The second WREG mayoral debate, held on the very eve of voting and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, no less, may not change the outcome, but it was one last occasion for putting the candidates — four of them, anyhow — on simultaneous display. One last revelation as to who they are.
There was no studio audience for this one, unless you count me, kindly invited to sit just behind and off to the side of the cameras as the four candidates — A C Wharton, Carol Chumney, Myron Lowery, and Kenneth Whalum — prepared for this last-chance encounter with a TV audience and with each other.
They were in full view of me, and I of them. Occasionally, as an opponent stumbled or rhapsodized, I would get a raised eyebrow from one of the participants or maybe a shrug or a tiny, tiny sardonic smile.
The day before I had been asked by News Channel 3’s Tom Powell what I expected to see in this last common forum. Either attacks or conciliation, I answered, depending on how this or that candidate assessed the moment.
Even those candidates who (publicly, anyhow) doubted the evidence of the polls knew that Shelby County Mayor Wharton was the acknowledged front-runner, and even those who (again, publicly) imagined that his prodigious lead — nearly 40 points in the last major poll — was created by a perverse media or a wicked establishment knew that the mayoral race was his to lose.
So the choice came down to last-minute aggression against Wharton or a kumbaya-like acceptance of his dominance. The other three candidates would try one or the other tactic — sometimes both at once.
Even the candidates’ preliminary sound check for the studio technicians told something about their state of mind.
“One-Two-Three. New Mayor1 Vote Whalum!” said the energetic school board member and pastor of New Olivet Baptist church.
“Mary had a little lamb…” began Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, who went on to complete all the verses of the child’s nursery rhyme.
“I’m here, and I’m ready for the debate,” was the matter-of-fact message from former city councilwoman Chumney.
“A C Wharton,” said A C Wharton.
Just before things got going, Lowery, a onetime reporter and anchor for WMC-TV. Action News 5, toted up the equipment on hand — four stationary TV cameras and a hand-held one. “Five cameras?” he asked. “Are you showing off your TV background?” jested Channel 3 commentator Norman Brewer, who, along with Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford and Channel 3 anchors Richard Ransom and Claudia Barr, handled the questioning for the hour-long debate.
Chumney Turns Accusatory
The first noteworthy moment occurred when Brewer asked the candidates to account for what was shaping up as a low-turnout election. The others answered with this or that bromide. Chumney turned accusatory. Addressing herself directly to panelists Brewer and Sanford, she said, “You told the voters it would take a miracle for anyone else to win other than A C Wharton. That’s why the turnout is low. And I’m challenging the voters, ‘Don’t let you and you…” here she nodded in the direction of the two alleged offenders “..decide this election for some people in the back room or some people at a newspaper or a TV station….”
In the middle of her exposition of this conspiracy-theory election scenario, Chumney’s voice, which had sounded thin and reedy in her opening remarks, began to take on volume. It picked up even more when she answered the next question — Barr’s asking what each hopeful would do immediately on taking office. Chumney would “clean house at City Hall…get rid of all those cronies, and I’m going to stop the corruption.”
For better or for worse, she at least had come to throw some leather.
Whalum, who had finished fourth (at 5 per cent) in the latest Mason-Dixon poll and thereby had displaced Charles Carpenter from his familiar debate niche, was on a mission to keep things simple and pithy. In his opening, he had likened himself to David vs. Goliath and expressed gratitude to the station for being his “slingshot.”
Now Whalum said that, if victorious, he would organize a parade down Park Avenue in Orange Mound and send an email to all city employees outlining a simple task “to see who would respond.” Barr wondered: What might that task be? “Something very basic, like ‘respond to this email.’”
Wharton promised to institute a code of ethics, and Lowery did a reprise on his theme that “what the others are promising, I’ve already done.” He, too, targeted corruption and gave himself kudos for courage in attempting to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson.
Heating Up the Griddle
The issue of personnel would figure again shortly, when Sanford asked point blank who would keep on former councilman Jack Sammons in his current role as Lowery’s CAO. Wharton, who is rumored to be considering just that, wouldn’t commit, nor would Chumney. Whalum, without explaining why, flatly ruled it out.
Eventually the real fun began, when the station’s hosts invited the candidates to ask questions of each other. Wharton demurred. He was running for a position. “I’m not running against these individuals,” he explained.
“I’ll take it,” said an eager Lowery, and he went on to suggest Wharton was leaving “unfinished business” behind in /Shelby County. The county mayor responded that city government’s stronger “political muscle” would allow him leverage on problems of both city and county. Then Lowery took him to task for being “too busy” to attend the various debates and forums that Lowery himself, a busy mayor in his own right, made a point to attend. This was the crux of a grievance that had been pressed against the absent frontrunner by his rivals at many a cattle-call event.
Wharton tried to turn the tables on Lowery, saying that “while you were probably out campaigning last night,” he himself had been in Hickory Hill conducting a non-political town meeting — something, Wharton said archly, that the residents had not recently had the benefit of. It was “ridiculous” to think you had to be at a political event “to talk to the people.”
Now Chumney weighed in again, pointing out that Wharton, if elected, would be receiving both his salary as city mayor and a county pension. How much would that add up to, she wondered.
He was not about the money, Wharton answered. He’d taken a pay cut to enter government in the first place. “I came to government to give, not to take.” And he had no idea what the answer to Chumney’s question would be. Anyhow, he didn’t set the salary for mayor. The council which Chumney used to be a member of did.
Having "No Respect"
And Wharton somehow segued into an attack on Chumney’s performance on the council and her leadership ability at large. “You must not have been very effective, Miss Chumney.” As Chumney protested that she had been, Wharton interrupted: “Does somebody else have a question for me? I’m waiting on another question.”
Chumney continued trying to defend her achievements on the council, and Wharton looked around, asking if “the moderator” was on the job. In fact, everybody seemed prepared to let this dramatic little stichomythia go on for a while, but the county mayor’s prompt forced a shift to Whalum for a question.
The Olivet pastor chose to ask Chumney what amounted to a rhetorical question: Why did she think the media had chosen to “marginalize you and me and some of the other candidates”? That led to a familiar Chumney theme — that there was a tendency to minimize her “because I’m a woman.” And that she and other women were up against a “glass ceiling.”
And she resumed her defense against Wharton’s “taking shots at me” and having “no respect,” citing awards she had won.
That moment of high tension segued into more wonky areas, like school funding, jobs, blight, keeping the Grizzlies in town — though none of the participants ever quite achieved the specificity levels of earlier joint encounters.
Somehow it was late in the day to promote a platform. This affair stayed close to the pulse of attitude, with Chumney now having assigned Wharton the same “dynastic” status for his seven years as county mayor as former mayor Willie Herenton for his seventeen-plus years as city mayor. And when the time came around again for candidates to ask questions of each other, she escalated her attacks on the county mayor in a potentially troubling way, asking Wharton why certain county employees got big raises and others didn’t. She singled out mayoral aide Kelly Rayne as a beneficiary.
Was this an attempt to echo a more thorough-going charge made by a local blogger? If so, Wharton did not take the bait, merely going on to say that all raises were according to Hoyle and some of them appeared to be larger because they involved expanding certain jobs after employee layoffs.
Chumney would take one more shot, alluding in her closing remarks to the famous 2007 dinner meeting between county mayor Wharton and then city mayor Herenton, one that preceded Wharton’s decision not to run for city mayor that year.
Meanwhile, Lowery — perhaps put off by the intensity of the exchanges between Chumney and Wharton — had backed off from his earlier challenging attitude toward the county mayor and, at his last opportunity followed Wharton’s lead and forsook the opportunity to challenge him or anyone else with a question.
And Whalum, capable of a firebrand mode himself, was a model of deportment, concluding as he started — with an expression of thanks for the “slingshot” of this last televised encounter. And with one last repetition of his website URL — www.whalum.com.
But for the Chumney-Wharton fireworks, this last debate offered nothing especially memorable — and nothing likely to change the long-prophesized outcome of a rout for Wharton.