » Politics Feature

Who Wants to be the Next Mayor? An Update

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The odds on Mayor Willie Herenton's taking leave of his current job for a MacArthur-like return as superintendent of the city's schools fluctuate wildly from week to week.

They went up when the five finalists in the School Board's vaunted national search for a new superintendent 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." And the odds for Herenton 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.

One of the newest aspirants is Criminal Court Judge Otis Higgs, who was the first serious African-American mayoral candidate in Memphis history and ran unsuccessfully for the office in 1975 and 1979. Higgs has not yet signaled any attention to run a third time, but he confined 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.

And, among those who are determined to run for Herenton's vacated mayoralty in that eventuality is city councilman Myron Lowery, who met with several council colleagues last week to assure them his hat would be in the ring.

Acknowledging that current Shelby County mayor A C Wharton 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. And Lowery's chief talking point in such a showdown might be to remind voters, as he did when asked about the race this weekend, that, in order to run, Wharton would be taking early leave from his elected term as county mayor.

As for Wharton, he 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. (And that consultation may have begun as early as the famous La Tourelle chow-down between himself and Herenton on the eve of Wharton's decision to resist a mayoral draft in 2007.)

A third sure-fire candidate in a special mayoral election is Carol Chumney. The former city councilwoman, runner-up in the 2007 mayor's race, virtually announced for the office on the day of Herenton's premature "resignation" bombshell in March. And, even more so than Lowery, she is undeterred by the likelihood of Wharton's running.

In fact, Chumney made it clear, in the days following her defeat in last year's race, that she would have welcomed the presence of both Wharton and Herenton in the 2007 mayoral field, believing that a split of votes between the two would have benefited her. Few observers of that race would have concurred, most believing that Wharton would have inherited a good deal of Chumney's early support. But her argument might appear sounder in a 2008 field including Wharton, Lowery, and three other name 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. Whalum hasn't made a definitive statement on running but is widely assumed to be willing.

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. Harvey might be interested in the county job, too, if the city one doesn't come open until the next regularly scheduled municipal election in 2011.

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 non-conformist, is John Vergos, anything but an admirer of hers and someone who has nursed mayoral ambitions himself. He has talked up running for mayor in the past and may do so again.

The probability of mayoral wannabes having to wait until 2011 is the going scenario according to this week's odds, with the pendulum on the School Board having swung once more in the direction of aversion toward Willie Herenton.

But who knows? The mayor might leave office early for some other reason, even if he doesn't become superintendent. And there could be all sort 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 tete-a-tete 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 a mayor's race this year, we have a basic cast-of-characters in waiting - and there's probably room for more.

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