Thursday, November 13, 2003

Upset in District 5

Whichever way it goes will defy the odds.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Since the two holdover races from the Memphis city election will be run off on Thursday of this publication week, the issue will be in suspense only for the first two days the current Flyer is available. Whatever is said here will have to hold up for the five fish-wrapper days to come.

Ergo: It is safe to say that the City Council race in District 5 will end in an upset.

Either George Flinn will have upset Carol Chumney in a race in which she was the prohibitive favorite, or Chumney will have overcome seemingly insurmountable early-voting statistics that seemed to favor Flinn strongly. Either outcome would be in defiance of a different set of odds.

Consider: First estimates of the runoff vote were that something like 5,000 votes would be cast in District 5. When early voting ended on Saturday, 3,336 people had voted, of whom 154 were black, 2,856 were white, and 326 were classified as other. It would seem 1) that most of the election had already been held; and 2) that the demographic pattern of voting greatly favored the Republican Flinn over the Democrat Chumney.

Why? Because, not only did physician/businessman Flinn presumably benefit from the crude white=Republican, black=Democratic arithmetic that so often is the electoral formula in Memphis and Shelby County, but early voters came disproportionately from the historically Republican East Memphis half of the district.

In the west, District 5 takes in a good hunk of Midtown, an area more prone to vote Democratic and one which usually turns out in good numbers, proportionately, on Election Day itself. But on the basis of votes cast as of Saturday, Flinn still looked to have benefited disproportionately. Considering that conventional wisdom favored Chumney, who polled 38 percent of the total vote on October 9th, to Flinn's 31 percent, that would argue for Flinn as the upset winner.

But hold everything! Two additional factors were weighted in Chumney's favor. For 13 years she has served as a high-profile state representative from District 89, which overlaps significantly with council District 5. And those early-voting statistics showed a disproportionate edge for women voters over men, by a ratio of roughly 60 percent to 40 percent. Recent elections have shown that, all other factors being equal, that of gender identification is significant.

Moreover, Chumney made a point of pitching her appeal across the usual bipartisan lines, and one of her co-chairs was the venerable Bob James, a former councilman and nonagenarian who was among the first well-known Republicans to run for office locally in the 1960s. And, even though Flinn's low-key, nonabrasive campaigning style this year has largely canceled out the after-effects of a bitterly contested 2002 GOP primary for Shelby County mayor -- one in which he bested former state Representative Larry Scroggs -- some residuum of that campaign might linger.

Chumney partisans could plausibly maintain therefore that she was well positioned to overcome the apparent early-voting demographics favoring Flinn and, in an upset of her own, carry the day.

One key to which of these competing scenarios is most accurate was the issue of different campaigning styles. On Saturday, Chumney, who made more speaking appearances, showed her flag at the conservative-oriented Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Piccadilly Restaurant in southeast Memphis. Flinn eschewed the opportunity to debate Chumney at that presumably favorable venue and worked the early-voting locations instead -- especially the one at Berclair Church of Christ on Summer Avenue, where, argued Chumney poll-watchers, who distributed photos to buttress their point, Flinn worked a parking-lot area closer to the polling place than state election law permits.

Answered local GOP chairman Kemp Conrad: "The race for District 5 is not about where someone stands in a parking lot but where they stand on important issues like taxes." Conrad also argued for the irrelevancy of Chumney's apparent good showing before the conservative audience of the Dutch Treat Luncheon, where she fielded questions in a variety of areas.

In truth, it was arguable as to which candidate spent time most effectively on Saturday.

One other variable was hanging fire at press time: Which way would partisans of lawyer Jim Strickland, the third-place finisher on October 7th, go? Strickland, a former local Democratic chairman, had support from both Democrats and Republicans, and prominent Strickland backers were to be found supporting both Chumney and Flinn. Strickland himself seemed inclined to sit things out, and any late change of mind was unlikely to have much effect.

E-mail: baker@MemphisFlyer.com

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