Although petitions for city office won't be available at the Election Commission until next month, this year's Memphis municipal election -- or at least the mayoral component of it -- is already fully under way.
To judge by the charges and countercharges and the quantity of mud that has so far been slung, this contest promises to be as entertaining and down-and-dirty as any in the past (see also Viewpoint).
And the fact is, for all the complaints levied by abstract theorists at "horse-race" journalism, we are electing people, not position papers, and all of it -- the battle of personalities, the spin machines, the fund-raising competition, and certainly the size and effectiveness of the contenders' cadres -- counts toward a bona fide measure of the candidates and what they might do in office.
But in this election year, more than in many previous, issues will play a huge role in voters' minds and none more so than the issue of Memphis Light, Gas and Water, which -- both for those ordinary citizens whose service is constantly under threat and for those privileged ones who (we now know) have been allowed to run up huge bills -- has alarm bells ringing throughout the city.
Rarely has the distinction between haves and have-nots been so starkly drawn as by the disclosures of the last few weeks concerning the now infamous "third-party notification" lists kept by current MLGW president, Joseph Lee, a protégé and appointee of incumbent mayor Willie Herenton.
But at least one major opponent of Herenton's, former MLGW president Herman Morris, is also tainted by the scandal -- particularly by a 2002 e-mail, dating from his own tenure as head of the giant city utility, that arguably might have established the precedent.
Morris' memo, written in response to a customer complaint from then Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran, urged staff to "make sure we handle this matter with sensitivity." Another key point of the e-mail was that MLGW should develop a list of customers "that require my special awareness, attention or staff intervention when they have problems." He spelled that out to mean a longish list of elected officials (city, county, and state) and news media members.
The memo, conveniently leaked to the media by Herenton allies, was clearly meant to blunt Morris' almost simultaneous announcement of his candidacy and to share out an albatross that was already a burden on the mayor himself. Meanwhile, candidate Carol Chumney, a frequent critic of Herenton on MLGW's future and other issues, could enjoy the serendipity of having become chair of the City Council's MLGW committee as of January 31st.
As such, she is entitled to conduct investigations and to shepherd solutions regarding MLGW and all the controversies attending it, old and new. In her campaign opening last month, she made a point of standing in opposition to the sale of MLGW, something which Herenton proposed a few years back and a project which many of his detractors believe he still holds in reserve.
The new scandal gives Chumney ample opportunity to burnish her reformer credentials (it also presumably gives a boost to the anti-establishment candidate John Willingham), while at the same time it inevitably tarnishes those of Morris.
When he was asked about the memo at his opening announcement last week, Morris floundered for some time, managing in a remarkably unhoned and stammering answer to acknowledge that he had given access to "family and friends" and to influential members of the community at large but not making clear distinctions between such a procedure and the possibility of granting special privileges.
In a curious way, the awkwardness of Morris' response was exculpatory. It was as if, instead of indulging in some ready-made spin, he was trying to reason it all out as he spoke.
In a brief Flyer interview this week, the newly announced candidate had thought it through more carefully. (See sidebar.)
Two-Man Race for Chair of Shelby Dems? So it would seem, after Saturday's preliminary caucus, in which a record crowd showed up at Airways Junior High to elect delegates for the party convention on March 31st. Current chairman Matt Kuhn is not seeking reelection, and things are shaping up for a two-man race between lawyer Jay Bailey and minister Keith Norman.
Bailey is supported by David Upton and some, but not all, members of the party's old Ford faction, as well as by the activist Grant brothers (Greg and Alonzo), Del Gill, and blogger Thaddeus Matthews. Norman has emerged as the candidate of the Sidney Chism faction and is likely also to be supported by Desi Franklin of the MidSouth Democrats in Action reform group. It should be noted that other Democrats -- including longtime activist Jody Patterson, who says she will run -- may also launch candidacies before March 31st.
For more reports on the mayor's race and other political news, go to "Political Beat" at www.memphisflyer.com.
A Q&A With Herman Morris
Flyer: Do you think it was strange that the text of your memo about access to certain customers became public just as you got ready to announce for mayor?
Morris: It was a very curious timing. Someone must have scoured the records of the utilities.
What's the difference between how you handled "special" customers and how Joseph Lee has handled them?
On my watch, if you didn't pay or didn't make an arrangement to pay, you got a cut-off notice and services were terminated. It didn't matter who you were. I wanted elected officials to be able to get through. They, after all, were representatives of a constituency. Big industrial users were a somewhat different case with major issues. But even they, if they got months in arrears, could get cut off.
What about the well-publicized case of former Commercial Appeal editor Angus McEachran? It was in reaction to a query from him, about wildly fluctuating monthly charges, that you wrote the memo that got leaked.
Angus was a tough issue. We ultimately concluded that he paid his bill every month and that our meter malfunctioned. He ended up owing more than he thought he did, so we worked out a payment plan to collect it from him.
The case that's aroused most attention has been Councilman Edmund Ford's. Did you have the same problem as Joseph Lee, and did you, too, let him go indefinitely without paying?
I'm not aware of any time that we had anyone go delinquent for the period of time that he did later on, except maybe in cases of bankruptcy, when we couldn't by law cut them off. My recollection is that Edmund Ford did get cut off, though he would also come in and make payments to avoid cut-offs.
Can you shed any light on your departure from MLGW in 2003?
My departure remains a mystery to me, too. It could have been that I was opposed to the sale of MLGW. It could have been a more open attitude toward providing services to outside communities awaiting annexation. It could have been disagreements about staffing or the way the mayor wanted to handle the "prepaid" issue [an advance purchase of TVA power via preferred brokers designated by the mayor]. I was never given a specific statement or reason.
Another issue that has aroused the public is that of too easy and too lucrative pension arrangements for public employees. Was that an issue with your own golden parachute?
At the time, the parachute didn't seem very golden. I negotiated fairly in terms of my departure. I wasn't eligible for a pension, so I had to negotiate. At 52, I wasn't quite old enough, and I hadn't been there 15 years. I was just under the limit both ways for a pension. In all honesty, the final settlement probably fell short of being the equivalent of what I would have received through retirement eligibility.