Well, who'd 'a thunk it? Yes, yes, of course, we knew — as soon as Mayor Willie Herenton said it — that his terse and profane description of opponent Steve Cohen would be the sound-bite that would go around the world. "Figuratively," that is. We didn't anticipate "literally."
But that's what happening, thanks to blogger Wintermute of The Daily Docket, who (with our permission) listed our own posting of the mayor's actual words and offered them out (now, this was a surprise) as a ringtone for downloading. Among the readers who picked up on the offer was our bud Jeff Woods of the Nashville Scene's Pith in the Wind blog.
So the ringtone has gone as far as Nashville. Listen up, D.C.! Listen up, world!
Some two weeks ago, when I was being interviewed by a TV reporter about the field of candidates in Memphis’ special-election mayor race — a field that was, then, as now, continuing to fill up — I put forth a theory based on the developing numbers, and I was immodest enough to call it the Baker Theory (though I am quite sure that it can’t be all that original).
In three parts, it went this way:
(1) The smaller the field of serious opponents, the more fraught with danger for a presumed front-runner like Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, whose support base, based essentially on name recognition, is large but generalized. The good news is that it crosses racial and political lines; the bad news is that it may be of the mile-wide, inch-deep variety.
If confronted by a single white challenger, then, someone regarded as serious and possessing the same kind of all-encompassing base as Wharton’s, the county mayor could be in for a real fight — especially if he had in addition a major black candidate, who could pull from Wharton’s black constituency. And variations on that logic could apply to any combination involving a very few candidates out to carve up the same piece of pie.
(2) At a certain point, though, a proliferation of candidates — all competing with each other for pieces of the pie — would help someone like Wharton, who has a commanding lead in money raised as well as network in place. They would, in effect, be competing with each other for the role of runner-up and dividing the opposition vote — much as Herenton challengers Carol Chumney and Herman Morris did in 2007, allowing the mayor to win reelection with a plurality of 42 percent. But:
(3) If the field continues to grow and includes a variety of plausible niche candidates, each with a legitimate claim to some portion of Wharton’s generalized, all-purpose kind of voter base, there is trouble once again for the front-runner, as this, that, and the other part of his coalition are in danger of fragmenting and falling away to someone in the field.
Whoever could make a late surge and, particularly if well-financed, lay claim to being the most formidable alternative to the original favorite could capitalize on such a balkanization of the electorate merely by holding on to his or her original support base.
The theory was tentative, as proposed, but the reaction to circumstances this week of the real A C Wharton seemed to provide something close to confirmation of it. The county mayor and acknowledged early favorite in the city mayor’s race was quoted as worrying out loud about the size of the mayoral field, contending that it made arriving at a community “mandate” more difficult and could allow “flukes” to determine the outcome of an election.
Subsequently, Wharton seems actually to have met with announced candidates (e.g., county commissioner James Harvey) in an effort to talk them out of the race. (!!)
Wharton’s statement, which was promptly attacked by members of that teeming mass of challengers, certainly provides good reason to take the theory seriously -- not to mention his subsequent efforts at winnowing down the field.
An early response to Wharton’s remarks about the field came from Carol Chumney, the former city council member who is making her second bid for the job of mayor. In a press release, Chumney said, “the crowded field shows that no one candidate has a lock on this election.”
An interesting late take on the controversy comes from not-quite-yet candidate Jim Strickland. The lawyer and first-term city councilman, who at this stage is still seriously considering a race, told the Flyer, “I disagree with Mayor Wharton’s concern. Anybody who wants to run should do so.” But Strickland also took issue with those mayoral candidates who have taken shots at Wharton for expressing his doubts about the large field.
“That’s the old politics,” Strickland said, “when candidates react to everything their opponents say and have to attack it, no matter how off-the-cuff it might be. We’ve got more serious concerns to be worried about, real issues we ought to be talking about.”
(UPDATE: The vote on Monday developed very much as foreseen here, with Chism and Mulroy as holdouts for Avery, both citing commission tradition. Democrat James Harvey followed suit, and the five "passes," including one from Malone nominator Matt Kuhn, were de facto votes for acclamation.)
For all the media buildup of the last few days, an effort to re-elect Deidre Malone as chair of the Shelby County Commission for a second consecutive term is destined to fail. It may never be put forth when the commission holds its regular meeting on Monday, one for which the annual election of a new chairman is scheduled.
The reason is, Malone won’t have the votes, and she dare not risk the embarrassment of a defeat. At least two Democrats are strongly opposed to her re-election — Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy. Both are solid votes for Joyce Avery, the Republican vice chair who would normally be scheduled to ascend to the chairmanship as a matter of routine.
The Kuhn Precedent
Earlier this year, the commission Democrats broke with precedent and combined to elect a fellow Democrat, Matt Kuhn, to succeed Republican David Lillard in a traditionally Republican suburban seat. At the end of several ballots, the Democrats voted together to shatter a long-established precedent whereby Democrats were named to fill vacancies in traditionally Democratic districts and Republicans were named likewise in historically GOP districts.
But it took multiple ballots, during which the commission’s Republicans ignored an implicit offer to accept nominal Republican Linda Kerley, the former mayor of Collierville. Sticking as a bloc with former Republican commissioner Tommy Hart, they allowed a stalemate that was finally broken when Democrat Joe Ford, a holdout for tradition, eventually joined his party mates to put Kuhn over.
And, after all, what was at stake was an increase in the Democrats’ majority from 7-6 to 8-5, providing a much more comfortable margin for controversial legislation on which the parties disagreed.
What is at stake in Malone’s venture to further break tradition is something substantially less meaningful — except to her wish to become Shelby County mayor, an office she hopes to win in next year’s countywide general election. Continued service in the high-profile position of chairman would be incentive enough, but there is more to it than that.
It is widely assumed by almost all observers that current county mayor A C Wharton, term-limited for his current office, is well ahead of potential opponents in the forthcoming special election for Memphis mayor. It’s an office Wharton has been campaigning and raising money for since mid-2008.
A Boost in the County Mayor’s Race
Just as the pending possession of the city mayor’s office by city council chairman Myron Lowery is regarded as a distinct advantage for Lowery in his own race against Wharton and others, so would Malone’s accession as chairman to the office of county mayor, however brief and temporary, be an advantage to her campaign.
That’s the basic reason why Malone seeks to be chairman for a second straight year.
As things would normally stand, vice chair Joyce Avery, a Republican, having waited her year as heir-apparent, would be elected unanimously and without incident, according to the long-established terms whereby the chairmanship is rotated every year, by person and by party.
Malone’s current ambition to do otherwise is in decided contrast to her own celebration of Avery a year ago when she and the Arlington Republican were elected chair and vice chair, respectively. At the time, Malone, citing Avery by name, made much ado of the fact that women would chair the commission for two consecutive years. That’s “women,” plural.
The impetus for Malone’s change of mind — which, if successful, would brush aside Avery’s only chance at a chairmanship before the end of her second, and final, allowable term — reportedly came from Matt Kuhn, the beneficiary of last February’s Democratic power play.
Chism and Mulroy to Say No
Democrat Sidney Chism, who at the time had been coveting the chairmanship himself and was one of Kuhn’s strongest supporters, won’t be in “lockstep” (one of Chism’s favorite terms of invective, usually applied to the commission ‘s Republicans) this time. For one thing, he’s partial to Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, another candidate for county mayor, and is loath to give Malone the special advantage she seeks.
And Mulroy, the Democrats’ swing man for most controversial votes, and consistently the best and most articulate advocate of Democratic positions, can’t muster any rhetoric or enthusiasm for this move. Unlike the addition of Kuhn, which changed the arithmetic of commission voting, this move wouldn’t change a thing, vote-wise, and would be sure to antagonize the minority Republicans, perhaps irreparably.
At this point, Malone must know she doesn’t have Chism and Mulroy on board, and she knows also that the well-liked Avery’s fellow Republicans will be ardent and unanimous in their support for her.
Deidre Malone can count. She knows a second straight chairmanship is a non-starter. She’s already embarrassed that news of her gambit was leaked to the media. (Internal evidence points to Chism, on that one.) And, rather than risk a highly public defeat, she will simply back away from the whole project.
Or not, depending on how stubborn (and possibly self-sacrificial) she feels on Monday.
Chism vs. Brooks
A second issue to be determined on Monday will be the selection of a new vice-chair. The candidates are both Democrats, consistent with the expected victory of Republican Avery and the reversion to the every-other-year assumptions regarding partisan claims on the succession.
They are Chism and fellow Democrat Henri Brooks. Both are controversial and outspoken, but Chism is more used to playing the political game, and, in fact, his planned vote for Avery on Monday is one more evidence of that. He can with justice claim the thank-you votes of the commission’s Republicans, and, as an established Democratic political broker, he’ll have more than enough votes from his party mates as well.
These are the most obvious lessons from Thursday’s first encounter of rival mayoral candidates at a forum sponsored by the Associated Builders and Contractors.
(1) Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, the odds-on favorite going into what is still expected to be a fall special election, will play hard-to-get. He declined an invitation to the ABC’s luncheon affair, held at the University of Memphis are Holiday Inn on Central Avenue, averring frankly that it was “inconsistent” with his election strategy to appear.
That was a reasonably up-front way of saying what lead horses in such races usually say more circumspectly — that Wharton had no intention of conferring a semblance of equality on his opponents or giving them so direct a chance to score points on him and catch up.
(2) By contrast, the status and strategy of city council chairman Myron Lowery, another name candidate absent from the forum, were more puzzling, unless one accepted at face value Lowery’s contention that he had a prior commitment to attend a National League of Cities event in Denver on Thursday.
And, after all, Lowery, who has been palpably looking forward to holding the reins of office — if only as “mayor pro tem,” a title urged into general acceptance by Mayor Willie Herenton (who presumably will follow through on his commitment to leave office on July 30). Herenton has made it clear he is no Lowery fan, and Lowery’s presence in Denver could be interpreted quite simply as a demonstration that the soon-to-be acting mayor has his nose to the grindstone.
(3) Charles Carpenter, the municipal-finance lawyer and five-time director of Herenton’s mayoral campaigns, used the forum — which followed close upon Carpenter’s official announcement event Thursday morning — to stress that he was (a) a serious, forward-looking candidate; and (b) independent of Herenton, despite their long professional and personal association.
He did the former by citing his extensive involvement with civic projects, notably in helping prepare the way — and the financial underpinning — for the FedEx Forum. He did the latter by telling the ABC attendees and the gathered media: “My role was that of an advisor. He [Herenton] was CEO, and he made the decision. I could tell him ‘go right,’ and he’d say, ‘Thank you. I’m going left.’ It will be different with a Carpenter administration. I’ll be making the decisions.
Carpenter had been even blunter at his announcement ceremony at Church Park on Beale, not far from the neighborhood he grew up in. He told the press there that the “the poor results we’re achieving for the citizens of Memphis” compelled him “to come forward at this time” to provide “alternative leadership.” Asked if he had intended to except Herenton from his negative evaluation, Carpenter answered, “I don’t think I qualified my remarks by excepting anyone.”
And, to drive that point home, he would go on to say, “The community is looking for new leadership. The leadership we have has signaled that they cannot get the job done.”
(4) Carol Chumney, the former council member and state representative who ran second to Herenton in 2007, signaled at Thursday’s forum that she would attempt a reprise of her strategy of two years ago — emphasizing her 17 years of experience in public office and her commitment to general “change” as an overriding goal.
Eschewing specifics, Chumney said, “Trust me. I’m going to get it done as your mayor.” She would “work to keep taxes low,” would be “fair,” and “have an open door policy.” She promised, “I won’t give lip service to ethics. I’ll apply it to myself,” and asserted she had the “brains, heart, and guts” to do the job for the city of Memphis.
Chumney let it be known Thursday that she has engaged as campaign manager Jerry Austin, who occupied the same position last year in 9th District congressman Steve Cohen’s successful reelection campaign.
(5) Kemp Conrad, the entrepreneur and first-term councilman who served a term as chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party, made sure his presumably conservative audience was aware of his credentials, speaking a lingo (condemning the city’s “bureaucracy” and proclaiming “God bless the free market”) that he might have assumed would resound with builders and contractors.”
Conrad had, after all, received the group’s endorsement in his last council campaign, a fact for which he made a point of thanking the attendees. He proposed shoring up Memphis’ dominance as an air cargo center and assisting its developing bio-medical industry.
Noting the high incidence of crime (as had Chumney), Conrad named public safety as a major concern.
(6) Next up was Jim Strickland, the council first-termer who became the (conspicuously willing) subject of a mayoral draft movement two months ago after issuing his own budget proposal, with cuts in administrative salaries and a modest tax decrease,
Having heard Conrad emphasize his role in voting for a temporary relaxation of residency requirements for Memphis police hires, Strickland made a point of emphasizing that it had been he who proposed the idea in the first place. He promised special attention to “the basics,” crime and schools.
Strickland sounded what he clearly intends to be a major theme in an energized but uphill campaign against presumed leader Wharton and the long-established Lowery. “We cannot change Memphis for the next generation with leaders from the last generation.”
(7) Last but not least, as they say, was the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., pastor of\ Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and a firebrand member of the city school board. Definitely not least.
It might be a stretch to imagine candidate Whalum getting the votes of the predominantly conservative audience members on Thursday, but there was no doubt that he had them enraptured with his performer’s brio and uninhibited observations. And he reminded the audience early and often that he had polled 83,939 votes “citywide” in getting elected to the school board. “They usually call me crazy,” Whalum said about critics of his no-holds-barred pulpit-influenced style. “They [his voters] must be crazy, too."
Referring to himself as “the other citywide elected official that the Commercial Appeal loves to hate,” Whalum boasted his advocacy on the school board of a return to corporal punishment and “butt-smacking.” In an implied rebuke of Chumney, Conrad, and Strickland, Whalum said, “Crime is not going to be the primary issue. We’ll always have crime.” Instead, consolidation (which he apparently opposes) and “personal character” would be the issues.
Whalum got his most animated reaction from the crowd when he did an impression of Lowery as an intense, nervous, arm-waving “mayor pro tem” who was “excited, almost uncontrollably” at the prospect of becoming mayor. He also got a healthy response to his observation that “I’m not convinced we’ll have a mayor’s race, and if you are you know something that the cosmos don’t know.”
(8) Jerry Lawler, the wrestler-commentator who announced his second race for mayor during the week, was absent and had apparently not been on the guest list— his status in host-moderator Mike Carpenter’s eyes indicated by Carpenter’s assertion to the audience that only “serious” candidates had been invited.
If Lawler, who describes his profession as that of “sports entertainment,” should make future all-candidate forums, as no doubt he will, he might find himself ill-matched in that regard against Whalum.
Politically fixated Memphians plugged into their radios could go to bed Tuesday night with at least two familiar media voices still ringing in their ears and wake up Wednesday morning with yet another.
The overnight voices belonged to members of the Memphis City Council, who were heard debating until well into the evening on the Library Channel, 88.5 FM, as to whether the council should formally accept Mayor Willie Herenton’s latest resignation date of July 30 and declare the mayor’s seat open. It finally did so, by a vote of 7-6.
Council chairman Myron Lowery, a onetime media presence on Memphis television and a declared mayoral candidate in the event of a special election, figured prominently in that debate as a Yes vote; Janis Fullilove, a former radio talk-show host, figured somewhat vociferously as a No vote. The rest of the council split along racial lines, with blacks voting no and whites voting for a resolution brought by councilman Jim Strickland, who is strongly considering a mayoral race.
However, the consensus of legal authorities weighing in on the matter, from city attorney Elbert Jefferson to council attorney Allen Wade, seemed to be that the council’s action could be challenged in court without a formal document from Herenton establishing a departure date.
Meanwhile, the potential field for a special-election race increased by one Wednesday morning when local wrestling legend Jerry Lawler declared his second mayoral candidacy in ten years from the broadcast studios of WGKS-FM, Kix 106.
Appearing on the Young and Elder morning show, Lawler, whose announcement was preceded by a burst of recorded fanfare, put himself forth as “a normal common citizen who has some common sense” and “a successful businessman for 37 years.” He said he would not seek financial support from supporter or hold formal fundraisers as such.
“Our city is looked on as a laughing stock, the most racially divided city in the United States. We need a unifier,” said Lawler.
“We keep voting for these politicians who will promise anything. But nobody follows through on their promises,” the still-active wrestler/commentator said, making no promises himself.
Especially given the fact that Lawler’s professional commitments require him to travel extensively, a fact discussed at length on the show, the question of how much time he could devote to active mayoral campaigning remained uncertain. Observers of the 1999 mayoral election, in which Lawler had also been a candidate, recall that Lawler, who finished with 12 percent of that vote, was hampered by the on-again/off-again nature of his campaigning.
Tre Hargett, the former Bartlett state representative who now serves as Tennessee’s secretary of state, issued a press release Tuesday calling the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act, approved by the General Assembly in 2008 and scheduled for statewide implementation next year, a “Catch-22.”
Hargett, who figured in an embarrassing episode two weeks ago involving the dispatching of two Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents to the farm of a voting rights activist who had lobbied for the act, said in Tuesday’s release that meeting the November 2010 deadline for implementing the act would be “difficult, if not impossible.”
Said Hargett: “I fully support the goal of the Voter Confidence Act, which passed both houses of the General Assembly with broad bipartisan support. However, after researching the law, I believe it is unlikely that counties will be able to implement it before the November 2010 elections. In fact, the act as it was adopted creates a Catch-22 for county governments. Whether counties acquire new equipment or not, they will still not be in compliance with the act.”
As Hargett explained in the press release, he had preferred a version of the legislation that delayed statewide requirements for approved optical-scan voting equipment until 2012. That bill passed the state House and failed narrowly in the Senate.
The imbroglio of two weeks ago occurred when Hargett, acting from what spokesperson Blake Fontenay later called “an abundance of caution,” inferred a disturbing meaning from a blog comment by Bernie Ellis of Maury County. Ellis, an advocate for the Voter Confidence Act, had commented regarding opponents’ delaying tactics in the legislature that another “Battle of Athens” might be in order.
The term referred to a 1947 armed insurrection of returning servicemen in McMinn County against a county political machine accused of suppressing honest vote-counting. Two TBI agents responded to an alert from Hargett by visiting Ellis at his farm but found no cause for alarm beyond rhetorical excess.
Hargett’s news release in full:
SECRETARY OF STATE TRE HARGETT CALLS VOTER CONFIDENCE ACT “A CATCH-22”
Secretary of State Tre Hargett said today that although the Tennessee Voter Confidence Act is an important piece of legislation, implementing it by November 2010 will be difficult, if not impossible.
“I fully support the goal of the Voter Confidence Act, which passed both houses of the General Assembly with broad bipartisan support,” Hargett said. “However, after researching the law, I believe it is unlikely that counties will be able to implement it before the November 2010 elections. In fact, the act as it was adopted creates a Catch-22 for county governments. Whether counties acquire new equipment or not, they will still not be in compliance with the act.”
The act requires all of Tennessee’s 95 counties to use optical scan voting machines and paper ballots no later than the November 2010 elections. However, the mandated equipment isn’t available for sale anywhere in the United States.
“The act is very specific,” Hargett said. “It requires counties to use only certified equipment that meets the security and reliability standards adopted by the federal Election Assistance Commission in 2005. Currently, there are no vendors certified to sell equipment meeting these standards. And because the commission’s certification process typically takes about 18 to 24 months, I’m not confident that a vendor could complete that process in time to have equipment in place for the November 2010 elections.”
Hargett supported a bill in the General Assembly’s recently completed legislative session that would have delayed implementation of the act until 2012. That bill passed the state House of Representatives with broad bipartisan support, but fell one vote short of passage in the Senate.
“I was supportive of the delay because I want to see the act properly implemented,” Hargett said. “The required equipment simply isn’t on the market yet. And I’m hesitant to suggest to county election officials that they begin using equipment that is less secure and less reliable than the act requires.”
Hargett still believes that a delay, while not an ideal option, represents the best course of action under the circumstances.
“The act could be amended to weaken the security and reliability standards so currently available equipment could be used, but that doesn’t seem like a very good solution to me,” Hargett said. “Why force counties to use equipment that will soon be outdated? It’s just a matter of time before one or more vendors complete the certification process. Why not hold out for equipment that meets the highest standards available?”
To help prepare for implementation, Hargett said he and his staff at the state Division of Elections have been educating county election officials about the act’s requirements and training them on the proper procedures for conducting elections using paper ballots. The Division of Elections has also secured funding available through the federal Help America Vote Act to cover the counties’ expenses for the election machines when they become available.
“I really want to make this work,” Hargett said. “But I can’t provide counties with equipment that doesn’t exist.”
On the theory that journalists, even more than other people, have a duty to update their public statements whenever circumstances require it, I choose to append this note to my online column of July 6 entitled “Candidate Chumney’s Conundrum.”
It seems clear to me on the basis of videos I have seen and conversatons I have had with a variety of people who were present at a Fourth of July fireworks exhibition at Tom Lee Park on Sunday night that accounts by my friends Carol Chumney and Kate Mauldin of vandalism and aggressive behavior by bands of roaming juveniles, possibly gang members, were substantially correct. (I say “friends” because they are that, I have always been pleased to say; that’s a fact independent of circumstances under which either might become either sources for or subjects of an article.)
What both told me in telephone conversations on Sunday night was that these marauding juveniles set large grass fires on the periphery of Tom Lee Park, fired roman candles and tossed firecrackers into the crowd at Tom Lee, and in general were an intimidating presence unchecked by significant numbers of police.
In “Candidate Chumney’s Conundrum,” I did not dispute what Carol and Kate told me. I reported their accounts straight, but balanced them with a statement from a police source that seemed to minimize the problem they reported or in some ways to deny it outright. I had also heard on Sunday night from a media acquaintance who had been at Tom Lee and said he had seen nothing like the incident described. I didn’t cite him in the article, but his account may have further weighted my account in the direction of distanced objectivity.
But again: I have seen and heard enough since then from other eyewitnesses and from two videos on YouTube, apparently posted by Kate Mauldin, that I can say categorically: The accounts by her and Carol Chumney were and are entirely credible, and Chumney, a candidate for city mayor, is entirely within her rights, as I see it, to make what she wants to of the circumstance of ineffective police monitoring.
What, in retrospect, I probably should not have done was to include an account of the Tom Lee disturbance within the larger piece I was already working on concerning candidate Chumney’s prospects and problems in her mayoral race. I was influenced to do so by the fact that, rightly or wrongly and for a variety of reasons touched upon in “Candidate Chumnney’s Conundrum,” her candidacy has aroused a good deal of skepticism in the media — some of it published, more of it private — and that Chumney’s account of the Tom Lee incident might tend to be dismissed, as, for example, some specific criticism of hers regarding county mayor A C Wharton, a rival in the city mayor’s race, had unquestionably been.
I’ll say it again: On the basis of what I know now, what she said about Tom Lee Park on Sunday night deserves serious attention, and she is entitled to make of it what she will as a candidate.
It seems clear to me that Chumney — who, perhaps understandably, reacted negatively to the tenor of the article — seems to have identified me with the general media skepticism toward her candidacy that I was reporting on. It’s the old blame-the-messenger syndrome, though, again, she’s within her rights; sometimes messengers are more than a bit disingenuous and complicit and merit some blame.
I would, however, call her attention to this particular messenger’s climactic conclusion regarding Chumney’s critics: “The fact is, prejudging candidates and their motives is a dicey business. And prejudging the public’s ability to make up its own mind about questions of sincerity or relevance is even dicier.” I would suggest that she either failed to read the lines or misread them, but I acknowledge her right to conclude what she wants to about the article.
What she is not entitled to conclude, however, is that, as she has suggested in widely circulated emailed responses, there is gender bias in the article. Neither her gender nor that of any other candidate is dealt with, either explicitly or implicitly. Neither remotely nor directly. Period. I do not think her mayoral candidacy hinges in any way whatsoever on the fact of gender, nor should it — though she may, in her considerations of what she believes to be bloc voting, think otherwise. She should not, however, invoke the gender issue as a shield against criticism in general — or, if she does, she is surely obliged to cite the offending chapter and verse.
Enough. We start afresh. There is much to admire in Carol Chumney’s mayoral candidacy — not least her determination to forge ahead in the face of odds that would prove daunting to almost anybody else. She insists that she wants to make a difference, and maybe she can. To my mind, she already has — a case in point being her observations about Sunday night at Tom Lee Park.
The prospect of a second candidacy for the office of Memphis mayor by wrestler/commentator Jerry Lawler — reported Sunday night by Kontji Anthony of WMC-TV — cannot be considered good news by several already committed or seriously leaning mayoral hopefuls. One or two of them will concede privately that even a novelty bid by Lawler will drain away X number of discretionary votes out there in the voter pool — thereby benefiting established front-runners (read: A C Wharton).
No one needs to be reminded that the likable and still charismatic Lawler, though somewhat past his prime as a headliner, has a largish following out there—though it may be well less than the 12 percent of the voting electorate who cast their votes for Lawler in 1999 when, as a long-established public presence, he made his first mayoral race.
The lineup for that race was a multi-candidate affair featuring Willie Herenton, then a second-term incumbent with intact credibility and support in the city’s establishment, and several plausible challengers, including then councilman Joe Ford and an abundance of other major political players.
If that’s a gestalt that reminds you of the one developing for this year’s special mayoral election (substitute county mayor A C Wharton for Herenton as the favorite), Lawler himself should also have his memory refreshed.
He probably would have been pinned to the mat anyhow that year, given the roster of political heavyweights involved in the 1999 battle royal, but his chances of mounting a bona fide challenge were seriously reduced by his inability to campaign full time due to professional commitments, involving regular weekend travel, that limited his campaigning time to two or three weekdays at best.
Every time it appeared that Lawler might be gaining traction, his momentum would be dissipated by the duties incumbent on his day job. That was the major factor preventing his emulating the success enjoyed in 1998, the year before, by Jesse Ventura in Minnesota. Ventura, whose name recognition as a well-known Bad Guy grappler and commentator, had won his race for governor, campaigning as an all-purpose reformer who could throw the bums out of government and keep ‘em out.
Lawler, too, had sounded legitimate political notes in his campaign, but a part-time, on-again, off-again campaign can only take one so far.
The Venturas, Ronald Reagans, Arnold Schwarzeneggers, and Al Frankens of the world have proven that they can successfully make the leap from entertainment into public office, but only (a) if they work at it full-time; and (b) if they commit exclusively to politics and government as serious new callings (which, by definition, depends on a full-time effort).
It remains to be seen whether Lawler is either able or willing to make that kind of commitment. And even if he does, there is a question as to whether his name and presence still possess the same cachet as in 1999.
In the meantime, he’s got a trial balloon up (the Channel 5 report was based on remarks made by Lawler to an audience of wrestling fans, whom he told he’d be making a fuller statement about a mayor’s race this Wednesday), and the groan or two one hears from elsewhere in the mayoral field suggest that, win or lose, he’ll be hurting somebody
See also update for this article, "Score One for Chumney."
The continuing proliferation of candidates in the forthcoming special election to succeed retiring mayor Willie Herenton highlights the predicament of the outgoing mayor’s chief competitor in 2007, former city council member Carol Chumney.
Chumney, who finished second to Herenton in 2007 with 35 percent of the vote, had been determined to sound upbeat about her chances on the day of Herenton’s surprise retirement announcement two weeks ago. She stoutly maintained that she was still the candidate of “change” and had lost none of the momentum or support she had two years ago.
But the fact remained that Chumney, a dependable TV sound bite during her one term as a nonstop political maverick and would-be reformer, has been out of the public eye for almost two years now. And, instead of having the increasingly unpopular and vulnerable Herenton as a foil, as in 2007, she has to make do with the comparatively sunnier and unblemished A C Wharton, the term-limited Shelby County mayor who is the odds-on favorite in the developing field for city mayor.
Moreover, new rivals are emerging almost on a daily basis, some of them — like her 5th District council successor Jim Strickland, a proven money-raiser — able to make a strong claim on the erstwhile Poplar Corridor support of Chumney, never a strong fundraiser. And yet another serious competitor, long-term councilman Myron Lowery, will go into the October 8th special election as acting mayor.
All of this increases the difficulty factor for the former longtime state representative as she heads into her second mayoral campaign (and her third mayoral campaign overall, having finished a distant second to Wharton in the 2002 Democratic primary for county mayor).
Accordingly, with the clock already ticking, Chumney seems determined to reestablish in voters’ minds what her claim to office is all about.
Calls for an investigation
Her first effort in that direction took place last week, drawing on people’s fresh memories of multiple indictments of county clerk’s office employees for practicing favoritism and worse, Chumney went after presumed frontrunner Wharton with a charge that the county mayor had improperly authorized a member of his staff to take his private Mercedes automobile through one of the shortcut annual re-licensings that had become notorious.
Jerry Fanion, a personal aide whose presence at Wharton’s side has made him a familiar figure to the media, is believed by the county mayor's critics (perhaps one should say "election opponents," and not just Chumney) to have asked that the inspection phase of the re-licensing procedure be skipped, as it apparently had been in the recent past (and maybe historically) for several other individuals and office-holders .
Or so it was implied in a pre-emptive statement apparently emanating from the mayor’s office itself via an “internal investigation.” WMC-TV promptly quoted “a spokesperson for the county” as saying, “"Wharton understood that the vehicle was being inspected and registered by Mr. Fanion on his personal time. All witnesses confirmed that neither Mayor Wharton nor Mrs. Wharton was aware that the vehicle had not been properly inspected.”
And — poof! — amid the weightier news of Mayor Herenton’s surprise resignation, Chumney’s charge caused little impact. Such minimal attention as she got from her effort to pinpoint Wharton as an entitlement-minded member of the Good Ole Boy network dissipated quickly as public and media focus turned to a series of dramatic revelations in last week’s exclusive Flyer interview with Herenton.
Then came a wave of speculation about the mayor’s possibly changing his mind about resignation, coupled with the first burst of news about chairman Lowery’s transitional plans for the mayoralty.
It was in this unfavorable context that Chumney chose to issue a press release renewing her call for an “independent investigation” of Wharton’s car licensing, to be carried out by the District Attorney General’s office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Chumney’s statement was largely ignored — even privately ridiculed in some media quarters.
That was the background for a new alarm sounded by Chumney, on the night of July 4th, as public attention was caught up in the holiday spirit and with a variety of public celebrations.
And, indeed, one of the Independence Day events was the occasion for Chumney’s latest expression of concern.
According to Chumney and others attending this year’s Red White & Blues 4th of July celebration downtown, a menacing situation occurred at Tom Lee Park before and during the event’s scheduled fireworks display.
“There was inadequate police protection,” maintained Chumney, who said that two large grass fires were set on the periphery of the event by a large group of youths — numbering from 60 to 100 — who also fired rocket-like fireworks and threw firecrackers into the crowd. “There were families with children who became frightened,” said Chumney, who reported that she and other members of her group made frequent 911 calls in an effort to contact fire and police authorities.
Firemen arrived at some point to extinguish the fires, she said, but police were slow in arriving and few in numbers, according to Chumney. “This lack of police protection is exactly the kind of thing that needs to be corrected in city government,” she said.
Chumney’s account was seconded by Kate Mauldin, a Chumney friend who was also in the crowd and said the group of youthful marauders came and went several times as the crowd gathered in preparation for the annual fireworks event, sponsored this year by the Beale Street Merchants Association in cooperation with participating radio stations.
Eventually, both Mauldin and Chumney agreed, police vehicles arrived in sufficient force to provide an appropriate level of control, and the fireworks display went on as scheduled. “But it took much too long for that to happen,” said Mauldin.
Chumney said another problem with the event was the apparent absence of portable toilet facilities and bottled drinking water. “But mainly there were too few police for far too long. I actually felt sorry for the ones who were here. They were so badly outnumbered.” She added that, regardless of the sponsorship of the Tom Lee Park festivities, the event occurred in a public park and the city should have provided a more credible level of security.
Whether because of distractions resulting from the scale of related Fourth of July events elsewhere in the downtown area or because the event described by Chumney and Mauldin occurred in isolated areas not visible to other observers, the Flyer was not immediately able to confirm the reported disturbances.
…and Flying Saucers
Karen Rudolph, spokesperson for the Memphis police, said that there had been numerous police officers in the vicinity of Tom Lee Park and that to her knowledge there had been no reports of serious problems at the event.
“There were a lot of juveniles,” she said, but nothing out of the ordinary. As for the police presence questioned by Chumney, she said the site had been patrolled by members of the department’s Organized Crime Unit (OCU), its Criminal Apprehension Team (CAT), and various tactical units.
That has the sound of a debunking. Whatever the situation at the riverfront, it was clearly not drastic enough to have prompted widespread news coverage, or any news coverage at all other than this note.
Chumney’s questioning of Wharton’s actions (or those of his staff) generated something of a skeptical attitude here and there in the media — so far expressed more sotto voce than out loud. To put it bluntly, some suspect opportunism on her part and make bold to suggest (prepare yourself for a shock) that candidates may say and do certain things to advance their private political agendas.
Indeed, Chumney’s reaction to whatever juvenile activity occurred at Tom Lee Park provoked one highly suspicious media colleague to whom I mentioned it to wonder if I would consider reporting it if she (or presumably any other candidate) claimed to have seen a flying saucer.
“Of course,” was my answer, and not just because I recalled that the mainstream media had done exactly that last year in the case of presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. (Come to think of it, especially if she or anybody else running claimed to have seen a flying saucer; statements like that tend to speak for themselves.)
The fact is, prejudging candidates and their motives is a dicey business. And prejudging the public’s ability to make up its own mind about questions of sincerity or relevance is even dicier.
Still, it says something that mayoral candidate Carol Chumney can provoke such a reaction the second time around. And it probably wasn’t wise for her to have amped up her rhetoric: “When I am mayor, there won’t be a shortage of police at events like this.” Or words to that effect.
If all she’s doing is looking for an issue that will resonate with the voters…well, duh, I hear that politicians as a class tend to do that. With October 8th just a hop, skip, and jump away, one could hardly — or, at least, I could hardly — blame her.
In an earlier post today, I pointed out that outgoing and outspoken Mayor Willie Herenton delivered himself of some earthy remarks about one of his longtime political antagonists, former congressman Harold Ford Sr. And I appended three sound files from the interview recording to illustrate the point.
But by far the most compelling single sound bite (among many contenders!) that occurred in that two-hour conversation with the mayor on Monday afternoon concerned his estimate of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, the man Herenton supported for Congress in 2006 but the man whom he has targeted as an opponent in 2010.
The quote. The money quote, if you will: "I've known Cohen for over 30 years, and, to be honest with you, he's an asshole. Anybody that knows Cohen knows he's an asshole."
Hear it for yourself (the whole file breaks in the middle; play the two parts consecutively):
As I have explained over and over to colleagues in the media, I have almost 20 years' worth of experience interviewing Willie Herenton, and, quite literally, nothing he says will totally shock me. Whether by design or by compulsion, he will always have something stunning and absolutely unexpected to say. I rather imagine this has something to do with his personal history as a gifted pugilist, who left the ring undefeated in order to pursue an academic career that led, through some twists and turns, to where he is today.
It's still there inside, the fighter who lives to jab, shuffle, dance, and finally throw a haymaker out of nowhere. It's a persona that is moved to create a fight where this is none — as Mayor Herenton did on the First of January, 2004, when, just after being sworn in a for a fourth term, at the end of an easy reelection campaign and at the height of his political fortunes, he basically declared war on his city council and invited turmoil that has been with him ever since.
It's not that he has a sadistic urge to injure an opponent. It's just that inflicting pain is the only way a fighter can truly measure his accomplishments. The corollary is that you have to take some punches in order to give some, and the mayor - the soon-to-be-ex-mayor — knows that, too.
That's how I see it, anyhow. Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden sees it somewhat differently — and somewhat the same. As they say these days: It is what it is.
Though he is still withholding a final commitment to launch his long-anticipated run for governor in 2010, state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle has filed the necessary papers with the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance that allow him to begin spending and raising money for such a race.
Kyle, who represents a large portion of northern Memphis and Shelby County, told the Flyer several months ago that he would likely be a candidate and would pursue a strategy based on nailing down Democratic support in populous Memphis and Shelby County.
Early in the most recent legislative session, Kyle made a surprise bid to become chairman of the county’s delegation, a move perhaps calculated to give his efforts greater local visibility.
In the late stages of the session, Kyle, a confidante of Democratic governor Phil Bredesen, fought stubborn rearguard actions against initiatives favored by the Senate’s Republican majority and, though a political moderate, would probably fall somewhere just to the left of other Democratic candidates already in the field.
To date, they include Jackson businessman Mike McWherter, son of former governor Ned Ray McWherter; Nashville businessman Ward Cammack; state Senator Roy Herron of Dresden; and former state House majority leader Kim McMillan of Clarksville.
With few exceptions, the relationship between Mayor Willie Herenton and former Congressman Harold Ford Sr. has been stormy. The outgoing mayor related some of those difficulties to the Flyer in graphic terms. Among the candid disclosures: A near duke-out between the two in the mid-'90s; Herenton's claim that Ford, a Cohen supporter in next year's congressional election, discussed going the other way with the mayor but reneged on a meeting to clinch the deal. Listen to audio files.
In what sponsors of the occasions — as well as the beneficiary himself — would later say was one of the most successful fundraising events in Memphis political history, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen was feted at the Goodwyn Building downtown Tuesday night for the second of two fundraisers assisted in part by an old political foe, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.
Ford, a successful Capitol Hill lobbyist now living in Florida, had backed his son Jake Ford’s independent candidacy against Cohen in 2006 but has maintained a good working relationship with Cohen in Washington and materialized several weeks back as a co-sponsor of two fundraisers for the incumbent congressman — one in D.C. last week and the Tuesday night affair in Memphis. Ford, however, was not an attendee here.
Among those in the crowd Tuesday night were such other former opponents as Pinnacle Airlines executive Phil Trenary, who had been a major supporter of Niikki Tinker’s bid against Cohen in the last two Democratic primaries. Longtime Cohen backers like mega-developer Henry Turley were on hand, as were luminaries of the civil rights movement like Maxine and Vasco Smith.
The importance of the latter was that the Smiths and others present like former Judge Russell Sugarmon had been well-known supporters of Rep. Cohen’s current declared opponent, outgoing Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.
Aside from an obligue reference to revving up his fundraising earlier than expected, Cohen made no reference in his remarks Tuesday night to the Herenton challenge per se, focusing instead on constituent affairs and the congressional business at hand. Indications are that this is the tack the congressman will pursue throughout the campaign months to come.
Herenton himself was more head-on in his approach to the contest, including provocative remarks about Cohen in this week's Flyer cover story, "Willie Herenton: The Exit Interview," now on the streets.