Thursday, October 29, 2009 will probably go down in local political annals as the crucial second day of federal grand jury testimony in the matter of Willie Herenton’s business dealings. Former city attorney Elbert Jefferson, who brought with him a recording of the former mayor discussing the now famous Greyhound Bus land deal, was the main witness.
For most people, even political junkies, that was the crux of the day, after which nothing much — nothing political, anyhow — mattered much. Actually, a great deal went on afterward, and who is to say that the five public events — count ‘em, 5 — that occurred later on Thursday evening, more or less simultaneously, were not equally momentous? Not the participants, surely!
First, at the Homebuilders building on Germantown Parkway, Republican county commission candidate Terry Roland (District 4, Position 3) got ready to meet and greet his public at a reception. Taking no chances, Roland doubled up with a cardboard cutout of himself.
Next, Danny Kail, Democratic candidate for Probate Court clerk, held a fundraiser at 200 Wagner Place downtown. Among the attendees were quasi-namesakes Dan Norwood and Danny Presley (first and fourth in this lineup, from left), along with Bobby Lanier and Judy Palmer. Kail himself is second from left in the picture.
Not far from the Kail affair, at Earnestine and Hazel’s Restaurant downtown, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Kyle was meeting and greeting — in his case, members of Memphis’ legal community. Here, Kyle (left) says hello to brand new author D’Army Bailey (right), as Karl Schledwitz adds his own welcome.
Also going on downtown was a forum —“Is Health Care a Right?”— at 80 Monroe Avenue. Participants in the event, sponsored by the American Constitution Society, were (from left) Dr. Arthur Sutherland, Dr. Frank McGrew, moderator Steve Mulroy, and attorney Charles Key.
Finally, members of Shelby County’s Republican community gathered at the Woodland Hills Country for a well-attended dinner/fashion show/talent contest/fundraiser sponsored by the Republican Women of Purpose club. Among the acts (to keep on using the forward-slant key on our computer) was radiologist/broadcasting magnate/Shelby County commissioner/blues harmonica player George Flinn.
Former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton seems to have done just that — or to have given the concept a good college try — in his letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, released Tuesday.
In the letter, which follows one to him from the U.S. Attorney's office formally confirming that he is a target of investigation, Herenton complains to Holder that the probe, into a business transaction of his involving the relocation of a Greyhound Bus terminal, represents “a well-orchestrated attempt to influence the outcome of the Congressional election next year.”
Herenton goes on to allege that “the involvement of law enforcement agencies and the Justice Department in local politics and in attempting to influence the outcome of an election is not only unethical but also crosses the line of acceptable political discourse."
The problem with this is that the first news reports of the Justice Department probe -- into Herenton’s complicated involvement for profit with the sale of the Greyhound property, which then mayor Herenton had advocated on public-policy grounds -- appeared in The Commercial Appeal in January, while the mayor’s declaration of a congressional candidacy did not come until April, a full three months later.
Until we see the former mayor’s proofs, we will have to take it on faith that he has indeed reversed the processes of causation and time, so that events under way in January were somehow brought into being by another event considerably later in time.
At such time as these proofs emerge, and in light of high honors recently won by other notable politicians (yes, we’re talking about President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize), we are prepared to insist, in all fairness, that our former mayor be given serious consideration for the Nobel Prize in physics.
Meanwhile, there are skeptics who would suggest that traidtional chronology should apply here, and that Herenton's accusation is in fact a red herring designed to discredit the federal investigation, or even that his announcement of a congressional race itself was such a red herring, desiged to deflect the consequences of an already ongoing investigation.
We would suggest that such skeptics should furnish their own proofs — with or without the assistance of the Justice Department.
And, er, yes, folks, this article is a spoof. Or at least we think we're kidding!
But former mayor Herenton is not. He made the claims reported here in dead seriousness.
First, in a 10:30 ceremony in the Shelby County Commission chambers comes the inauguration of commission chair Joyce Avery, a Republican, as acting mayor of Shelby County. Avery will assume the office being vacated by A C Wharton and will serve as mayor for 45 days, at which time the commission will designate an interim mayor, whose term will run until the installation of a duly elected county mayor in the general countywide election of 2010.
Commission chair pro tem Sidney Chism, will assume the duties of commission chair.
Next, at noon, comes the inauguration in the Hall of Mayors of Wharton as Mayor of Memphis. In keeping with the demonstrated universality of his voter base in an election which saw him garner 60 percent in a 25-candidate field, the new mayor is expected to make an appeal to unity.
In remarks made Friday night at a downtown fundraiser for his longtime friend, State Representative G.A. Hardaway, Wharton presented a somewhat different side, alternately playful and tough.
Deferring to Hardaway and to TV’s Judge Joe Brown, his former law partner who had preceded him, Wharton began with a modest note but quickly escalated that into an unusually assertive statement: “I am not the mayor, but I’m the man of the minute. This is just the intermission. I’ve taught him [Hardaway] how to stomp people. It ain’t enough just to win, G.A. You’ve got to stomp people….”
Wharton would conclude his brief remarks this way: “If you let the so-called experts tell you they know this city and who the voters are, they don’t know jack. We know, and the numbers show it. We know, and let me tell you right now, anybody who contests or tells you they know better where the hearts and minds of Memphians are, they do so at their own peril. If they didn’t learn this time they’ll learn next time.”
Next time, presumably, is the regular general election of 2011, and the new mayor’s challengers have been duly warned.
Some of the stops for Wamp during his Thursday/Friday stop over were: a meet-and-greet in Collierville, appearances on the Ben Ferguson show on WREC and at meetings of Guns and Ammo and the NRA, a get-together with local supporters at the Crescent club, and a Friday morning tour of the Kipp Academy, a local charter school.
After the Kipp Academy tour, he talked briefly with the Flyer, citing his recent endorsement by the conservative organization Red State (which he quoted as saying, “the last thing we need is any more squishy moderates in the state of Tennessee.”
Wamp also indulged in some speculation about possible future-tense dropouts from the Republican gubernatorial field by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey and District Attorney General Bill Gibbons of Memphis. He himself vowed to stay in “whether Ramsey stays in and whether Gibbons stays in” or whether the GOP primary is “a two-man race, a three-man race, or a four-man race.”
As for presumed Republican frontrunner Bill Haslam, the mayor of Knoxville, Wamp said the “question of the race for October” that he got from people on the stump was, ‘We know you would make the best governor, but what about Haslam’s money?’” Wamp concluded about the Haslam campaign, “If that’s all they have after ten months of campaigning, that’s an empty suit.”
More on Haslam: “His money’s going to give him some name recognition, but there’s not much to connect the money to.” As for Haslam’s door-to-door campaigning in Bartlett last month, Wamp was scornful: “That’s a Tom Ingram stunt. It’s trying to make a rich guy look like a regular person.”
Judge Joe Brown we’re talking about, who was elected to Criminal Court in 1990 on the slogan “Send Brown Downtown” but who couldn’t be confined in that space and, operating from a base in Los Angeles these days, has gone on to be a formidable media presence with his syndicated daily TV show called — what else? — “Judge Joe Brown.”
Judge Brown still maintains both a residence in Memphis and an interest in local affairs, however, and he was in town this past week, materializing at several public events, including a fundraiser on Friday at the Beignet Café downtown for state Representative G.A. Hardaway. Brown was a guest of honor, along with Memphis mayor-elect A C Wharton.
On his arrival, Brown was greeted with someone’s teasing reminder that his celebrity might be of some small aid to namesakes seeking political office locally.
His response, delivered with a wince, a sidewise cock of the head and a lingering wry expression, was “Yeah, I heard about it” — clearly indicating he’d read about or been briefed on the behavior of councilman Brown in first challenging the appointment of blogger Steve Ross to the Metro Commission and then unloading some bizarre smack on colleague Shea Flinn, who’d nominated Ross.
““I'm a real black man. I hope you're a real white man,” was the somewhat inscrutable logic councilman Brown used to characterize their differences.
'Black and white' no more
While Judge Brown did not reference the councilman directly, he did seem to take note of the controversy in his public remarks on Hardaway’s behalf at the fundraiser.
“Now, I’m not about black and white any more, because I’ve seen it’s no longer a black-white issue,” he said early on. And, though he would excoriate various members of the local power establishment in his speech, the TV jurist dutifully stayed miles away from anything resembling racial profiling.
Though Judge Joe Brown said nothing explicit about Ross (who had, seemingly, been dropped from the Commission list by a consensus-seeking mayor-elect), he did reference media matters briefly. Full (and self-serving) disclosure: What he did was single out a “fine local newspaper, the Memphis Flyer,” going on to say, “Unfortunately, it’s weekly and not daily. It is a fine newspaper, and they approach things in an objective way.”
He immediately segued from that grace note into this generalization about the state of things locally: “What we’ve got to understand is that it’s no longer a white-black problem here. It is a problem of perspective, and we’re not going anywhere in this town until we learn that we’ve got to get past the color line and work with everybody. The problems that everybody is having have got to do with what’s going on in people’s heads — what they think, what they don’t think, what’s real and what’s not real.”
Clearly, Brown’s encomium to the Flyer had much to do with the fact that, at the moment of saying it, he was some five feet away from, and eyeball to eyeball with, a representative of the Flyer, Yours Truly. And conceivably similar verbal courtesies might have been bestowed on other outlets, had journalists representing them been present.
So it may be gilding the lily somewhat to interpret Judge Brown’s remarks as endorsing the course of media developments over the last several years — including the emergence of alternative weeklies like the Flyer as major forces in their communities.
This is not to discount the continuing importance of long-established institutions like The Commercial Appeal, which, for all its well-publicized labor and circulation problems, is an undisputed touchstone in the coverage of local news. (One of the more outlandish phenomena of recent years has been the habit, in certain circles, of referring to the CA, a guardian of various enduring traditions, as “the Communist Appeal.”)
But the CA’s of the world, already having adjusted their practices to deal with competition from the broadcasting media, have long since had to respond to the presence of papers like the Flyer as well. And this circumstance has been accentuated in the Internet age, which sees all media mounting a 24/7 free-for-all competitive challenge via their websites.
Latter-day media bashing
Which brings me to the Ross controversy, which I haven’t weighed in on up until now. I have from time to time over the years tipped my hat to the independent blogging community. Though most blogs are oriented to point of view rather than to objective journalism per se, the best bloggers have made enormous contributions to news coverage and thoughtful consideration of the public weal. Everybody else — the CA, the Flyer, the TV and radio stations — have had to take note. Increasingly, blogs break important news, and no self-regarding “traditional” journalist can risk not having several blogger URLs on their computer bookmark lists.
No one has been more worthy of note in this regard than Steve Ross, whose voluminous “Vibinc” postings in the last year or two have covered public issues in impressive depth and illuminating detail. For Shea Flinn to have nominated Ross to the Metro Commission was essentially a matter of paying attention to real-world developments and giving credit where credit was due.
Would that Ross, who was graciousness itself about the withdrawal of his name, had been allowed to serve. And I would console Ross and the rest of the blogging community with this thought: Councilman Brown's reaction was less simple scorn than it was latter-day media-bashing. Consider it as a sign that you've fully arrived.
“I’ll miss you,” said Shelby County Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini.
”As the only remaining Democratic commissioner, I’ll miss you even more,” said E.C. member Myra Stiles.
The “you” in this equation was Shep Wilbun, who had just announced his resignation from the Election Commission in order to run in next year’s countywide election to regain his old job as Juvenile Court Clerk.
Wilbun, who was unseated from the clerk’s position by Steve Stamson in the election of 2006, pointed out that next year’s Democratic primary comes in March; so there was no point in delaying his departure. He said he had made recommendations for a successor to state Rep. Larry Miller, who will be in charge of the Shelby County Democratic legislators’ effort to appoint a new member.
“I had actually decided to do this back during the mayoral campaign, but I withheld announcing it until after the election,” Wilbun said.
As a result of the 2008 statewide elections, which gave the Republican Party a majority in both the state House and the state Senate, the G.O.P. is now the official majority party in Tennessee, empowered to name three of the five positions on each Tennessee county’s election commission.
In other action, the Election Commission certified the results of last week’s Memphis mayoral election, which made Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton the mayor-elect of the City of Memphis.
And the Commission announced the names of the five candidates who filed by the deadline of noon Thursday for the vacated state House seat in District 83.
The candidates are Republicans Mark white and John Pellioccitti, Democrats Guthrie Castle and Ivan Faulkner; and independent John Andreucetti.
The party primaries for District 83 will take place on December 1, with the general election to follow on January 12. December 1 is also the date for the general election contest in state Senate District 31 between Republican Brian Kelsey and Democrat Adrienne Pakis-Gillon. It was Kelsey’s resignation from his District 83 House seat that necessitated the special election for that seat.
Brooks, who had been on the losing end of the commission’s final vote — 7 to 4 in favor of Buehler —- was nevertheless being congratulated for her frustrated efforts to derail Buehler by a group of her constituents and supporters, and she advised me to “hold up for a minute” while she dealt with them.
Essentially, her support group was working out on the theme of “respect” — something they believed Brooks had been denied in the course of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting just concluded. They assured her that she was fully deserving of their respect, and, in return, she reassured them that “this will come up again Monday at 1:30.”
Huh?, I thought — because, even though this meeting, downstairs in commission chambers, had been held on Wednesday, committee day for the commission, it essentially was a continuation of last Monday’s regularly scheduled meeting. A vote on the Buehler matter had been delayed then, mainly because Brooks had cited a provision of the 1981 law enabling the state Homestead Act which called for available lots to be publicly advertised — a step which the commission had either skipped or overlooked.
That oversight had since been corrected by publishing notices in several media outlets, and Wednesday’s meeting had been called to complete action on the matter before pending deadlines on available state and federal authorization and funding could expire.
Brooks, however, persisted in believing that Wednesday’s meeting had been merely “a special hearing.” Her interpretation of other events was equally idiosyncratic. When she paused momentarily in her conversation with her supporters, I asked her about the obvious tension between herself and commission chair Joyce Avery, who several times had attempted to enforce limits on Brooks’ speaking time so a vote could be called.
“There was no friction,” Brooks maintained.
Had the two not audibly snapped at each other back and forth?
“No. I didn’t snap. I didn’t think she heard me. I needed to speak, and she didn’t hear me. I wanted to speak and my constituents expected me to. I needed to do my job, and I want to keep my job.” Brooks ventured a self-effacing laugh. “I want to keep my job,” she continued.
I asked Brooks if she thought, as her constituents nearby clearly did, that she’d been disrespected. She deferred to them again and one woman responded. “These people work for us. The people!” she said, “these people” being the commission, and she went on at some length about how she, as an audience member, had wanted to speak for three minutes and had only been allowed to speak for one.
“One minute” per audience speaker had been a rule established by Avery on the front end of Wednesday’s meeting.
I asked Brooks if the chairman didn’t have the prerogative to set rules for discussion, especially if they were clearly enunciated in advance, as they had been Wednesday.
"You can't touch me!"
As she was meditating on an answer, Omari Fleming of WREG, News Channel 3, began trying to affix a mini-mike to Brooks’ lapel.
She suddenly barked out: “Excuse me, you can’t touch me without asking me!”
“I apologize,” a stunned Fleming responded.
Brooks remained unforgiving. “You ask before you do that!” she said.
“I didn’t mean to touch you,” the contrite reporter said, trying to explain that all he meant to do, as unobtrusively as possible, was to attach the mike so as to expedite what he intended as a forthcoming interview.
“But you didn’t say a word to me.,” Brooks retorted.
“Because you were talking to somebody. I didn’t want to…”
“You were just sticking that microphone…” Brooks began. But by this time, Fleming waved off and began politely backing away, clearly changing his mind about wanting an interview.
I took advantage of the caesura and resumed. “Does the chairman not have the right to articulate procedures and then require members to adhere to them?” I asked again.
“We have rules. She said I had 10 minutes…,” Brooks began, and she was off again on her version of events, whereby the commission chairperson had somehow “misheard” the fact that she had something to say and somehow overlooked the amount of time that she, Brooks, had to say it in.
In this scenario it was Avery who had ignored the rules, not herself, and to the extent that someone had been disrespected in their exchanges, it was she, not Avery, who had been. Add to this the fact that Brooks persisted in believing that Wednesday’s special meeting, climactic vote and all, had been but a run-through on the issue, with a follow-through and another vote to be held on Monday.
It is surely no stretch to say that, on all these matters, she differed with other members of the commission, certainly with the consensus of the body. Whatever she might have thought, Wednesday’s vote, which granted Buehler title on the 140 lots he sought, on condition that he paid up almost $1 million in back property taxes by the end of 2010, appeared to be binding.
And the flare-up with Channel 3’s Fleming seemed puzzling indeed. No reporter had been more faithful in reporting the views of Brooks and her supporters in the last few weeks, during which the Buehler matter, once regarded as routine, became the focus of a raging controversy. WREG has made a point of including background information on Buehler on its website, and Norm Brewer, the station’s veteran commentator, had taken the builder to task more than once on the matter of the unpaid taxes.
"We will vote!
The meeting had begun with Brooks insisting that she be allowed to speak on “a point of personal privilege.” Permitted to do so, she went to the commission dock and launched into a philippic against an organized picketing Tuesday of her South Bluffs townhouse.
Picketers organized by Buehler aide David Upton had stood on the pavement on the other side of a fence bracketing Brooks’ domicile and others and carried signs praising Buehler for providing rental homes in the inner city and noting that Brooks herself lived in rental property, albeit a plusher variety.
In the course of a sometimes distraught monologue, Brooks said she considered the picketing to have been a “threat to my family,” and, looking straight at both Buehler (whom she labeled “a parasite and a predator”) and at Upton, who sat nearby, warned them against a further demonstration near her home. “I promise you my retort will not be pretty,” she said.
At various points in Brooks’ somewhat rambling discourse, chairman Avery tried to interrupt, telling her she had exceeded her time limit. Brooks would respond by saying, “I am not finished.” Alternately: “I have something to say.”
She would repeat variations of that phrase during later debate on the Buehler matter whenever Avery tried to enforce time limits, attempting to throw responsibility for the overrun back on Avery. “You’re talking,” she would say, as if it were the chairman, not herself, who was holding back a floor vote.
“We wil vote,” Avery said firmly at one point, but was forced to wait indefinitely while Brooks kept on speaking. Just before a vote was finally called at the very end of proceedings, Brooks was attempting to question county attorney Brian Kuhn on a series of issues having to do with legal aspects of the state Homestead Act, under the terms of which the 140 lots sought by Buehler were made available.
"I've just begun to fight."
The weight of testimony Wednesday was clearly in Buehler’s favor.
Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery spoke before the commission on the premise that it would be folly not to develop the vacant lots Buehler sought title over (140 out of some 3,000 in the inner city, including many that were the result of arson and neglect). Antonio Burks, the former Memphis Tigers basketball star who was recently wounded by gunfire, showed up on crutches to extol Buehler for having provided Burks’ mother a rental home for the past decade.
Even a Klondike resident who had been featured in The Commercial Appeal as opposing Buehler rental property on style points was shown in a Buehler-produced video extolling the builder for having arrived at new designs. (Both the video and several posterboard displays of previous Buehler properties were stage-managed by Upton.)
Buehler opponents got up to speak, too, including one man who said,” We need to do a background check on this criminal.”
Besides Brooks, overt opposition on the commission itself was limited to another longtime critic of the builder, Mike Ritz, who succeeded in adding an amendment to Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s enabling resolution, one that required full repayment of Buehler’s delinquent taxes. Another Ritz amendment, which would have mandated approval of Buehler designs by community development organizations in all affected areas, was rejected.
In any case, Wednesday’s apparently definitive vote notwithstanding, Brooks announced that she intended to soldier on. “I’ve just begun to fight,” she said — though how and with what allies and to what end remained to be seen.
Sammons, a former long-term city councilman, is finishing up on two-months-plus service as CAO for Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery — a stint which won him plaudits overall. For several weeks now, Sammons has been the subject of rumors — perhaps encouraged, or at least acquiesced in, by himself — that he might remain in that position in the event of a Wharton victory.
Those rumors have persisted since Wharton’s smashing victory in last week’s election. Bur there is a general sense now that if the moment for such an appointment has not altogether passed, it may be passing — even as other names are being circulated, notably that of Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, a co-chair of .Wharton’s transitional team.
Friends of Sammons have urged that he contact Wharton and make explicit his desire to continue serving in the CAO job, but Sammons has resisted the idea of doing so. Meanwhile, sources close to Wharton acknowledge that the mayor-elect has been persistently lobbied on the Sammons matter by others, with both pro and con views.
Ranking members of the Shelby County Republican hierarchy have tried to persuade Sammons to be the party standard-bearer in next year’s county mayor’s race, but Sammons appears to have concluded that his days as an active candidate are over. Moreover, his political interests continue to be almost exclusively cityside.
That feeling, which Sammons is candid about, would seem to dispel another strong rumor — which has it that Republicans on the county commission might try to barter with key Democrats on that body for their support in arranging for Sammons to serve as interim county mayor next year. At least one GOP commissioner, however, dismisses that talk as the wishful thinking of somebody in the Republican hierarchy unconnected with the thinking of Republicans on the commission.
On Monday, Buehler and aide David Upton arranged a press conference at the North Memphis Buehler-built home of Connie Burks, mother of former Tiger and Grizzlies star Antonio Burks. Both mother and son were present and praised Buehler as a landlord and as builder.
Still on crutches in the aftermath of his recent shooting, basketballer Burks stood by his mother and confirmed her sense of satisfaction from 10 years of living in a home in the Hyde Park Community. “I’m doing this for my mother,” he said, recounting how, upon turning pro, he had offered to buy her a brand-new house but had been refused because his mother enjoyed living where she was.
Connie Burks contrasted conditions in her present home with those in other areas where crime was rampant. Nobody had ever broken in her dwelling, she said, and landlord Buehler had kept the place maintained.
Buehler also talked to the media at the Burks home, acknowlecdging he owed approximately $1 million in back taxes, something he partly attributed to serious vandalism and thefts at several of his properties. In any case, he was on a pay-back plan and had paid over $726,000 in county taxes last year alone,he said.
The veteran builder also addressed criticism concerning his home designs by noting that he had changed his designs to make them consontant with county review committee standards.
On Tuesday, protesters in support of Buehler picketed a South Bluffs townhouse which is being rented by commissioner Henri Brooks, a vociferous critic of Buehler’s bid for the available lots under the state Homestead Act.
The picketers suggested that Brooks, herself a renter and at a relatively luxurious location after losing her South Parkway home to bankruptcy, should be more appreciative of Buehler and his renters.
That action would seem to guarantee more fireworks s the commission meets in committee Wednesday morning to reconsider Buehler’s petition, which was deferred at the regular commission meeting on Monday after Brooks pointed out that a provision of state law requiring posting of the lots’ availability had been overlooked.
Not only was Brooks expected to be newly vocal on Wednesday, but another commission critic, Mike Ritz, who had been absent on Monday, will also be present and will renew his own objections to awarding Buehler title to the lots. Both Brooks and Ritz have applied the term “slumlord” to Buehler, and Ritz, whose objections have also focused on the back-tax issue, has prepared a series of constraining amendments to the resolution, sponsored by commissioner Steve Mulroy, that would award Buehler title.
Likening such a cost-0conscious model to the rationale for fuel-efficient automobiles, Alexander writes, “Expanding the three-year option or year-round schedules may be difficult, but it may be more palatable than asking Congress for additional bailout money, asking legislators for more state support, or asking students for even higher tuition payments.
The article may be found at http://www.newsweek.com/id/218183
The Flyer's Chris Davis was on hand for the festivities Thursday when newly elected Memphis Mayor A C Wharton acted on his first mandate: to celebrate, pontificate, and have a party — more or less in that order. This is Davis' video record of the event:
The second WREG mayoral debate, held on the very eve of voting and at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, no less, may not change the outcome, but it was one last occasion for putting the candidates — four of them, anyhow — on simultaneous display. One last revelation as to who they are.
There was no studio audience for this one, unless you count me, kindly invited to sit just behind and off to the side of the cameras as the four candidates — A C Wharton, Carol Chumney, Myron Lowery, and Kenneth Whalum — prepared for this last-chance encounter with a TV audience and with each other.
They were in full view of me, and I of them. Occasionally, as an opponent stumbled or rhapsodized, I would get a raised eyebrow from one of the participants or maybe a shrug or a tiny, tiny sardonic smile.
The day before I had been asked by News Channel 3’s Tom Powell what I expected to see in this last common forum. Either attacks or conciliation, I answered, depending on how this or that candidate assessed the moment.
Even those candidates who (publicly, anyhow) doubted the evidence of the polls knew that Shelby County Mayor Wharton was the acknowledged front-runner, and even those who (again, publicly) imagined that his prodigious lead — nearly 40 points in the last major poll — was created by a perverse media or a wicked establishment knew that the mayoral race was his to lose.
So the choice came down to last-minute aggression against Wharton or a kumbaya-like acceptance of his dominance. The other three candidates would try one or the other tactic — sometimes both at once.
Even the candidates’ preliminary sound check for the studio technicians told something about their state of mind.
“One-Two-Three. New Mayor1 Vote Whalum!” said the energetic school board member and pastor of New Olivet Baptist church.
“Mary had a little lamb…” began Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, who went on to complete all the verses of the child’s nursery rhyme.
“I’m here, and I’m ready for the debate,” was the matter-of-fact message from former city councilwoman Chumney.
“A C Wharton,” said A C Wharton.
Just before things got going, Lowery, a onetime reporter and anchor for WMC-TV. Action News 5, toted up the equipment on hand — four stationary TV cameras and a hand-held one. “Five cameras?” he asked. “Are you showing off your TV background?” jested Channel 3 commentator Norman Brewer, who, along with Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford and Channel 3 anchors Richard Ransom and Claudia Barr, handled the questioning for the hour-long debate.
Chumney Turns Accusatory
The first noteworthy moment occurred when Brewer asked the candidates to account for what was shaping up as a low-turnout election. The others answered with this or that bromide. Chumney turned accusatory. Addressing herself directly to panelists Brewer and Sanford, she said, “You told the voters it would take a miracle for anyone else to win other than A C Wharton. That’s why the turnout is low. And I’m challenging the voters, ‘Don’t let you and you…” here she nodded in the direction of the two alleged offenders “..decide this election for some people in the back room or some people at a newspaper or a TV station….”
In the middle of her exposition of this conspiracy-theory election scenario, Chumney’s voice, which had sounded thin and reedy in her opening remarks, began to take on volume. It picked up even more when she answered the next question — Barr’s asking what each hopeful would do immediately on taking office. Chumney would “clean house at City Hall…get rid of all those cronies, and I’m going to stop the corruption.”
For better or for worse, she at least had come to throw some leather.
Whalum, who had finished fourth (at 5 per cent) in the latest Mason-Dixon poll and thereby had displaced Charles Carpenter from his familiar debate niche, was on a mission to keep things simple and pithy. In his opening, he had likened himself to David vs. Goliath and expressed gratitude to the station for being his “slingshot.”
Now Whalum said that, if victorious, he would organize a parade down Park Avenue in Orange Mound and send an email to all city employees outlining a simple task “to see who would respond.” Barr wondered: What might that task be? “Something very basic, like ‘respond to this email.’”
Wharton promised to institute a code of ethics, and Lowery did a reprise on his theme that “what the others are promising, I’ve already done.” He, too, targeted corruption and gave himself kudos for courage in attempting to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson.
Heating Up the Griddle
The issue of personnel would figure again shortly, when Sanford asked point blank who would keep on former councilman Jack Sammons in his current role as Lowery’s CAO. Wharton, who is rumored to be considering just that, wouldn’t commit, nor would Chumney. Whalum, without explaining why, flatly ruled it out.
Eventually the real fun began, when the station’s hosts invited the candidates to ask questions of each other. Wharton demurred. He was running for a position. “I’m not running against these individuals,” he explained.
“I’ll take it,” said an eager Lowery, and he went on to suggest Wharton was leaving “unfinished business” behind in /Shelby County. The county mayor responded that city government’s stronger “political muscle” would allow him leverage on problems of both city and county. Then Lowery took him to task for being “too busy” to attend the various debates and forums that Lowery himself, a busy mayor in his own right, made a point to attend. This was the crux of a grievance that had been pressed against the absent frontrunner by his rivals at many a cattle-call event.
Wharton tried to turn the tables on Lowery, saying that “while you were probably out campaigning last night,” he himself had been in Hickory Hill conducting a non-political town meeting — something, Wharton said archly, that the residents had not recently had the benefit of. It was “ridiculous” to think you had to be at a political event “to talk to the people.”
Now Chumney weighed in again, pointing out that Wharton, if elected, would be receiving both his salary as city mayor and a county pension. How much would that add up to, she wondered.
He was not about the money, Wharton answered. He’d taken a pay cut to enter government in the first place. “I came to government to give, not to take.” And he had no idea what the answer to Chumney’s question would be. Anyhow, he didn’t set the salary for mayor. The council which Chumney used to be a member of did.
Having "No Respect"
And Wharton somehow segued into an attack on Chumney’s performance on the council and her leadership ability at large. “You must not have been very effective, Miss Chumney.” As Chumney protested that she had been, Wharton interrupted: “Does somebody else have a question for me? I’m waiting on another question.”
Chumney continued trying to defend her achievements on the council, and Wharton looked around, asking if “the moderator” was on the job. In fact, everybody seemed prepared to let this dramatic little stichomythia go on for a while, but the county mayor’s prompt forced a shift to Whalum for a question.
The Olivet pastor chose to ask Chumney what amounted to a rhetorical question: Why did she think the media had chosen to “marginalize you and me and some of the other candidates”? That led to a familiar Chumney theme — that there was a tendency to minimize her “because I’m a woman.” And that she and other women were up against a “glass ceiling.”
And she resumed her defense against Wharton’s “taking shots at me” and having “no respect,” citing awards she had won.
That moment of high tension segued into more wonky areas, like school funding, jobs, blight, keeping the Grizzlies in town — though none of the participants ever quite achieved the specificity levels of earlier joint encounters.
Somehow it was late in the day to promote a platform. This affair stayed close to the pulse of attitude, with Chumney now having assigned Wharton the same “dynastic” status for his seven years as county mayor as former mayor Willie Herenton for his seventeen-plus years as city mayor. And when the time came around again for candidates to ask questions of each other, she escalated her attacks on the county mayor in a potentially troubling way, asking Wharton why certain county employees got big raises and others didn’t. She singled out mayoral aide Kelly Rayne as a beneficiary.
Was this an attempt to echo a more thorough-going charge made by a local blogger? If so, Wharton did not take the bait, merely going on to say that all raises were according to Hoyle and some of them appeared to be larger because they involved expanding certain jobs after employee layoffs.
Chumney would take one more shot, alluding in her closing remarks to the famous 2007 dinner meeting between county mayor Wharton and then city mayor Herenton, one that preceded Wharton’s decision not to run for city mayor that year.
Meanwhile, Lowery — perhaps put off by the intensity of the exchanges between Chumney and Wharton — had backed off from his earlier challenging attitude toward the county mayor and, at his last opportunity followed Wharton’s lead and forsook the opportunity to challenge him or anyone else with a question.
And Whalum, capable of a firebrand mode himself, was a model of deportment, concluding as he started — with an expression of thanks for the “slingshot” of this last televised encounter. And with one last repetition of his website URL — www.whalum.com.
But for the Chumney-Wharton fireworks, this last debate offered nothing especially memorable — and nothing likely to change the long-prophesized outcome of a rout for Wharton.
Notwithstanding a typographical error in the event program, Lang Wiseman is still Shelby County Republican chairman, not one of two county Democratic chairs.
Both Wiseman and his student cohort, Terrance Pigues of East High School, made it abundantly clear Tuesday night that their attitudes toward proposed health care legislation differ significantly from those of county Democratic chair Van Turner and his student partner for the evening, Ashton Alexander of Memphis Health Careers Academy.
Under the auspices of the Memphis Urban Debate League, the two teams of debaters kept a bipartisan audience of onlookers entertained as they held forth in the East High School auditorium on the subject “Resolved: The United States federal government should provide universal healthcare to persons living in the U.S.”
In a debate that was conducted according to strict and formal debating rules, all four participants made compelling arguments — the Democratic team for the affirmative, the GOP twosome for the negative.
Alexander and Turner early on invoked Senator Olympia Snowe, presidential candidate Bob Dole, and former Senator Bill Frist as Republican eminences who were on record as favoring something like the Baucus bill which passed muster with the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Pigues and Wiseman acknowledged the need for remedial action on health care but suggested that the solution lay in expanding the number of free-market solutions rather than encouraging more hands-on action by the government.
The debate at East High corresponded more or less to the shape and particulars of recent debates between the parties in Congress.
Some decent rhetoric got said, Wiseman maintaining at one point, ”It is not compassionate in my view to give somebody something that can only fall apart,” while Turner responded to his opposite number’s warning about rising federal costs by citing former President Bush’s expenditures on the Iraq War: “We pay to kill, but we don’t pay to live. Those are Americans dying [from lack of health care], not Iraqis.”
There were squelches: A question from the floor responded to the Democratic team’s contention that X number of people without health insurance died last year by asking, “How many people with health insurance died last year?”
And there were missed squelches: Both Republican debaters got away with saying that 10 percent of all Medicare claims were fraudulent without drawing, by way of retort, the obvious question: What percentage of private-insurance health claims are fraudulent?
All in all, the debaters on both sides were cordial toward each other and in good form, and each team was supported by a fair number of cadres in the auditorium, who also behaved agreeably toward their counterparts on the other side.
But there was no meeting of the twain afterward when the two chairmen were each asked to comment on Tuesday’s victory of Republican Pat Marsh over Democrat Ty Cobb in a special election to fill a state House vacancy in District 62. Wiseman thought that was just fine, while Turner opined it was unfortunate.
Front-running mayoral candidate A C Wharton accepted the joint endorsement of the Afro-American Police Association and the Memphis Police Association on Friday and in the process dismissed criticism from opponent Jerry Lawler as “just politics” and a “dangerous way to divide” Memphians.
Ironically, Lawler’s criticism, made earlier Friday, had itself invoked the word “divisive,” attaching it to Wharton for the very fact of announcing his dual endorsement by the two police associations. “Why should we be encouraging separate racial organizations?” the W.W. E. wrestler and commentator said. “Why do we even need an ‘Afro-American’ organization?”
Lawler made the statements after discussing his own efforts, in tandem with controversial civil rights figure Al Sharpton, to bring to Memphis the National Education Reform Tour, a joint initiative of Sharpton, former Republican U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Asked his reaction to Lawler’s statements after receiving the police association endorsements at his Eastgate headquarters, Wharton said , “That’s just politics. It’s a dangerous way to divide us.” The Shelby County mayor further described Lawler’s complaint as “an attempt to deny reality,” maintaining that the members of the Afro-American Police Association “had a hands-on feel” for crime in especially challenged neighborhoods and needed the special recognition that their organization provided.
Tyrone Currie, president of the Afro-American Police Association, responded to Lawler’s criticism by saying, “It’s very disingenuous to make a statement like that.” Currie pointed out that young blacks in “disenfranchised” neighborhoods benefited from having role models they could identify with and that his association gave them a way of identifying with police officers and focusing respect for the law.
MPA president J.D. Sewell also defended the AAPA as a separate entity, saying, “They’ve been in existence as long as we have” and had proved their value to the community.
In his earlier remarks accepting the endorsement of the two organizations, Wharton had said, “I will stand behind them. I will be their biggest cheerleader.”