Politics » Politics Feature

Grappling With Politics (Again)

WWE personality Jerry Lawler is back in the ring for a second try at the title of mayor.


Jerry Lawler and campaign "volunteers": his personal statues of Spiderman and Superman - JACKSON BAKER
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  • Jerry Lawler and campaign "volunteers": his personal statues of Spiderman and Superman

In 1999, as he was setting out on his first race for mayor of Memphis, Jerry "The King" Lawler received some sage counsel from the late Wyeth Chandler, a former mayor who was then serving as a Circuit Court judge.

Lawler, on the brink of a second mayoral run in 2009, quotes the supportive Chandler thusly: "I'm going to tell you your problem. Black people love you. They will spend their last dollar to see you, but, Jerry, they will not vote for you. Memphis will never have another white mayor."

A skeptical Lawler, who, as a long-established pro wrestler could number his African-American fans in the thousands, campaigned hard in black areas anyhow. One precinct in particular was gratifying. When he worked it, he was followed around by large and enthusiastic groups of the residents. "I was like a pied piper," he says. But in the aftermath of an election in which he finished third with 12 percent of the vote, he checked the precinct's vote totals and was chagrined to discover that "I got all of eight votes."

That was then. This is 2009, a year after Congressman Steve Cohen beat a well-funded black opponent 4-1 in the overwhelmingly African-American 9th District, and Lawler is ready to test his city-wide appeal once again in the forthcoming October 27th special election for mayor.

As Cohen's race and, for that matter, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton's presumed popularity among whites, indicate, the racial dividing line may have blurred a bit, and Lawler has fixed another one of his 1999 handicaps: his inability then, because of contractual obligations as a WWE wrestler and commentator, to campaign more than one or two days a week.

"I've got the best gig anybody ever had," says the 59-year-old and still visibly fit Lawler. "All I have to do is two hours a week as a commentator on Monday nights, a different location every week. The WWE flies me there, and I fly right back on Tuesday morning. The rest of the week is mine."

Moreover, he's a realist. Even though, as he points out, out, Mayor Willie Herenton also has outside interests (some of which are being scrutinized even now for possible conflict-of-interest), Lawler knows the city charter calls for the job of mayor to be regarded as full time. "Not necessarily," he answers, when asked if he'd keep on working for the WWE if elected mayor, and then, after a moment's reflection, adds, "I probably wouldn't be able to continue."

As for political and governmental expertise, Lawler proudly disowns the former — "All of the other candidates are politicians; I look on myself as being the anti-politician" — and says of the latter, "The job of being mayor is mainly administrative. I'll reach out and find the qualified people I need to help me."

Lawler thinks he's amply qualified to be mayor: "It's common sense. As an entertainer, I've been a businessman, basically. Why can't this city government be run like a business, with some common sense?"

School spending? Consolidation? The other vexing issues of contemporary city government? The aforesaid common sense, plus the professional help he could hire, would be enough to tackle the problems of Memphis, he figures. "What I'd really like to do is bridge the racial gap," Lawler says. "I've traveled extensively the last 18 years, a different city every Monday night. Memphis is the most racially divided city in this country."

Lawler is scornful of Mayor Herenton's claims to have regenerated downtown Memphis. "We haven't revived downtown at all," he says. "All we have is Beale Street, and all that is a row of bars that people go to to get drunk. The rest of downtown is not vibrant."

So presumably he'd fix that. He'd also call for an immediate audit of the city's pension funds. As for education, which he regards as problem number one, he'd investigate taking over the schools and running them from City Hall. "That's what a lot of cities have done: The buck stops with the mayor."

Lawler doesn't intend to be cooped up in the mayor's office, though: "I'd take a Winnebago, make it a rolling mayor's office and park it in Frayser for two weeks and Cordova for two, then Whitehaven for two weeks, and so on. People in the neighborhoods could just walk in and see me."

Other innovations? "I'd use all the current technology. Twittering, tweeting, whatever it takes to stay in constant touch with people."

In the meantime, Lawler, who doubles as a commercial artist and is designing the cover for a Zorro comic book, intends to be the "anti-politician" as a campaigner, too, not like the others, who are all "bought and paid for." No fund-raisers, no paid advertising, no professional campaign staffers, not even yard signs in the usual sense.

"Oh, I'll have people — all volunteers — holding up their own hand-made signs at intersections, that kind of thing. Maybe have people put yellow ribbons out to indicate they no longer intend to be held hostage by politicians. Put them out on mailboxes, on car antennas, on baby strollers, on their fences, anywhere that people can see them."

Yellow ribbons. Winnebagos. Hand-made posters. No phone banks. No pollsters. No paid staff. Is all of that a fantasy, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (a film he touts constantly), or like the outcomes in the "sports entertainment" world of contrived rough-and-tumble that he has represented professionally for the last 37 years?

Lawler doesn't think so. In any case, he's about to find out. So are the rest of us.

• A week ago, Paul Stanley was the state senator for District 31 (Cordova, Germantown), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and a quiet, effective spokesperson for an ultraconservative, business-oriented vision of state government. The Germantown Republican was also an outspoken foe of anything resembling liberalism in public mores and an advocate of traditional marriage and outright abstinence outside of it.

All of that is over with. Legal processes in Nashville last week revealed that Stanley, a married man with two children, had been conducting an affair with his 23-year-old legislative intern, had taken explicit photographs of her in his Nashville apartment, and had been the subject of attempted blackmail by the intern's boyfriend because of them.

It hasn't been a good year for Stanley. He made news early in the 2009 legislative session when the government shut down the Stanford Group, which had employed him as an investment counselor, indicting the group's main executives and many employees (though not, it should be noted, Stanley himself) for participation in a "gigantic" Ponzi scheme.

Challenged by political opponents as a "hypocrite," forced to resign his committee chairmanship by Senate GOP speaker Ron Ramsey, who termed Stanley's conduct "reprehensible," and deserted by party colleagues ranging from Senate majority leader Mark Norris and Shelby County Republican chairman Lang Wiseman, both of whom called for Stanley to resign from the Senate itself, Stanley's political career seems clearly to have reached its end. So apparently has his marriage. Stanley acknowledged he is living separate from his family.

Who would succeed him? There were quick indications that state representatives Steve McManus and Brian Kelsey might run for the seat should there be a resignation and a special election. Shelby County school board president David Pickler also expressed interest.

And, meanwhile, the Shelby County Commission's majority Democrats may have one more opportunity to test whether they intend to observe the former tradition of filling vacancies with same-party members or to breach that tradition, as they did by electing one of their own, Democrat Matt Kuhn, to succeed Republican David Lillard, who left the commission to become state treasurer.

• The state Senate, meanwhile, may lose one more member — though in this case by his own choice. State senator Jim Kyle of Memphis, who heads the body's Democrats, has indicated he will make his long-expected declaration of a gubernatorial candidacy on August 11th.

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