Myron Lowery Turns Kingmaker. Let Us Pray.

At his annual New Year’s breakfast, the Council chairman-designate toasts Jim Strickland, a mayoral contender, then, with colleague Strickland standing, does a bait-and-switch endorsement of Mayor Wharton’s reelection.


Wharton and Strickland sit uncomfortably at the same table at Myron Lowery's annual prayer breakfast. Others include Mickell Lowery (right) and a deserving young man from the community. - JB
  • JB
  • Wharton and Strickland sit uncomfortably at the same table at Myron Lowery's annual prayer breakfast. Others include Mickell Lowery (right) and a deserving young man from the community.

Myron Lowery, the 2015 City Council chairman-designate, is a large man — and that description is meant in more than a physical sense. There sometimes seems to be more than one psychological entity inside the Council veteran’s broad frame.

There is a generally admired version of the former TV newsman and video producer — knowledgeable, aware of procedural nuance and details, and determined to achieve specific goals. This is the Lowery who has several times been elected Council chair by his peers and the one who ran a creditable interim term as mayor after incumbent Willie Herenton’s resignation in 2009.

There is a helpful and sometimes playful, Buddha-like Lowery who is eager to please and wields a sometimes mischievous sense of humor. Many a colleague and reporter has experienced the helpful side, and (speaking of Buddha types), the Dalai Lama experienced the playful side on his visit here in 2009, smack-dab in the middle of Lowery’s term as chief executive.

That visit resulted in the famous fist-bump administered to the visiting eminence, along with a saucy “Hello, Dalai!” greeting, That action caused a lot of raised eyebrows, criticism, and even condemnation. Some few of us publicly admired the spunk and the Letterman-like levity, both of which were entirely (as we saw it) in the mold of the giggling Buddha Himself, the real one, the wise and humorous Gautama who founded the Eastern-based religion many centuries ago.

And there is, finally, another Lowery — peevish, vain, volatile, peremptory, quick to take offense himself even as he is (sometimes unaware of the fact) giving it to others, and often uncomprehending of the contexts, social and political, in which he acts. Something of a schemer, in fact, and often an awkward one.

It was this last Lowery who turned up Thursday morning, New Year’s Day, to host the 24th and latest version of the annual New Year’s Prayer Breakfasts which he began on January 1, 1992 (coincident with the inauguration of Herenton as the first elected black mayor in Memphis history).

To cut to the chase: As is his annual wont, Lowery was closing out the breakfast with some parting words, in the wake of prior speeches by other political figures — Mayors Mark Luttrell and A C Wharton of Shelby County and Memphis, respectively, and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen — interspersed with songs, sermonettes, and. well, prayers by various lay and clerical folks.

Kingmaker Lowery
  • Kingmaker Lowery
Lowery’s prayer breakfasts have often been occasions for collectively thinking out loud and taking stock regarding political directions, and even for the launching of useful initiatives by one or more of those taking part. (In particular, Wharton and Cohen, this year’s keynote speaker, had interesting things to say on Thursday, to be reported in a separate story.)

Lowery’s prayer breakfasts are, in that sense, traditional events for the larger community, though let us be clear: They are fundraising events, and there is definitely a self-serving side to them.

The choice of moderator for Thursday’s event — Mickell Lowery, the Councilman’s son — was instructive. Though it has not been formally announced — and Myron Lowery fended off at least one inquiry on the score from a reporter Thursday — it is no secret that the Councilman is meditating on turning his seat over to his son. Or, more properly, vacating the seat in the coming election year and backing the candidacy of his son, a management consultant, to succeed him. The younger Lowery, who did a good job Thursday, got some valuable public exposure in the process.

In fact, things went relatively smoothly overall Thursday. It was only in his final words that Councilman Lowery let his nether side betray him. (We all have one, by the way.)

It is not that Lowery’s remarks resulted from an unforeseen glitch, one of those spontaneous verbal turns — Freudian slips, they are called — that insert themselves unwanted into our best intentions. No, Myron Lowery premeditated what he had in mind on Thursday. He told his Council colleague Jim Strickland, who was getting ready to take his leave well before the end of the prayer breakfast, not to go, that if he did he would miss some “nice things” Lowery had to say about him.

When the time came for Lowery to conclude the event, he did indeed have some compliments for Strickland, who had dutifully stayed around. In fact, Lowery made a point of asking his colleague, a persistent critic of Mayor Wharton whose hopes of running for the city’s premier office himself have been well known (and well under way) for years, to stand.

“He’s done a great job as chairman during a very difficult year,” said Lowery, amid other words of praise. “I like him. He’s got the potential to be a future mayor of Memphis.” Hmmm, the crowd had to be wondering, what was coming? An endorsement? Even Strickland, who was reasonably sure that Lowery, himself a 2009 loser to Wharton, was committed to support the mayor’s reelection, found himself wondering.

After all: He’s got the potential to be a future mayor of Memphis. “But not yet,” Lowery said, suddenly undercutting the very premise he himself had raised. There is no way to describe what came next as anything other than setting colleague Strickland up for a fall. The mortified Strickland, still standing and the focus of everyone’s gaze, would surely see it that way.

“I have to be honest,” Lowery was saying. “I’m with the mayor….He’s controversial. He may not do everything right all the time. But his heart’s in the right place, and he’s done a good job.”

In retrospect, Lowery’s “I like him” comment about Strickland would sound paternalistic and condescending. Oddly, his switch to praise for Wharton had the same ring. (“His heart’s in the right place.” Gee.)

But neither remark was as giveaway about Lowery’s opinion of himself as another phrase he began using amid what was now, with Strickland still standing there, a full-fledged endorsement of Wharton:. “I know a lot of people,” Lowery kept saying, and what else was this meant to be but the boast of a kingmaker?

Maybe not. But it surely had that sound.

Strickland, meanwhile, had had enough. Lowery was still going strong when his understandably offended Council colleague pointedly began to walk. Intercepted midway by a reporter friend on his passage out, Strickland shook his head and said, in amazement as much as in anger, “He asked me to stick around to hear that!”

Councilman Lowery had more to say before concluding. He asked everyone to be sure to return for the prayer breakfast next year, which would be his 25th. And he turned to a deserving young man from the community whom he had asked to sit at his table — the same table at which, early in the event, had been seated (presumably at Lowery’s request) Strickland, Wharton, and son Mickell.

Now Councilman Lowery would ask the young man to stand. Once he had, he heard himself being lavishly praised by Lowery as “a potential mayor” for the future.

Under the circumstances, the young man might have been within his rights to walk out, a la Strickland. But he remained standing there instead, and it became obvious after a while that the putative kingmaker had no bait-and-switch other candidate in mind to transfer his loyalty to. Not yet, anyhow.

So when Lowery bade the young man sit down again, he obediently sat. And that was that.

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