Mayor Strickland? Mayor Conrad? These are new names in the guessing games going on concerning the next Memphis mayor’s race — which could happen as regularly scheduled, in October of 2011 or, as a special election to fill a vacancy, sometime earlier than that.
Neither Jim Strickland nor Kemp Conrad, both first-term city council members, are so far-fetched to consider as possible — and viable — candidates as either might have seemed even a few months ago.
Strickland, in particular, has earned plaudits for his role in calling for — and then expediting — the transfer of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center from city management to that of Shelby County. And he won hosannahs from sources as diverse as liberal blogger Steve Steffens and conservative columnist Marilyn Loeffel for taking the initiative in proposing and itemizing a leaner budget than the one set forth originally by Mayor Willie Herenton.
Tom Guleff, a maverick government-watcher whose “Joe Citizens” dispatches and Web site have earned a following in Shelby County, has launched an unofficial Draft Strickland campaign on Facebook.
Conrad, a special-election winner whose tenure is but a few months old, has wasted no time either in making his mark, exposing boondoggles in city government and proposing various reforms.
A former local Republican chairman and a budget-cutter like former Democratic chairman Strickland, Conrad sees himself as more open to humanitarian projects than most textbook conservatives. During the last round of council budget-cutting, Conrad’s intervention was important and perhaps decisive in saving full funding for programs of the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA).
Other council members consider both Strickland and Conrad to be interested in running for mayor, and neither will rule out the prospect, though it is Strickland who is getting most mention these days, largely on the strength of his MSARC initiative and budget proposals.
Conrad himself is a booster. “I consider it an honor to serve alongside Jim Strickland,” he says. And close Strickland ally Shea Flinn considers his colleague’s candidacy to be entirely possible — and highly desirable. “Jim distinguished himself with his leadership on MSARC and the budget,” says Flinn, whom Strickland had unsuccessfully tried to talk into becoming a mayoral candidate himself.
Both Strickland and Conrad are white males, of course — a fact of personal identify that could be a handicap in a city in which African Americans and women have fared better at the polls in recent years.
Former council member Carol Chumney, another white, has already announced she will reprise her 2007 mayoral race when the time comes. Other likely candidates are current council chairman Myron Lowery, maverick school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, and the odds-on favorite, current Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. Wharton has already raised more money than any of the others are likely to, and he starts with a forbiddingly huge support base.
Those who believe that Strickland or Conrad could run a viable race in the face of this reality maintain that either will have earned a substantial public profile by the time the race comes along and will compete seriously for Wharton’s share of the Poplar Corridor vote and that in other predominantly white enclaves. And with other serious black candidates taking sizeable hunks of the African-American vote, the county mayor could have a real race on his hands.
By that reckoning, the mayor’s race could indeed turn into a free-for-all, one which almost any serious candidate could win, if he or she happened to catch the right kind of lightning.