The mayoral succession to Willie Herenton, the dominant figure in Memphis city politics for the better part of two decades, is now beginning to resemble the situation in Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s after the death of that country’s long-time dictator, Marshal Tito.
Not only did rivals of every sort begin staking their claims to power, but the country itself broke up into fragments — Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, etc., etc., and the process is continuing even today. Nobody expects that kind of Balkanization to occur in Memphis. The city is the city and will remain so.
But the power struggle is something else. For years, ever since it became obvious that Herenton wanted to take leave of the mayor’s office before his term expired, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has been reckoned the odds-on favorite to succeed him. Even now, the major challenge to that assumption has come from Wharton’s own expression of concern about the size of the prospective October 27th special election field two weeks ago.
Wharton worried out loud that a plethora of niche candidates could create a “fluke” situation with an unexpected victor. And a day after he had formally left office, leaving city council chairman Myron Lowery in charge as “mayor pro tem,” Herenton, too, advanced the notion that the special election would be a “crapshoot,” one which “anybody can win.”
The “anybody” in question at the time was a relatively smallish field consisting of Wharton, Lowery, former city council member Carol Chumney, lawyer and Herenton intimate Charles Carpenter, WWE wrestler/commentator Jerry Lawler, maverick school board member the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., and businessman/Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey. Lawyer Jim Strickland, who had been considered a strong contender, had decided against running after commissioning and digesting a poll.
Lowery, whose early wish to have an orderly transition and head up an activist interim government had been quashed by Herenton, was reeling anew this week after his post-swearing-in effort to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson had angered fellow council members and been blocked, at least temporarily, by a judicial injunction.
Coincidentally or not, that imbroglio coincided with a second wave of mayoral candidates — including, it would seem, city court clerk Thomas Long, city council member Wanda Halbert, and former city council member Edmund Ford Sr. Nor, with ample time left before the September 17th filing date for candidacies, is there reason to believe that the parade of new hopefuls is over.
Clearly, there is a power vacuum in Memphis at the moment, and the fact that nature abhors a vacuum is a bona fide physical law, one that applies to politics as well. The present confusion in the city’s political ranks is a case in point.