The prospect of a second candidacy for the office of Memphis mayor by wrestler/commentator Jerry Lawler — reported Sunday night by Kontji Anthony of WMC-TV — cannot be considered good news by several already committed or seriously leaning mayoral hopefuls. One or two of them will concede privately that even a novelty bid by Lawler will drain away X number of discretionary votes out there in the voter pool — thereby benefiting established front-runners (read: A C Wharton).
No one needs to be reminded that the likable and still charismatic Lawler, though somewhat past his prime as a headliner, has a largish following out there—though it may be well less than the 12 percent of the voting electorate who cast their votes for Lawler in 1999 when, as a long-established public presence, he made his first mayoral race.
The lineup for that race was a multi-candidate affair featuring Willie Herenton, then a second-term incumbent with intact credibility and support in the city’s establishment, and several plausible challengers, including then councilman Joe Ford and an abundance of other major political players.
If that’s a gestalt that reminds you of the one developing for this year’s special mayoral election (substitute county mayor A C Wharton for Herenton as the favorite), Lawler himself should also have his memory refreshed.
He probably would have been pinned to the mat anyhow that year, given the roster of political heavyweights involved in the 1999 battle royal, but his chances of mounting a bona fide challenge were seriously reduced by his inability to campaign full time due to professional commitments, involving regular weekend travel, that limited his campaigning time to two or three weekdays at best.
Every time it appeared that Lawler might be gaining traction, his momentum would be dissipated by the duties incumbent on his day job. That was the major factor preventing his emulating the success enjoyed in 1998, the year before, by Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. Ventura, whose name recognition as a well-known Bad Guy grappler and commentator, had won his race for governor, campaigning as an all-purpose reformer who could throw the bums out of government and keep ‘em out.
Lawler, too, had sounded legitimate political notes in his campaign, but a part-time, on-again, off-again campaign can only take one so far.
The Venturas, Ronald Reagans, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, and Al Frankens of the world have proven that they can successfully make the leap from entertainment into public office, but only (a) if they work at it full-time; and (b) if they commit exclusively to politics and government as serious new callings (which, by definition, depends on a full-time effort).
It remains to be seen whether Lawler is either able or willing to make that kind of commitment. And even if he does, there is a question as to whether his name and presence still possess the same cachet as in 1999.
In the meantime, he’s got a trial balloon up (the Channel 5 report was based on remarks made by Lawler to an audience of wrestling fans, whom he told he’d be making a fuller statement about a mayor’s race this Wednesday), and the groan or two one hears from elsewhere in the mayoral field suggest that, win or lose, he’ll be hurting somebody