A Proper Challenger

Eccentric he may be, but John Willingham, Mayor Herenton's main opponent, is no fool.



Memphis mayoral candidate John Willingham likes to tell the story of how various people called him up during the week before the filing deadline for this year's city election and asked him about rumors that he intended to run for mayor against Willie Herenton, whom almost everybody regarded as the inevitable winner of another term.

"Not today," Willingham says he answered. And he kept a tight lip right up until the filing deadline itself, when he showed up with a hastily signed petition bearing the requisite number of names. One of the signees was definitely not Kemp Conrad, the local Republican Party chairman who tried to discourage Willingham, a first-term maverick Shelby County commissioner, from running for mayor -- at least under Republican auspices -- and, for his pains, has emerged as the latest named member of what Willingham considers a "good old boy" network.

It is a network that, as Willingham sees it, stretches back in time through last year's U.S. Senate election and the two-term administration of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and in space to the burgeoning developments of outer Shelby County and the FedExForum that is even now materializing in the nether regions of downtown Memphis.

Conrad's role in the scheme of things, according to Willingham, was to have brokered Herenton's endorsement of ultimate Senate winner Lamar Alexander, in return for which -- well, it gets sticky right in there, but Rout and his developer friends are allegedly involved, as was the former county mayor's son Rick Rout, the ex-Young Republican chief who failed to back George Flinn for county mayor last year, as is Flinn himself in an indirect sense, in that pressure was supposedly brought on the physician/businessman by Conrad and others to seek a City Council seat instead of challenging Herenton for mayor this year, because, well

Not that there isn't a certain logic to these speculations, but only Willingham and a few intimates can follow all the turns and convolutions of them. "Conspiracy theorist," sniffs Conrad disdainfully. It is a sentiment that is echoed elsewhere in the bailiwick of conventional Republicanism, one of whose exemplars, fellow Commissioner David Lillard, was provoked to tell Willingham during a committee meeting: "You can't find a snake everywhere, commissioner, even though you're a professional in that field!"

Lillard's exasperation was over Willingham's questioning of the financing arrangements for construction of the soon-to-be Arlington-area high school. Republican Willingham, a de facto ally of several Democrats on the commission, was leery of the project, which depended on approval of an innovative rural school bonds formula, until its potential costs could be reduced and made more accountable.

Eventually, all of that got done -- sort of -- and for all his vexing of colleagues and county school advocates, Willingham arguably served the public interest.

Likewise with Willingham's proposal that the commission look into the retrofitting of The Pyramid as a casino for a future in which the U of M Tigers are likely to abscond for quarters alongside the NBA's Grizzlies in the new FedExForum. The commissioner, who often seems to hear drums that others don't, eventually had a majority of his colleagues moving enough to his beat so as to get a formal study of the idea approved.

Whether the considerable legal and moral objections to the idea are overcome or not, some movement toward resolving The Pyramid dilemma was the result.

The commissioner's determined scrutiny of FedExForum arrangements may yet bear fruit also; if nothing else, a committee approved by the commission at Willingham's insistence may force a closer public scrutiny of what he insists was a sweetheart deal in which the county was stampeded into conceding too much control -- of proceeds and of other local facilities' wherewithal -- to Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley.

"The next thing we have to look out for is the riverfront," warns Willingham, who sees a current blueprint for redevelopment of that area, one approved by incumbent Herenton, to be loaded with similar snares. In concerns like these he is joined by another mayoral candidate, Beale Street entrepreneur Randle Catron, who also worries about potential cost overruns at the new arena and other projects favored by the incumbent mayor.

The two challengers believe -- against the evidence of various polls -- that there is an untapped opposition to the mayor, both in the white community and the now-dominant African-American population of Memphis. Willingham and his supporters never tire of boasting that, in the words of supporter Shirley Herrington, "we've got more yard signs in South Memphis than East Memphis."

Whether or not this is actually the case, Willingham is consciously directing his appeals -- like his somewhat unpredictable votes on the commission -- to a mixed audience. Lost in some of the confusion over his various charges is the fact that he and Herenton agree on much, including the need for city/county consolidation.

The commissioner may be an eccentric, but he is no fool. Once an administrator in Richard Nixon's Department of Housing and Urban Development, he is an engineer and inventor with several patents to his credit. And he does more than cry the alarm, having unveiled a grandiose proposal -- still to be pursued before the commission, or, if the unimaginable should happen, with his future mayoral constituents -- for using a precast mold methodology that would simultaneously govern most future countywide construction, give county prisoners useful employment, and hold down the costs of creating new schools.

It may be pie in the sky, but John Willingham is ready to ladle it out, if and when enough voters pay attention and credit his vision. Depending on the vantage point, that prospect is either breathtaking or one that should not occasion anyone's holding their breath.

But try to imagine what the current mayoral race -- nay, the current city election -- would look like if Willingham, who once delivered a campaign speech shirtless and doffed his shirt again, John L. Sullivan-style, for the Flyer's cameras, had not launched his somewhat Quixotic bid. It would be a desultory coronation affair, with Herenton's only challenges coming from the likes of the game but outmatched Catron and of also-rans like Walter Payne and Mary Taylor Shelby and the all-too-forgettable Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges.

Willingham has at least livened things up, and -- as has been the case with various other initiatives of his -- more may come of his bid than first meets the eye.

OTHER RACES: (Runoffs are a possibility in multi-candidate races for city council districts 1 through 7; pluralities win in super-districts 8 and 9, the former predominantly black, the latter predominantly white.) CITY COUNCIL (District 1): Eenie, meanie . Perhaps the most difficult race to evaluate of any on the Memphis city ballot is this one for the newly configured District 1, which has expanded eastward from the bailiwick of incumbent E.C. Jones to take in a sprawling mass of new territory in newly annexed Cordova, home base of Jones main challenger, Republican endorsee Wyatt Bunker, who is leaving his county school board seat just as it becomes obsolete. Some would say Jones, an old pro with a constituent-service rep, has worked his new turf well enough to go with an assumed healthy margin in the old Frayser/Raleigh portion. Others say that social-conservative Bunker commands the loyalty of his fellow transplants and is doing useful stealth work in Jones end of the district. Nobody quite knows what to make of W. B. Yates, the only African-American candidate and an unknown whom the Jones people suspect of being a ringer who is there only to drain off some of the incumbent s Democratic vote. Bunker is deluging the district with flyers which attack Jones as Soft on Topless Zoning and stress crime control and education as issues, while Jones is hitting the phone banks and preparing to flaunt his support by such worthies as former Mayor Dick Hackett and GOP State Rep. Joe Kent (Jones former police partner). Both men promise to pinch the public penny. CITY COUNCIL (District 2); Incumbent Brent Taylor is unopposed for this Corvova/East Mememphis seat.. CITY COUNCIL (District 3): Incumbent TaJuan Stout-Mitchell\ is unopposed in this Whitehaven-based district.. CITY COUNCIL (District 4): Just in case that truck comes through Long-term incumbent Janet Hooks, wife of a county commissioner and mother of a school board member, is about as well-ensconced and invulnerable as anybody else now serving in any office anywhere. Her service in the family real-estate-appraising business and her discriminating votes on development issues have made her a swing voter in zoning cases, and, though an under-financed field of unknowns Debra Brooks, Rex Hamilton, and Gregory Mcvay Lawrence are making the old college try, their earnest efforts rate about the same odds of success as if they had bought lottery tickets and were looking to get rich. CITY COUNCIL (District 5): Three-card monte. The only thing certain about this five-fold race is that Kerry White, the fifth wheel and a no-show as far as public campaigning is concerned, will fold. Ditto with under-financed Mark Follis, an arborist and political newcomer who has tried valiantly to make virtue of necessity, boasting that he won t accept money from anybody, neither wicked developer nor John Q. Public. The plucky Follis, however, is short on issues as well as on bucks. The winner will be one of three candidates: State Representative Carol Chumney, who started out with most name recognition and has several endorsements and has campaigned unevenly but tirelessly; physician/businessman George Flinn, who has avoided the negativity that his hired out-of-state handlers saddled him with during his long-odds campaign for county mayor last year; or Jim Strickland, a youthful political veteran and former Democratic Party chairman who has good entrees in moderate Republican circles as well. With her center-to-left base, Chumney was the only candidate who might have won the seat -- an open one vacated by long-term maverick incumbent John Vergos outright. But Flinn has an anchor on the right side of the spectrum, and Strickland, who raised good money early and was endorsed by Vergos and the Commercial Appeal, has been running an effective campaign. Late spending should give Flinn and Strickland more visibility, and one of them will probably vie with Chumney in a runoff. CITY COUNCIL (District 6): How many models are there in this fleet? Funeral director Edmund Ford succeeded brother Joe Ford in this South Memphis seat when the latter (now a county commissioner) made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1999, and, unless another model Ford comes along to challenge him, should have the lane to himself for years to come.. Opponent Albert Banks III is an unknown with no such dynastic connections, and Perry Steele, though he s been around for a while politically, has yet to get on track. CITY COUNCIL (District 7): The X Factor. Sometime radio talk-show guy Jennings Bernard can give incumbent Barbara Swearengen Holt a bad time if it turns out he has raised some money. That very much remains to be seen, however. Holt fairly easily survived a challenge four years ago from veteran broker/pol Jerry Hall. CITY COUNCIL (District 8, Position 1): One for a match. Once the protÇgÇ of fellow councilman Rickey Peete, incumbent Joe Brown is a reliable enough champion of such populist issues as Prevailing-Wage labor agreements that he can call in his own IOUs.The efforts if gis challenger, University of Memphis student Beverly Jones Farmer, best be gauged by her politically incorrect (but no doubt economical) use of matchbook to advertise her candidacy. Like most outs running against ins, Farmer condemns the pernicious influence of developers and, somewhat intriguingly, recommends a task force to implement social, spiritual, and economic opportunities for the hopeless. (Question: which of us does that leave out?) CITY COUNCIL (District 8, Position 2): Fighting fire with fire. As previously noted, challenger James Robinson, once upon a time a spokesman for Memphis Housing Authority residents, has attempted to use incumbent Rickey Peete s past brush with the law (on an extortion conviction) against him, but Robinson has had his own legal problems (misappropriation of funds while on the MHA council). Moreover, Peete s real skills as legislator and conciliator have earned him respect both in the community and among his council peers. Unless Robinson turns up to have raised some significant money late, this is a case of Peete and Re-Peete. CITY COUNCIL (District 8, Position 3): CITY COUNCIL (District 8, Position 3): Once again, how many models in this fleet? Sir Isaac Ford (yes, that s his real name) is a member of the well-known local political family and is making his second try for public office. His first real one, actually, since he dropped out of last year s race for Shelby County mayor after a trial run of sorts. Other differences between this year and last year: (1) He has the active support this time around of his legendary forebear, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.; (2) He calls for revitalizing the community and expanding the tax base rather than for the kind of ambitious socialistic-capitalistic platform (including reparations for slavery and other unusual measures) that he set forth in a series of position papers last year. Even so, Ford will be hard put to unseat Lowery, who is about as thoroughly ensconced in his seat as any incumbent this season and, in the course of his three terms, has managed to build solid bridges to most sectors of his far-flung district. Lowery is a champion of city/county consolidation in a district where there is minimal resistance to that idea. CITY COUNCIL (District 9, Position 1): Too many cooks spoil the purge attept.Yes, it s probably true, as all of incumbent Pat VanderSchaaf s opponents assumed, that she was vulnerable this year because of a relatively recent shoplifting incident; because of name-association with ex-husband Clair, himself cast off the Shelby County commission last year after a D.U.I. conviction and other problems; because of having been around so long as to qualify for any generalized turn-out-the-rascals sentiment that might be simmering. But being an incumbent for 28 years has its advantages, too, and VanderSchaaf has cast her net wide and rallied an influential group of supporters (example: former county mayor Bill Morris, who testifies for her in a widely seen TV commercial). And she is talented enough at mathematics to imagine the distribution and dispersal -- of her potential anti vote amongst the several opponents who will likely cancel each other yet as they claim their separate shares of it. This, like other super-district races, is winner-take-all, no run-off, and VanderSchaaf has a better-than-even chance to get a plurality. That s partly because businessman (and onetime city attorney) Lester Lit has come out of relative anonymity to run an impressive race (getting the Commercial Apepal endorsement certified him as a bona fide contender), which means that fellow businessman Scott McCormick, making his third try for public office, may not find the Republican Party endorsement to be the self-sufficient bonus he once thought it was, especially since Don Murphree will peel away votes in the suburbs and the ever-dogged Arnold Weiner will claim his portion of the GOP vote.. Ex-Marine, ex-school board veteran Jim Brown is deserving but has been forced by limited means to run much too low-profile a race . CITY COUNCIL (District 9, Position 2): Cart Before the Horse Award to Tiffany Lowe, the previously unknown challenger to incumbent Tom Marshall for running full-out, with a blizzard of signs mainly in public right-of-way areas before she could even assure herself of legal standing to run. Lowe, it turned out famously, is a convicted felon who has not bothered, as other such candidates have in this and other years, to petition for the legal restoration of her rights.. Campaign manager Jerry Hall, ever a would-be broker, displayed his usual energetic flair but might have done some advance checking himself. Considering veteran Marshall s assumed inassailability in a super-district which favors him demographically, one has to wonder why the effort was made at all. CITY COUNCIL (District 9, Position 3): Brother, can you spare a dime? A nickel? Well-financed veteran council incumbent Jack Sammons has not campaigned much, and he hasn t had to, despite the fact that he has an articulate opponent in energy analyst Henry Nickell, who has been a fixture at the forums Sammons has skipped, discoursing on the sins of special interest and developers and making proposals for public-debt control that are probably worth listening to. Nickell s chances would be better if Sammons didn t own something of a Mr. Clean reputation in his own right. CITY COURT CLERK: Does this man have an elephant s memory? Armed with the endorsement of the Commecial Appeal and the mantle of incumbency, clerk Thomas Long has proved a hard target for his most active opponent, former radio personality Janis Fullilove, whose chances are both boosted and retarded by her former career path as an over-the-top radio talk-show jock; and Betty Boyette, a former administrator in the clerk s office who has been plagued by a dearth of money and by lack of organized support from her fellow Republicans. One reason for the latter circumstance was suggested early on by Fullilove, who appealed to Democrats by accusing Long of Republican loyalties. The incumbent denied that vehemently, but in a recent appearance before the crowd at District Attorney General Bill Gibbons annual fish-fry fundraiser, paid special tribute to early political mentors Gibbons, lawyer John Ryder, and activist Annabel Woodall all card-carying GOPers. MEMPHIS SCHOOL BOARD (District 1): The special-election contest for the seat left vacant by the death of Dr. Lee Brown, the incumbent, was initially expected to follow the outlines of the race for city council in the same, recently enlarged district. In that one, a white Democrat with a history of support in the working-class neighborhoods of Frayser and Raleigh is opposed by a white, socially conservative Republican from newly annexed Cordova. No whites in the school board race at all, however which fact could be a de facto courtesy nod to the across-the-board constituency of the well-liked Brown, an African American. Lawyer Jay Bailey (or J.Bailey, as he signs himself these days) is the odds-on favorite, as the son of powerful Shelby County Commission member Walter Bailey, a Democrat, and as a candidate who can also boast public support also from the likes of Shelby County Trustee Bob Patterson, a Republican. His major opposition is from FedEx administrator Willie Brooks, who has support from such plugged-in types as Commissioner Deidre Malone and veteran lobbyist/pol Calvin Anderson. Also running are college students Reginald Bernard and Stephanie Gatewood and school counselor Anthony Clear.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment