As even the most dedicated skeptics have been forced to conclude, the announced entry on Wednesday of attorney Charles Carpenter into the special-election mayoral race is the most convincing evidence that Willie Herenton actually intends to depart the mayor’s office.
Carpenter’s entry is an event that trumps all the other evidence of the last few days — the public statements by city lawyer Elbert Jefferson, Herenton’s ostentatious packing up of memorabilia and belongings, and a spate of brief one-on-one sit-downs with TV stations.
As has frequently been noted, Carpenter was the trusted aide who directed each of Herenton’s five winning mayoral campaigns. He was the one man who could be found at Herenton’s side during the dog days of summer 1991, when the insiders and touts were pooh-poohing Herenton’s chances, and the candidate could lay out a fabulous buffet spread for the city’s lawyers atop the 100 North Main building and nobody came.
Except Carpenter, who was at Herenton’s side again and again, through victory night 1991 through all the turmoil and testing of the interventing years all the way to what now would seem to the outgoing mayor’s last hurrah, the celebration of October 2007, when Herenton vanquished his challengers one last time — just, it would seem, to say he did it.
And now Carpenter, who had become a specialist in municipal financing and therefore a go-to lawyer and point man for any number of big-time enterprises, including the complex FedEx Forum project, is seeking to take his own turn at the helm.
When asked point-blank by the Flyer whether he would support his longtime main man for mayor, Herenton insisted he would stay neutral. But Carpenter can certainly count on some sort of benefit from his enduring association with Herenton — some of it from members of the mayor’s political network; some of it, too, from the influential and well-heeled Memphians with whom Carpenter has, more gracefully than not, rubbed elbows during his professional activities on behalf of the city.
But Carpenter, for all his side-by-side photographs with Willie Herenton, remains an Unknown Quantity with most of the public and will have to climb a steep hill with those long legs of his. Until he establishes himself as a contender in his own right — which is certainly possible — the immediate speculation will be: Whose chances does he hurt by being in the race?
Most of the active and potential candidates for mayor are wondering about that themselves.