Politics » Politics Feature

Changing the Odds

A boom for Jim Strickland and other hopefuls complicates the mayor's race


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A week or so after its inception, a sudden boom for city councilman Jim Strickland as a mayoral candidate showed little sign of abating. And whether first-termer Strickland or somebody else from the council or County Commission gets in, it seems likely that the field of challengers to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, still the odds-on favorite for city mayor, will increase and increase substantially.

The council boasts two other mayoral prospects besides Strickland, whose place in the limelight appears to have derived from his initiatives on budget cutting and transferring the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center from city administration to that of Shelby County.

Current council chairman Myron Lowery is considered an all but certain mayoral entry. In the course of brief remarks at Sidney Chism's annual "Community Picnic" on Saturday, Lowery told the teeming crowd of politicians and political junkies, "I am not running today. I may be running soon, though. We'll have to see." Yet another mayoral bid was advertised at the picnic by Shelby County commissioner James Harvey, who attached a sign to a chain-link fence on the grounds that said in part, "Memphis Mayor 2011/James Harvey vs. A C Wharton ... "

Another potential entry from the council is Strickland's fellow first-termer Kemp Conrad, a special-election winner whose tenure is but a few months old but who has wasted no time either in making his mark, exposing boondoggles in city government, and proposing various reforms.

A former local Republican chairman and a budget-cutter like former Democratic chairman Strickland, Conrad sees himself as more open to humanitarian projects than most textbook conservatives. During the last round of council budget-cutting, Conrad's intervention was important and perhaps decisive in saving full funding for programs of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA).

But it is Strickland who's getting the most talk of late for the mayor's race, especially if it should materialize as a special election earlier than its scheduled date of October 2011. Incumbent mayor Willie Herenton has filed to challenge 9th District congressman Steve Cohen next year, and there had already been persistent speculation that the mayor might leave office early for legal or other reasons.

A special election would give Strickland and the other council hopefuls free rein to run without fear of surrendering their seats.

Though his chief backer is council-mate Shea Flinn, who is counseling him behind the scenes, Strickland has won public hosannahs from other sources as diverse as liberal blogger Steve Steffens and conservative columnist Marilyn Loeffel. As recently as Saturday, Shelby County Republican chairman Lang Wiseman gave the councilman some heady praise (see below). Tom Guleff, a maverick government-watcher whose "Joe Citizens" dispatches and website have earned a following in Shelby County, has launched an unofficial "Draft Strickland" campaign on Facebook.

Conrad himself is something of a Strickland booster. "I consider it an honor to serve alongside Jim Strickland," he says.

Both Strickland and Conrad are white males, of course — a fact of personal identity that could be a handicap in a city in which African Americans and women have fared better at the polls in recent years.

Former council member Carol Chumney, already has announced she will reprise her 2007 mayoral race when the time comes, though it remains to be seen how much of her impressive second-place finish in that three-way race was due to anti-Herenton sentiment and how much support would carry over into a second mayoral race, especially now that Chumney, a frequent media presence back in the day, is largely out of the public eye.

The favorite in the race continues to be Wharton, who is already announced and starts with a forbiddingly huge support base. Moreover, the county mayor has raised more money than any of the others are likely to.

Those who believe that Strickland or Conrad, both of whom are proven money-raisers, could run a viable race in the face of this reality maintain that they will compete seriously for Wharton's share of the Poplar corridor vote and in other predominantly white enclaves.

And with other serious black candidates like Lowery and Harvey taking sizable hunks of the African-American vote, the county mayor could have a real race on his hands.

• Addressing the conservative Dutch Treat luncheon group on Saturday, GOP chairman Wiseman, who was elected to head the Shelby County Republican Party earlier this year, talked with unusual candor about his party, its objectives and prospects, and assorted city-county issues.

At one point, Wiseman dealt frankly with the concept of crossover voting. The catalyst was a question about the looming Herenton-Cohen confrontation in next year's 9th District Democratic primary.

Acknowledging that the race would create a turnout "bad for the Republicans" and that it would be a "very difficult idea to try and win for a Republican in that race," Wiseman began, "I'll tell you who I would vote for. You'd have to hold your nose. ..." And then, amid knowing chuckles from his score or so of listeners, let the rest of that thought go unexpressed.

Wiseman resumed, pondering the question of how best to turn away Herenton's ambitions. "You'd have to vote in the Democrat primary. But who does that hurt? Bill Gibbons," he said, referring to the district attorney general's candidacy for governor in next year's Republican primary, simultaneous with the Herenton-Cohen showdown in the Democratic primary.

The other side of the coin, Wiseman said, was that "there [should] be a serious Republican in every race" — the idea being that, should Herenton win the congressional primary, a voter might conclude, "I'm going to vote for a Republican just to keep Herenton from winning," and Republican turnout overall might rise.

"We have to fight the mentality that it's a lost cause," Wiseman said concerning demographic shifts that have begun to favor Democrats in countywide elections. He noted, without specifying, that four Republican incumbents in countywide office are reportedly not intending to run for reelection.

Wiseman considered remedies for county Republicans' dilemma. "We have to convince our own people that all is not lost. ... People who have moved from one part of the county to another, we've got to get those people re-registered. We also have to take our message to places that traditionally we've not gone — traditional African-American areas. I think there's a lot of potential there. We need to get out and do service projects. ... It might take a year, five years, 10 years. [We should] go ahead and start planting seeds."

Such a strategy might not yield "immediate tangible results" for Republicans, Wiseman conceded. "We have to build trust. They don't want to hear what you have to say until they trust you first." As examples of Republicans who have built such trust in traditionally Democratic areas, he named Sheriff Mark Luttrell and U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, both of whom polled "from 20 percent to 30 percent" in areas where Republicans normally are held to the 7 percent range.

"The reason is, those guys get out in the community. They go to areas where Republicans are not traditionally received."

In the course of arguing that there were many African Americans and other traditional Democrats "who are Republicans and just don't know it," Wiseman said, "Take Jim Strickland, the councilman. He's out there pushing budget cuts so we don't have to raise taxes. Jim's a good friend of mine. I help him all the time he needs help. He needs to come over to the good side."

Wiseman attempted to counter some of his conservative questioners' negative attitudes toward the city of Memphis. "The fact is, the city cannot live without the county, and the county cannot live without the city. We're an economic unit, and if Memphis goes down the toilet, the county can't make it. It just can't, from a civic, educational, safety [point of view] ... and vice versa.

"When businesses come to town, they don't start at the city limits and look at just the county. Memphis is geographically positioned in such a way we should be a Top 10 city." As for outward migration from Memphis and Shelby County: "That tide will turn. There's a tipping point." As population builds up in adjoining areas, those areas are faced with upgrading their infrastructures. "They start to look at raising taxes. That's what Tipton County is doing now."

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