Despite the tendency of some observers, who base their thinking on a raft of same-looking polls, to call the current mayoral race a done deal and crown A C Wharton as the winner, the Shelby County mayor still has a race on his hands.
With early voting set to get started late this week, none of his major opponents have shown the least inclination to suspend their efforts, and their rhetoric of attack is heating, in spite of (or maybe because of) a new Commercial Appeal-News Channel 3 poll by Ethridge and Associates showing Wharton to have a 30-point lead over runners-up Carol Chumney and Myron Lowery, with the other contenders trailing down in the single digits.
Not one to step on his own momentum, Wharton has been so bold as to predict that, when the undecided vote kicks in, he'll command an absolute majority of the vote. In a field of some 20-odd candidates, with several of them name opponents who are raising money and campaigning hard, that would be a considerable achievement.
Unsurprisingly, candidates Chumney, Lowery, Charles Carpenter, and Jerry Lawler, among others, discounted last week's poll as meaningless or mistaken. They wish. The fact is, poll figures — released or unreleased — showing Wharton in the mid-40s have been a staple of the current campaign almost from the start. It was one such privately commissioned poll, early on, that convinced city councilman Jim Strickland, who had a head of steam, not to bother about running.
Even so, the game goes on — no doubt on the well-proven theory that upsets do happen, in politics as well as in sports. Wharton's opponents are not holding back. He was accused of ducking one-on-one confrontations when he showed up for scheduled forums, as at the one held by the Coalition for a Better Memphis at Christian Brothers University last week, and he was accused of ducking the forums themselves when he didn't attend, as at an unusually sprightly affair held in the Frayser-Raleigh community Monday night.
Candidate Carpenter called Wharton's record "miserable." Candidate Chumney said he should drop out of the race for letting the Med go wanting, among other alleged sins. And Mayor Pro Tem Lowery continued to imply that Wharton had somehow been the beneficiary of a private understanding with former mayor Willie Herenton (these days a man without coattails).
There won't be a winner until the night of October 15th, and there are sure to be more fireworks — and maybe an unexpected event or two — on the way there.
• Even as the campaign for city mayor heads into the final stretch, the campaign for county mayor has begun. Last week saw back-to-back announcements of candidacy from Bartlett banker and political veteran Harold Byrd and Shelby County commissioner Deidre Malone.
Byrd struck first last Tuesday, in the unusual form of a generalized e-mail sent out by a support group announcing his candidacy. The list of supporters appended to the e-mail encompassed a wide range of influential people in Shelby County — running from civil rights luminaries Maxine and Vasco Smith to former county mayor Bill Morris to former MLGW head Larry Papasan to C.M.E. bishop William N. Graves.
Byrd himself would later confirm the fact of his running, though he was not immediately forthcoming with a detailed statement about his race.
Malone said she had planned to announce on Tuesday but postponed her event so as not to compete with the appearance in town that day of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
Demonstrating the forthrightness that has characterized her seven years on the Shelby County Commission, Malone met the press on Wednesday at the modest Orange Mound house her grandparents bought back in the 1930s and vowed to complete her political journey with a victory in the 2010 county mayor's race.
Eschewing the opportunity to comment on Tuesday's announcement by Byrd, Malone said she expected others to jump in the race, including some survivors from the current special election race for Memphis mayor.
"I really can't be too concerned with that," she said. She offered a lament that outgoing county mayor Wharton might not serve out his term but said she expected to up the ante as his successor.
"Mayor Wharton is a nice guy, and he's been a good leader, but in me you'll see a little more fight," Malone said. She named education and health as two of her foremost issues and promised to work well with the county's law enforcement arms.
Recalling with some chagrin her first run for public office — in 1995 when she was a candidate for the District 5 school board position — Malone said, "Lora Jobe beat me like I'd stole something!" Of her two terms on the commission, Malone, who just completed a year as chairman, acknowledged that "it took me three and a half years to get it."
She said she learned how to work with other commissioners and expressed surprise and delight that she was able to get an ordinance passed proclaiming a moratorium on new development.
"I've proven my ability to work with people who don't live in the city," said Malone, a steadfast proponent of consolidation (though she acknowledges it will be a "tough sell"). "As far as leadership, I offer that. I'm not afraid of much. I really don't back down from much."
Later last Wednesday, Malone was the beneficiary of a fund-raiser at the University of Memphis area Holiday Inn on Central. A sizable crowd, including several fellow commissioners and Lowery, attended the event.
• Another pending race — one to fill a vacancy whenever state Senate candidate Bryan Kelsey chooses to resign his District 85 state House seat — is already the focus of considerable controversy. As of now, the House is composed of 50 Republicans and 49 Democrats, but if Kelsey's seat should be filled by a Democrat, that could reverse the ratio, with unpredictable consequences.
Ordinarily, this would not be much of a prospect, since District 83 — encompassing parts of East Memphis, Cordova, and Germantown — has in recent years given overwhelming majorities to Republican candidates like Kelsey, who won the seat in 2004. But when Kelsey declared for the state Senate vacancy created by the resignation of scandal-scarred Paul Stanley, that invited speculation that the county commission, on which Democrats command an 8-5 majority, could appoint a Democrat as interim successor to open the 2010 legislative session.
For her part, Democrat Malone said she "absolutely" would vote to put a Democrat in the District 83 state House seat whenever Kelsey vacated it.
"That's politics at a very high level. It could change the outlook of the House," she said. "I'm not one for tradition. I don't believe it exists. You make the right decision for the people you represent."
Kelsey was able to clear the Republican field of rivals for the forthcoming October 15th primary, though he will be challenged by Germantown Democratic activist Adrienne Pakis-Gillon in the December 1st general election.
Mindful of the possibility spoken to by Malone and others, Kelsey announced he would resign his seat at some early point, giving Governor Phil Bredesen a chance to issue a writ for a special election process concluding before the beginning of the session.
That led to an unusual circumstance last Friday, in which Kelsey appeared ready to quit the House. An e-mail sent out by a staffer to statewide media had Kelsey saying the following:
"I am resigning my position as State Representative of the 83rd Legislative District as of 11:59 p.m. Resigning today will allow the state to save roughly $60,000-$70,000 by scheduling the primary special election on the same day as another special election in Shelby County.
"It will also allow a new Representative to be elected by the people of the 83rd Legislative District to be in place when the 106th General Assembly reconvenes."
Subsequently, though, a clarification was issued by the staffer. "Please disregard the previous email. This draft language was not intended to be sent to this distribution list."
As Kelsey later explained things, the staffer had intended to send the proposed draft to him for editing purposes and had inadvertently sent it awry. Whatever the circumstances, both Kelsey and state House Republican leaders promised a "timely" resignation.
Governor Bredesen will have 20 days from the date of Kelsey's announcement to issue a writ of election.
In order to save the people of Shelby County a brand-new expenditure of $60,000 to $70,000, that will have to be soon.
Kelsey says he calculates that October 7th is the absolute last day that the governor can issue his writ and still allow for a December 1st primary, on the same day as the already scheduled general election for state Senate District 31.