Politics » Politics Feature

It Ain't Over Yet

Wharton, other incumbents win big, but a potentially edgy council runoff remains.


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Unsurprisingly, there were no surprises in the 2011 Memphis city election — unless you count the apparent irrelevance of Mayor A C Wharton's maiden effort at a Ford-style coattails ballot. Otherwise, the mayor — who breezed to an easy 2-to-1 victory over his closest opponent, former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. and eight other opponents — had no worries.

Or did he? The mayor began his remarks at his Botanic Garden victory celebration with an uncharacteristic diatribe: "It just seems that people want to keep on insulting the citizens of our great city," he began, continuing in that vein for several minutes. Wharton's outburst took many onlookers aback, inasmuch as they were unaware of the apparent pretext for his remarks — an inflammatory personal accusation against the mayor, spoken to on signs held by demonstrators outside the Botanic Garden site.

That interruption out of the way, the mayor segued into a traditional celebration.

Also able to celebrate were the other incumbents who had opposition — including councilwoman Janis Fullilove in Super District 8, Position 2, who was opposed by Roslyn Nichols, a Wharton endorsee. Fullilove won over Nichols and two other opponents with a comfortable 57.83 percent of the total vote.

Another Wharton endorsee, University of Memphis law professor Lee Harris, ran neck-to-neck in District 7 with Kemba Ford, the daughter of former state senator John Ford, who is currently languishing in a federal prison in Mississippi but was surely following the election returns with some degree of vicarious pride for his daughter, a sometime actress and political neophyte.

Ford and Harris, who had an abundance of other establishment support besides that of the mayor, will now vie in a runoff. The rest of a large field of aspirants — including Michael Steven Moore, son of the district's former councilwoman, Barbara Swearengen Ware — trailed far behind the two leading contenders in a race that became wide open earlier this year when Ware retired upon accepting a sentence for official misconduct. District 7 was the only open council seat on the ballot.

The looming November 10th runoff between Ford and Harris quickly picked up steam — with representatives of the mayor telling the media that Wharton, apparently determined to try his coattails again, would be doing all he could to boost Harris. Meanwhile, Ford's bona fides as a candidate was under legal challenge from several sources, on the ground that, having sojourned in California for some years, had not been a resident of Shelby County for the requisite five years.

Most observers, aware that previous such challenges had failed to be upheld, expected a close and potentially bitter runoff.

The other Wharton endorsees in the election were all incumbents who won but were expected to anyhow.

And if the mayor could boast no clear-cut results for his endorsements, neither could organized labor, which also tried its hand at influencing outcomes — notably on mayoral candidate Ed Ford Sr.'s behalf (due to Wharton's support for cuts in employee pay and benefits at budget time) and in the race of IBEW business agent Paul Shaffer against incumbent Kemp Conrad in Super District 9, Position 1. Conrad, another 2-to-1 winner, had called for privatizing city sanitation services during the spring's budget battles and, as a result, was bitterly opposed by the city employees' unions.

If the senior Edmund Ford had little luck on election day, his son, councilman Ed Ford Jr., was more fortunate, easily winning reelection with a near two-thirds majority over several opponents in District 6.

In other results:

Incumbent Bill Morrison defeated Kendrick Sneed in Council District 1 by a 2-1 ratio.

Incumbent Bill Boyd defeated Sylvia Cox 3-to-1 in District 1, thereby avenging her victory over him in a 2007 race for the erstwhile Memphis Charter Commission.

Incumbent Wanda Halbert won reelection in District 4 over three opponents with 65 percent of the total vote.

Incumbent councilman Joe Brown won with 77 percent over two opponents in District 8, Position 1.

Incumbent Shea Flinn defeated contender James A. Sdoia by a 4-to-1 margin in District 9, Position 2.

City Court clerk Thomas Long defeated two opponents with the same 65 percent share of the total vote as several other incumbent winners.

Winning their races without opposition were council members Harold Collins in District 3; Jim Strickland in District 5; Myron Lowery in Super District 8, Position 3; and Reid Hedgepeth in Super District 9, Position 3.

Other unopposed winners were City Court judges Earnestine Dorse, Division 1; Tarik Sugarmon, Division 2; and Jayne Chandler, Division 3.

The easy run for all the incumbents may have owed something to the name-recognition factor, always a telling advantage in a low-turnout election like that of 2011. Election totals indicated that the percentage of registered voters taking part in 2011 was in the mid-teens — reportedly 18 percent — a possible record low for a regularly scheduled city election.

Election commission chairman Rich Holden said an exact count of the turnout won't be available until the results are certified, presumably this week or next, but Holden suggested an approximate figure of 75,000, out of a total of 366,963 registered Memphis voters.

Surprise visitors to Wharton's victory celebration Thursday night offering their congratulations were Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell and Governor Bill Haslam — a fact underscoring the heightened degree of cooperation that has existed among the three officials, particularly with respect to industrial recruitment issues.

Haslam professed himself "excited" by Wharton's win.  

Complete returns are available at the "Political Beat Blog" at memphisflyer.com.

First Meeting of Unified School Board

Though there was persistent (but polite) niggling about whose rules of procedures should be followed on this or that point, the former boards of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, along with seven new members appointed to a 23-member unified county school board by the Shelby County Commission, got along well enough in the new board's debut Monday night.

The meeting was chaired by David Pickler, the longtime chairman of the SCS board, who jested to a reporter before things got under way, "Well, you're going to have to retire the term 'perennial chairman' when you write about me." Indeed so, inasmuch as the new board's first act was to nominate and elect new officers.

Pickler would settle for kudos concerning his even-handed conduct of the meeting, received from various of the new board members, including the newly elected chairman, cell-tower magnate Billy Orgel.

Orgel prevailed in a vote of the 22 members present (holdover MCS board member Tomeka Hart was absent) by 16 votes to five for Betty Mallott and one for Diane George. Orgel was one of the seven county commission appointees; Mallott and George had been members of the MCS and SCS boards, respectively.

Though he was content to allow Pickler to finish presiding over Monday night's meeting, Orgel attempted to set the tone for a new era of unified schools in Shelby County by invoking the movie Invictus, which concerned a South African national soccer team's role in unifying the previously divided ethnic components of that country.

That might have been an overly optimistic prognosis, given the presence of several open and avowed opponents of consolidation on the new board.

The election for vice chair was a two-person race, with former MCS member Jeff Warren prevailing over new member Venecia Kimbrow by a 12-10 margin. Warren acknowledged having been one of the MCS board minority opposing school merger, but he pledged Monday to be open-minded about making things work.

The mechanics of unification became somewhat more difficult from that moment on. There was confusion about the election of a board secretary, based on the SCS precedent of considering SCS superintendent John Aitken its secretary. At MCS attorney Dorsey Hopson's suggestion, the new board opted to appoint Aitken and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash co-secretaries.

The post of treasurer was left open, with the board reaching an apparent consensus that Aitken and Cash would each appoint a co-treasurer.

Some of the obstacles to organizational integration were resolved easily — like the unanimous vote to accept $4,200 as a basis salary for board members, that being the prior token compensation for SCS members, as against $5,000, which was the preexisting salary for MCS members.

Other matters, including travel guidelines for board members and the questions of which previous system's hardware and which software would be accepted for board purposes, proved more vexing, with most of these issues, along with some financial ones, left pending to be resolved later on. (A highlight of a discussion about the efficacy of laptops for board members was ex-MCS board member Sara Lewis' comment, "It does save trees.")

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