The voting machines aren't broke, but the Herenton political machine sure looks like it is.
The mayor kicked off the New Year and his reelection campaign with the slogan "On the Wall" and a half-baked proposal for a new football stadium. Since then, Herenton paranoia has gone off the wall and demonized Richard Fields and unnamed snakes, Nick Clark, white people, the broadcast media, The Commercial Appeal editorial page, pollsters, prosecutors chasing Joseph Lee, the City Council, Herman Morris, Carol Chumney, and haters.
And now it's voting machines and the Shelby County Election Commission. The evidence was scant — an unspecified number of complaints to Herenton headquarters and to poll workers. But as of Monday, 34,841 people had voted early, and there was no indication of widespread problems.
Not that there are no real problems. Specifically, there are at least three of them. First, Herenton presented his appointee, city attorney Elbert Jefferson, to make the premature claim of machine malfunction. Second, the mayor's campaign headquarters is distributing a handout from the Memphis Democratic Club that uses the city of Memphis seal to make it look official. And third, the mayor has failed to remind city and MLGW employees, including his appointees, that they should not do politics on city time. Herenton could stop all of this with a word, but he fans fears instead.
This is not the behavior of someone who believes he is cruising to a fifth consecutive term. The man Herenton beat by 142 votes in the 1991 mayor's race thinks this will be the closest one since then.
"Forty percent absolutely wins it for anyone, and that could be generous," said former mayor Dick Hackett. "I think 35 percent, give or take 3 percent, could be the turning point. The key is getting out your base."
Forty percent of the vote would be almost seven percentage points less than Herenton got in 1999, when he was challenged by Joe Ford and several lesser candidates. The turnout that year was low to middling by Memphis standards in the Herenton era — 163,259 compared to 247,973 in 1991 and 104,688 in 2003.
If Hackett is right, then the candidate who collars 70,000 votes could win it, assuming a turnout in the neighborhood of 180,000. A tantalizing thought, that. Because 70,000 votes are only a little more than half of what Herenton and Hackett each got in 1991. So the potentially decisive votes are out there. Victory for a challenger is possible in theory and in fact, contrary to Herenton's assertion that Morris has no chance, mathematically or otherwise.
This year's turnout is anyone's guess. Early voting is on course to set a record, according to Election Commision administrator James Johnson. Monday was the heaviest day yet, with 5,435 votes cast. But early voting, which is easier than ever with short lines and more locations, can simply eat into Election Day voting.
The final turnout is not likely to approach 247,973. In 1991, Hackett was at the top of his game, Herenton was the consensus black challenger, and charismatic master organizers like Harold Ford Sr. and Jesse Jackson lent Herenton their support. Since then, apathy has been the rule. An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 registered and presumably eligible voters don't vote in city elections every four years.
That untapped pool, coupled with the fact that they don't like each other much more than they like Herenton, is what kept Morris, Chumney, and John Willingham in the race. The king is wounded. He has reigned a long time. Seventy thousand votes could topple him! The challenge is to go get them.
Whatever the outcome, Memphis will get the leadership it deserves. Herenton has enjoyed the financial support of the city's movers and shakers, who, until this year's unsuccessful attempt to draft A C Wharton, made no effort to find an alternative. If he wins with a plurality, it will be because his opponents and their supporters could not find a consensus. If Chumney or Morris wins, they can thank Herenton fatigue and a federal judge's 1991 now outdated ruling on "minority" representation and runoff elections. And if Herenton wins with a majority, then he was right and Dick Hackett and a lot of other people were flat wrong about the mayor's popularity.
1) There is a very good chance that the winner of the mayor's race will be rejected by half the voters and a good chance that the winner will be rejected by six out of 10 voters.
2) Things could be worse, and maybe they have been. In 1971, 1975, and 1979, a charismatic mayoral candidate given to fits of ego, arrogance, candor, and foibles in his bachelor lifestyle rallied his political base while writing off the "other" racial group and won a narrow victory. His name was Wyeth Chandler, and he was mayor from 1972 to 1982. The Peabody was closed. Downtown was emptying out. The Martin Luther King Jr. assassination was a recent memory, not a chapter in the history books. Firemen went on strike as buildings burned. Chandler got almost all the white vote and almost none of the black vote.
3) Willie Herenton increasingly refers to himself in the third person. This is not a good thing in Memphis or any other city.
4) Herenton has seemingly written off many of his former supporters, although his special assistant, Pete Aviotti, thinks he will get 65 percent of the vote. When Chandler hunkered down with his white base in 1975 and 1979, black Memphians, who were then slightly in the minority, said it was tragic. If Herenton gets almost none of the white vote after serving 16 years, it will be no less tragic today.
5) Herman Morris is Republican retro, from his supporters, who include John Ryder, Minerva Johnican, and Lewis Donelson, to his big house in Midtown, which was lit up like Christmas while his neighbors were still in the dark after Hurricane Elvis (luck of the grid, it was said) to his membership on corporate boards that pay more for meetings than most people earn.
6) It is well and good that Morris, who grew up in Binghamton, went to Rhodes and Vanderbilt Law School and has a very nice family. But it is telling that, until he was a candidate for mayor, he did not often attend neighborhood meetings in either his current or former neighborhoods of Evergreen and Vollintine-Evergreen.
7) If there was a public institution less open to scrutiny than MLGW under Morris (and Herenton, who appointed the board), it would be hard to name it. The place was a fortress. Its board made a mockery of open meetings by going into executive session in the morning and a perfunctory public session after lunch. Sure, the notorious Morris VIP list included Mom and some corporate chiefs. But it also included Morris pals at The Commercial Appeal, which conveniently low-balled the details of the retirement package Morris sought and Herenton rejected back in 2003.
8) Carol Chumney will speak truth to power, but what if she had the power? As a candidate, her favorite word often seems to be I, as in "what I did." Being mayor is about "we." An election is partly a popularity contest. In other circumstances, Chumney's distance from her council colleagues would be understandable, even admirable, given that two of them were indicted. As a mayoral candidate, it's a legitimate concern.
9) What about me? asks John Willingham. True, candidates have run on flimsier credentials, and Willingham is a former elected county commissioner with the endorsement of the local Republican Party steering committee. But when he had a one-on-one shot at an already weakened Herenton in 2003, he got about 30 percent of the vote. Only in college football do you expect a rematch after losing 70-30.
10) Chumney and Morris have a better chance than Willingham, but he won't support either of them. Enough said.
I tried, I really tried.
Following Mayor/Candidate Willie Herenton's two press conferences Wednesday, I walked over to the Shelby County Election Commission office two blocks from City Hall. Short of creating a public nuisance, I was hell-bent on making voting as difficult as possible, given that the mayor/candidate had just charged that early voting is flawed by voter error, machine error, and possible skullduggery.
First, I cast my real vote for mayor and City Council. As of Wednesday, a total of 14,660 people have voted absentee or in early voting, according to the Election Commission.
Then I went and talked to James Johnson, administrator of elections for the commission. With Johnson standing at my side, I voted again on a "demo" machine with a mock ballot featuring such names as Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Things being what they are in Memphis, I suppose I should add that those gentlemen are dead and not running for mayor of Memphis.
The real machine and the demo machine were identical, and they are both identical to the machines being used at early voting sites around Memphis.
Here's how I tried to break the system. I presented my driver's license, verified my address and Social Security number, and received a plastic card for Machine #4. I inserted the card, and a screen with instructions came up. It explained how to choose a candidate by touching the candidate's name on the screen. After that, an "X" would appear, which could be erased by simply touching the "X," in which case the voter can start over.
I went to the next screen where the candidates for mayor appeared in two columns.
I deliberately and carefully pressed the line between two candidates several times, erasing my dummy vote each time. By pressing the line, it was pretty much a toss-up as to which name registered as my choice, but the main thing was that my choice was clearly indicated by a white X against a maroon square about the size of a small postage stamp.
It so happens that the names Willie Herenton and Carol Chumney are right next to each other on the ballot. Herman Morris and John Willingham are in another column.
I voted and erased my vote a dozen times. I tried and failed to make the machine record "Herman Morris" by touching "Willie Herenton" and vice versa. I also touched the line between Herenton and Chumney, with the results I already mentioned.
After my final vote, I touched "next" on the screen, voted for City Council members, and touched "next" again. That put me on a "summary" page where the names of the candidates I had voted for appeared in somewhat smaller although clearly legible type. The names were the same as the ones I had pressed on my final and "real" vote.
So of course I touched "back," erased everything, and repeated the process several more times. I got the same correct result when I went to the summary page. At that point I pressed "cast ballot" and my vote was recorded and I was done.
Johnson told me he is "very confident" in the voting machines and the process, despite Herenton's accusations. Johnson said he personally went to the Whitehaven location where voters reported problems that eventually made their way to Herenton's campaign staff, which decided to ask for a halt to early voting.
"The first I heard of this was yesterday," Johnson said.
He had received nothing in writing as of Wednesday afternoon and said he would take no action at this time.
There are demonstration units at each location," he said. "If there is a malfunction, we have sufficient replacements."
Johnson said it is impossible to scientifically state that any candidate is ahead or has no mathematical chance of winning because the votes are not counted as to candidate choice by anyone until after the polls close on October 4th.
Herenton and campaign manager Charles Carpenter asserted that Herenton is leading and that the race is between him and Carol Chumney. The mayor said an unnamed male candidate has no chance mathematically of winning. Carpenter said this assessment is based on exit polling, phone calls, and their "proprietary system."
With Johnson in tow, I tested the demo machine. I slapped it. I palmed it with an open hand. I poked it with my finger. I poked it with the tip of my pen. I poked two names at the same time. But I could not turn Willie into Herman or Carol into John.
Maybe you can. But -- bear with me here -- to make a mistake you have to know you made a mistake. Once you press "cast ballot" there is no way of knowing if the machine screws up and records your vote for someone else. And if you goof and get totally flustered, why would you press "cast ballot" before notifying a poll worker of the error?
Unless, that is, you wanted to make a stink for the sake of making a stink.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan asked Americans: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Enough of them thought the answer was "no" that Reagan beat incumbent Jimmy Carter and was president for the next eight years.
The Memphis mayoral election on October 4th will be an indicator of how well off Memphians think they've been since Willie Herenton was elected. Except Herenton has been in office for 16 years, not four years, which is so long that it may be hard for some people to imagine Memphis without him.
You want signs that things are bad?
If you are statistically inclined, a national survey of home loans by the community activist organization ACORN says Memphis is highly vulnerable to foreclosures because 46 percent of home purchase loans in 2006 were high-cost subprime loans. Memphis ranks first in the Southeast and sixth in the country in such loans.
If you are profit-minded, another survey, by CNNMoney.com, ranks Memphis ninth in the country in the number of foreclosures. One man's misfortune is another's opportunity, and last week something called the National Foreclosure Institute ran full-page ads in The Commercial Appeal for a series of workshops on how to make money off of this. Along with 10 other people, I attended one of the workshops this week. The speaker said, "You are sitting on the tip of the greatest fire sale in real estate history" — which you can exploit by taking their course for $1,495.
If you are fearful, you may have heard mayoral candidate Carol Chumney say in a debate this week that crime is so bad that Memphians are afraid to walk to their mailboxes, which, if true, will make voting problematic.
If you are nostalgic, you may have heard mayoral candidate John Willingham say in the same debate that the Mid-South Fairgrounds was a great place 40 years ago before Memphis lost, by his unofficial count, 115 major corporations.
If you are disgusted, you can move out of Memphis to the suburbs or to DeSoto County, Mississippi, the fastest-growing county in the state.
Thousands of people will vote for Chumney, but the one vote she needs is Herman Morris'. Thousands of people will vote for Morris, but the one vote he needs is Chumney's. Apparently, neither one of them is going to get it. They are beating each other up instead.
That has to please Herenton. He won't get the votes of the people who have thrown up their hands and moved or are scared to walk to their mailboxes or foresee the greatest real estate fire sale the world has ever seen or long for the good old days. He will, however, get votes from Memphians who think they are better off than they were 16 years ago, which could be enough.
On the bright side, Memphis is growing a bit, from 650,000 in 2000 to about 670,000 today. Before the housing bust, there was a housing boom from downtown to Whitehaven to Hickory Hill to Cordova. Inner-city housing projects came down. Robert Lipscomb, the city's chief financial officer, says 16,000 Memphians became first-time homeowners in the last 12 years. The foreclosure crisis, he agrees, is real, especially in Hickory Hill and Frayser. "On the one hand, there is upward mobility," he says. "On the other hand, there is no margin for error" if the buyer gets sick or loses a job.
Webb Brewer, head of Memphis Legal Services, says there's a fine line between the benefits of the housing boom in Memphis and the excesses of a housing bust. "A decade ago I was championing the cause of home ownership, and people were talking about creative financing," he says.
Now, he helps victims of predatory lending, creative financing's evil twin.
"The big question," Brewer says, "is how many people who got into the housing market were able to sustain it?"
If the foreclosure rate on subprime mortgages is 15 percent, is Memphis still better off? What if it is 30 percent? Does that mean 70 percent achieved the dream of home ownership? As Herenton has noted, it's the nature of the media to report the bad news of crime, corruption, foreclosures, and flight. A growing middle class and a sense of well-being relative to 1991 are harder stories to tell, but they may determine the outcome of the Memphis mayoral election.
The John Ford saga isn't over, but some friends of the former senator would probably breathe easier if it were.
Ford plans to appeal his conviction on a federal bribery charge in the Tennessee Waltz investigation. Last week, he was sentenced to 66 months in prison. The FBI's undercover sting operation has withstood previous challenges, and jury verdicts are seldom overturned. But the appeal could give Ford some leverage with federal prosecutors in Nashville, where he faces a November 6th trial date on charges related to his consulting work for TennCare contractors between 2001 and 2005.
"If I were his defense attorney, I would be going to the U.S. attorney up there and saying, 'You all have already convicted my client, and he got 66 months, so what [would happen] if we dropped our appeal?'" said Hickman Ewing, former U.S. attorney in Memphis. "Maybe they would say that if he would plead guilty to one count they would make it concurrent to what he already got. The bottom line is how strong they think their case is."
In the Tennessee Waltz, Ford's "business partners" were undercover FBI agents posing as executives of E-Cycle Management while they secretly taped him. Ford was paid $55,000. In the Nashville case, Ford's main business partners were TennCare contractors Doral Dental and Omnicare Health Plan, renamed UAHC Health Plan of Tennessee. Those companies, unlike E-Cycle, are very real and paid Ford more than $800,000.
If the Nashville case goes to trial, prosecutors will have to get a conviction the old-fashioned way, because there are apparently no secret tapes. The Nashville indictment came 18 months after Ford was indicted in Tennessee Waltz and delayed the start of his Memphis trial a few months. Further complicating things, there has been a change in command in the Nashville office this year. In 2006, Craig Morford was both U.S. attorney and Ford prosecutor, but this year he moved to Washington, D.C., where he is number-two man in the attorney general's office.
Morford said the indictment revealed "an appalling willingness to violate [Ford's] duty by using his public position for personal gain."
Whether his successors share that hunger to prosecute — especially now that Ford has been convicted and sentenced — is not known. In a brief meeting with this reporter, assistant U.S. attorney Eli Richardson, one of the prosecutors in the Ford case along with Paul O'Brien, would only say that there is a hearing in September and a trial date in November. The trial already has been postponed several times since Ford was indicted on December 13, 2006.
According to the indictment, Ford owned a 40 percent interest in Managed Care Services Group (MCSG). The other owners were "Individual A" and "Individual B" in the indictment, but they have since been identified as Osbie Howard, former treasurer for the city of Memphis, and Ronald Dobbins.
Howard was one of 13 character witnesses at Ford's sentencing hearing last week. Most of them got off the stand without being challenged, but not Howard. Assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza accused him of making a false statement to an FBI agent earlier this year about Ford's income tax return. Howard took the Fifth Amendment when DiScenza tried to question him further.
According to court documents filed in Nashville, Ford earned $470,414 in 2004 and $470,938 in 2003. The indictment says Ford formed MCSG to get payments from Doral Dental and hid that fact while working as a state senator and head of a TennCare committee. As a $10,000-a-month "consultant" to UAHC, Ford allegedly sponsored legislation benefiting them and met with other state officials on their behalf.
A Nashville trial could be embarrassing to other Ford "consulting" clients and business associates, including the Oseman Insurance Agency of Memphis, the Armstrong Allen law firm, Hospice USA, Connie Matthews (the mother of two of Ford's children), and former Shelby County Commission member Bridget Chisholm, among others. If the case goes to trial, it could clarify what local and state elected part-time officials who claim that their full-time occupation is "consultant" can and cannot do.
Ewing said one option for federal prosecutors is to move to dismiss the case, provided Ford cooperates regarding other people. Despite his hefty income, Ford has pleaded indigence and is being represented by federal public defenders. If Nashville prosecutors don't think he has money to pay fines that might be imposed, that could influence their decision about whether to try him again, Ewing said.