One of the decisive factors in the recent city election proved to be the lack of organized public debates involving the mayoral contenders — a fact owing to realpolitik on Mayor Jim Strickland's part and perhaps the absence of that on former Mayor Willie Herenton's.
With a million dollars in his campaign account and a clear disposition to spend it all, if necessary, Strickland had no incentive to bestow any free-media favors on his opponents by granting them the equal status of the debate stage. For whatever reason, Herenton took an adamant position against debates, citing his allegedly contentious history with the news media, a classic non sequitur, as the reason and boasting openly that he had a secret plan for victory, that of organizing massive voter caravans in an early-voting campaign.
- Jackson Baker
- Mayor Jim Strickland at a campaign event.
In reality, the media had often been beneficial to Herenton during his 18 years as mayor and, in any case, the debate format would have been his surest way to address the pubic on his own terms. The voter caravan never quite came off; one consequence of the former mayor's preoccupation on creating them was that he ended up being a no-show for at least one of his own late-campaign rallies.
The main consequence of Herenton's refusal to debate, aside from starving him of needed publicity, was to give Strickland an excuse not to debate. The idea was that, as the current mayor said in mock exasperation, no debate could be meaningful if it did not include all viable candidates, including the former mayor. The reality was that Strickland was resolved not to confer any additional public visibility on candidate Tami Sawyer, the county commissioner whose name ID was still somewhat restricted, despite what had been her meteoric rise to favor, mainly among issue-conscious younger voters of her Midtown bailiwick. She posed at least a theoretical threat to Strickland's voter base — and to Herenton's, as a fellow African-American.
It was in both senses that an ill-fated Memphis magazine caricature of Sawyer, one that struck many observers as having racist overtones, may actually have served her cause. (It certainly brought forth a chorus of public sympathy, as well as an apparent fund-raising bounce.) Any gain from that episode, however, may have been negated by later publicity given an excavation of vintage tweets by Sawyer, expressing some indiscreet and politically incorrect views on subjects ranging from animal rights to LGBTQ matters.
Whatever the potential for shifting (and arousing) voter consciousness that might have occurred with debates remains unknown. The effect upon the electorate of the incumbent's unrivaled command of advertising exposure is also a matter of speculation. The fact is that the final voting percentages correspond almost exactly with a private poll taken by Strickland early in the campaign, at more or less the point that the field of candidates became set.
That early poll showed Strickland already in possession of his final goal, the public favor of 60-plus percent of the electorate. Herenton was polling in the 20-plus percent range, and Sawyer was at 6 percent. The final figures were: Strickland, 62.1 percent; Herenton, 28.7 percent; and Sawyer, 6.9 percent.
As one of Sawyer's more thoughtful partisans, University of Memphis professor Tony Velasco, summarized: "It wasn't just the financial advantage or the advantage of incumbency or the widespread bipartisan endorsements he got or the role of prominent black supporters or a pliant media. It was all these things, combined with a candidate who knew how to execute, knew when he could push and press his advantages, and knew when to stay quiet and when to speak up."
That concession, buried within a post-mortem in which its author took back none of the forebodings and criticisms of the status quo that had animated his support of Sawyer and several other avowed progressives among the candidates for council, was reminiscent in its way of the election-day concession efforts written four years ago by Karl Schledwitz, an influential supporter of then-incumbent Mayor A C Wharton, which were released, through an unfortunate glitch, while voting was still going on.
Schledwitz's missive and Velasco's were mea culpas of a sort and implicit acknowledgments that, in a democracy, the electorate does, for better or for worse, generally manage to express its will.
Right now, that will is to continue with a genial and outwardly prosaic mayor whose modest statement of goals ("brilliant at the basics") co-exists with efforts to be visionary (Memphis 3.0) and with a commitment to incremental progress (the city's MWBE program to expand business opportunities for women and minorities).
• Strickland will serve along with a council that could be modestly changed in the direction of grass-roots responsiveness, depending how two council runoffs turn out. Rhonda Logan, the Raleigh CDC president who barely missed an outright majority in District 1, is favored to beat incumbent Sherman Greer, a longtime political pro, in the November 14th runoff. And Berlin Boyd, the wheeling, dealing incumbent in District 7, appears vulnerable to runner-up Michalyn Easter-Thomas, endorsee of the People's Convention.
J.B. Smiley is a new face in Super District 8, Position 1, as is Jeff Warren in Super District 9, Position 3, while Edmund Ford Sr. has reclaimed his old seat in District 6.
Elsewhere incumbents held firm, and the holdover council's penchant for development projects was likely reinforced by the hair's-breadth victory of developer Chase Carlisle over Erika Sugarmon, daughter of civil rights icon Russell Sugarmon, in Super District 9, Position 1. That vote was 23,421 for Carlisle to 22,890 for Sugarmon, in a district that is predominately white, perhaps a portent of a changing "post-racial" electorate mindset.