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Willingham and Morris Gear Up: Spoilers or Mayoral Candidates for Real?

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All right, pundits. Get your slide rules out, and calculate who takes votes from whom. Mayor Willie Herenton and Councilwoman Carol Chumney won't be alone in this year's mayor's race. It appears they are certain to be joined by former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham (left) and former MLGW head Herman Morris.

Willingham, who has been a candidate in both of the last two mayoral contests (one for city mayor in 2003 and another for county mayor last year) recently held an organizational meeting at Pete & Sam's Restaurant on Park and made it clear to a decent-sized crowd of attendees that he'd be running.

Reportedly, Willingham is forming an exploratory committee. One of his main men, incidentally, is Leon Gray, the former radio talk-show host for Air America, and one of the ringleaders at Pete & Sam's.

Morris will be making his first race and, to judge by table talk at last weekend's Shelby County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner at the UM-area Holiday Inn, he stands a very good chance of getting the local GOP's endorsement.

Morris, who is also a former NAACP head, will reportedly not lack for financing. The question remains: Can he put together a sufficiently large coalition of establishmentarians and voters disillusioned with Herenton (both blacks and whites) to be anything more than a spoiler?

Ancillary question: Whose votes will Morris take more of? Herenton's or Chumney's?

As for Willingham, even some of his closest friends are dubious that the third time could be the charm for him. In both of his prior mayoral races he was a distant second (to Herenton and A C Wharton, respectively), though he sought to challenge the vote count in both instances.

The former commissioner and Renaissance man of sorts (he's been a barbecue maven, an engineer, and a Nixon administration aide, among other things) is quite literally irrepressible, though, and remains determined to vent several issues having to do with revamping local government and exposing alleged corruption within it.

Willingham professes not to believe that he and Chumney are competing for the same vote, although the councilwoman, too, has developed something of a following among voters who want to turn the page and start all over.

For that matter, Morris also has potential appeal of the throw-the-rascals-out sort. One task confronting the well-connected lawyer is to prove, a la Kipling, that he can "walk with kings and keep the common touch." He has certainly walked with kings, but the onetime star collegiate athlete remains an Unknown Quantity in terms of street cred.

--Jackson Baker

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