Politics » Politics Feature

Who's On First?

All have won, and all must have prizes. That's the status report on the top contenders for Memphis mayor.



It may take some time to evaluate the enduring effects, but the fact is that the three main contenders in the Memphis mayor's race all have found something to brag about in the several days since the candidate field became complete:

• Mayor Willie Herenton finished first in a straw poll held by the Shelby County Democrats at the Rendezvous Restaurant last Thursday night. And he did so by typically Herentonian means, without bothering to attend the event.

A few score Democrats showed up at the event to pay $50 a head for the privilege of voting in a mayoral straw poll while raising money for the party. The only mayoral candidate who was there from start to finish was Herman Morris. Carol Chumney came late and addressed the crowd, as had Morris earlier. John Willingham had a spokesperson on hand who talked him up before the attendees.

Only the mayor was absent and went unspoken for. But his was the name called out by party chairman Keith Norman when it came time to announce the winner. Norman declined to give out any numbers or declare who finished second or third.

What was proved by the event and by its outcome? That Herenton has a hard core of supporters and a network that serves him well, for all the fact that he's not campaigning this year in the conventional sense: no fund-raisers, no polls, no inclination to participate in forums.

A scientific poll? Of course not. What it did prove, however, was that the mayor — who presided over a couple of weekend headquarters openings — is not lacking where G.O.T.V. (get-out-the-vote) is the game. And that's what the game will be during early voting and on October 4th.

• For her part, Councilwoman Chumney turned up the leader in a fresh trial heat by pollster Berje Yacoubian showing her to be leading a second-place Herenton and a third-place Herman Morris. The numbers were 33 percent for Chumney to Herenton's 29 percent to 14 percent for Morris.

Underlining the surprising showing for Chumney, whom many observers had thought to have declined from her peak as a leader in early spring polls, was the fact that Yacoubian had made public statements only a week earlier, telling Fox 13 News, which also broke the news of his poll, that Herenton was a "good bet" to be leading the field.

Au contraire, when Yacoubian got around to toting things up. His sampling of some 300 presumably representative voters showed Chumney to be considered a better bet than Herenton on issues like crime and education, with Herenton having a lead only on the matter of economic development.

Among other things, what that meant was that Chumney's standing had apparently survived her widely publicized refusal to vote, back in April, for a council resolution asking for the resignation of Joseph Lee, then still at the helm of MLGW. The fact that the resolution, offered by colleague Jack Sammons, then failed by a single vote was thought to have been an embarrassment for Chumney. So was the fact that her own previously offered resolution, directing Herenton to accept a much earlier resignation offer from Lee, had failed to draw a second.

Both circumstances underscored Chumney's reputation as a go-it-alone maverick with few if any allies in city government. Yacoubian's poll results suggest that voters may find Chumney's non-observance of the maxim "go along to get along" more attractive than not.

• Though Morris had reason to be discouraged by all of this, his demeanor, on a stepped-up round of activity, didn't show it. He seemed unfeignedly confident as recently as Monday night, when the former head of both MLGW and the local NAACP (an alphabet spread that, in theory, encompassed a good deal of potentially centrist turf) addressed a meeting of the Germantown Democrats.

Parenthesis: One of the peculiarities of the current political season — as noticed both by ourselves and by Mediaverse blogger Richard Thompson — is the number of forums, fund-raisers, speaking appearances, and other events involving candidates in the Memphis city election that have taken place in the bordering municipality of Germantown.

That has to do both with the fact of overlapping populations (many members of the Germantown Democratic Club are residents of Cordova and Memphis voters) and with the circumstance that, with governmental consolidations of various kinds in the air, people in the near suburbs are taking an unusual interest in how things go in Memphis voting.

Consolidation was, in fact, one of the matters that Morris dealt with forthrightly during Monday night's meeting. He endorsed it, categorically, and went so far as to express impatience with half-measures like the current intergovernmental talks involving an enhanced liaison of Memphis police with the county sheriff's department.

"Consolidate everything!" Morris pronounced, and to that end, he recommended following the example of Louisville, where city and county voters voted consolidation in after an extensive period of public discussions. Similarly, he said, Memphis and Shelby County voters should be paid the "respect" of having the issue "put in front of us."

When a club member said she was "tired" of questions about impropriety surrounding various officials now in office, Morris barely hesitated before responding, "I am, too. And I'm tired of people reelecting them."

In general, Morris cast himself as Mr. Candor, attributing the financial problems of Memphis Networx, which he championed while leading MLGW, to the short-sightedness of the profit-focused private investors involved in the public/private initiative. He freely acknowledged hatching thoughts of a mayoral run in December 2003, immediately after being forced out of his utility perch by Herenton. And he flatly declared, "I don't trust those numbers," concerning Herenton's current economic forecasts.

He suggested that his major opponents drew their strength from white or black enclaves, respectively, "while I'm 50-50, right in the middle."

One note being struck resoundingly in private by Morris' campaign people is the prospect, in fact, that he will shortly inherit some of the racially balanced support that was evidenced in the short-lived "Draft A C" campaign to induce a mayoral candidacy by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.

With only two months to go, Morris needs a boost — more than he'll get from the drug test which he successfully passed last week after challenging all the contenders to take one as well.

• The fourth name candidate in the Memphis mayor's race, John Willingham, meanwhile, resolved to soldier on, despite the fact that few observers (and no polls to date) have given him much chance. "Look what happened in 2002," he said, a reminder of his runaway upset win that year over the late Morris Fair, then an incumbent Shelby County commissioner. Last week's cover story, by the way, erred in suggesting that Willingham had plans to convert Shelby Farms, now administered by the nonprofit Shelby Farms Conservancy, into an Olympic Village. It is the Fairgrounds that Willingham has in mind for his proposal. More of that anon.

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