The consensus of almost everybody who was on site at the Union Avenue studios of Channel 5 was that interim mayor Ford put on one of his best performances ever, looking mayoral and confident and scoring especially well with several improvised sallies, while Luttrell looked and sounded cautious, sticking close — with one significant exception — to the safety of previously established responses.
To be sure, Ford had a reason to feel cocky going in. Only that afternoon, he had participated with other officials in a well-ballyhooed announcement that the once endangered Memphis Regional Medical Center had been guaranteed an infusion, from state and federal sources, of some $40 million — a fact buttressing Ford’s consistently stated claim that the Med, largely through his efforts, had been “saved.”
If that was the centerpiece of Ford’s evening — one that Ford stated, restated, and alluded to at every opportunity — Luttrell’s most noticed assertion was the revelation, in answer to a routine question about consolidation, that he was now coming out against the recommendations of the Metro Charter Commission.
Previously Luttrell, while stating for the record that he had never been a “proponent” of city/county consolidation, had carefully held on to his options on the matter. While not quite a sea change, the Shelby County sheriff’s new tack was a definite policy shift — potentially as comforting to the GOP suburban base as a recent misstep by Luttrell on the issue of illegal immigration had been disconcerting
But policy issues were only one part of the drama last Thursday night. Just before things got started there was a small, revealing preamble. While waiting for the cameras to roll, co-moderator Joe Birch had made a jesting reference to the fact that he sometimes needed glasses these days but declined to wear them on air.
It was a modest piece of self-deprecation that was intended to set everybody at ease. — the studio audience, the panelists, and the two contestants, both of whom, at the moment of Birch’s remark, had prep sheets spread out before them at their debate stands and were wearing glasses. But with only seconds to go before showtime, Ford gave a little smile and removed the glasses he was wearing, tucking them into his coat pocket. It was a perfect gesture of carefree insouciance.
Among Ford’s supporters, his Achilles heel is known to be — how to put it? — an inexactness with the details of English verb conjugation. On a bad outing, the interim mayor can commit grammatical errors with machine-gun frequency.
Ford was not immune from this frailty in the Channel 5 debate. Not far into the hour-long event he was speaking of himself in the third person and saying, “This mayor has ran an efficient government over the last seven months.” But not only was this kind of fluff the exception and not the rule Thursday night, the spirit of such utterances, not the letter, was the overriding factor.
The fact was, Ford made a compelling case that he had run an efficient government — one symbol of which, besides the Med (whose final salvation Luttrell, perhaps with justice, continued to dispute) was his newly passed budget, a something-for-everybody affair without new taxes or layoffs and with a modest employee raise.
Beyond that, the interim mayor kept resolutely and with some ingeniousness to his major talking points — that he was single-mindedly committed to the task of governing and that he was “mayor of all the people,” mentioning Germantown, Millington, and Collierville as objects of concern frequently.
Asked if he had ever, as a county commissioner, cast votes at variance with his own party — something that he most definitely had done, especially on fiscal matters, an area where he often sided with the Republicans — Ford answered no, asserting at one and the same time that he was a “progressive Democrat” and that, again, he represented everybody.
On a literal level, some of Ford’s claims were downright paradoxical. He continued to maintain an adamant refusal to concede the slightest advantage to city/county consolidation while asserting that, “You’re looking at your Metro mayor” and that de facto consolidation already existed. Listing a number of services — the Health Department and the Med itself among them — that the county had absorbed from city government, Ford declaimed, “What else is there to consolidate? Other than a bunch of debts from the City of Memphis?"
Logically, Ford’s contentions had as many holes in them as did his syntax, but it didn’t seem to matter. His brio and air of command were so apparent and dominating as to make such flaws seem irrelevant. In one of his most inspirational moments, he even succeeded in making the implausible claim that his own daughter did not know whether she was white or black, as testament to the color-blindness and lack of parochialism in his patriarchal world-view.
Luttrell, meanwhile, made some intriguing arguments — on behalf of several smaller-sized school districts in Shelby County, for example — that attested to his thoughtfulness. And he was compelling on the point of his eight-year record as sheriff, having, as he said, converted the department from” one of the nation’s worst” into one of the best and re-accrediting the county jail system in the process.
But he, too, was disingenuous — particularly when he tried to escape the fallout from an impolitic answer at a previous forum that seemed to put him on record as favoring county ID cards for illegal aliens. Ford, who had given the same answer at a forum for the Hispanic community, accused Luttrell of “flip-flopping” in the sheriff’s subsequent elaborations to the effect that he had only meant to approve the cards for legal aliens.
When the two candidates came to their close, Ford had things ready-made for a final haymaker: “There’s something different between me and my opponent. I’m campaigning on hope. He’s campaigning on fear. I want to build a brand new state- of-the- art hospital, and he wants to build a brand new jail.”
In his own conclusion, Luttrell paid Ford a back-handed compliment for his presentation but took note of “inconsistencies in some of the things he has said, things that aren’t quite as he has stated.” He painstakingly made the case for his own record as someone who could establish useful relationships “across racial and party lines” and said he looked forward “to being your mayor.”
The sheriff may or may not get that chance. He has a well-established record of getting crossover votes at election time, but at least on Thursday night of last week he saw opponent Ford succeed in the diverse tasks of affirming his own party loyalty while appealing to the transcendent unity of Shelby County and of being a man of the city while simultaneously representing suburban interests in opposition to the city.
It was a neat trick, and Mark Luttrell will have to match it in this week’s debate if he wants to gain back some of the momentum he started the race with.