There was one undoubted star of the first day of petition-availability for the 2015 Memphis city election at the Shelby County election Commission downtown.
That was Kenneth Whalum Jr., who managed to whet suspense regarding his intentions at the same time that he satisfied it. He did that by the simple expedient of pulling petitions for three positions — Mayor; City Council, District 5; and City Council, Super-District 9, Position 2.
The two Council positions have been vacated, respectively, by Jim Strickland, now a candidate for Mayor, and Shea Flinn.
Whalum, who arrived at 11:45 or so at the Commission, promptly drew the attention of Memphis Education Association president Keith Williams, who was there when Whalum arrived, drawing a petition for the Council’s District 3,, and later of Councilwoman Janis Fullilove, who arrived to renew her petition for the Super District 8, Position 2 seat she now holds; and, still later, for Mary Wilder, one of several mainstream prospects for Council District 5, who turned up to get her petition after Whalum had left and was clearly bemused to learn that he was a potential opponent.
At the moment — and likely for the duration of a city election that won’t finally end until the last votes are cast on October 8, almost 6 months way — the three positions for which Whalum has drawn petitions are the mostly hotly contested and closely watched election contests. Whichever one Whalum chooses, he is sure to have a major impact.
This is the man, after all — a firebrand former School Board member, a charismatic minister at New Olivet Baptist Church, and a gadfly to every political and civic establishment in sight — who came within a few votes of winning the three-way Democratic primary for Shelby County Mayor in 2014. This was despite the fact that he spent most of the last month of that contest in India, doing no campaigning at all.
Joking about that fact late last year, Whalum, who was known even then to be mediating on a mayoral race, suggested his strategy in a 2015 race might be to be gone on another extended foreign leave.
Except that none of his likely opponents should count on that.
with reporters after he’d completed his preliminary paperwork, Whalum confirmed that he and Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams still had their long-reported “arrangement,” whereby only one of them would end up on the mayoral ballot.
“It’s about who can win. It’s not about who can run. I have said many times that I’ll support Mike if he does run, if he decides to run. That doesn’t mean that I think Mike is a better candidate for mayor. Of course, I think I’d be a better candidate. But that’s what that means. The agreement is intact.”
The decision, Whalum said, without elaborating, was “50 percent in his hands, 50 percent in mine,” adding that “he and I are very forthright with each other.”
As for the prospect of a Council race, Whalum said, “By all measures, Memphis is in a mess….and the mess is not going to be straightened out by just a mayor. It’s going to take the Council. And, if Mike decides he’s going to run for mayor, yeah, I’m going to run for Council. We’ll just see.”
Whalum said that education was still his number one interest and that “my position is still the same as it was on the School Board.” He said, “Every other issue in Memphis is stemming from the schools. He referenced a rioting incident earlier this week on Poplar Avenue across from the Northwest Preparatory School.
Teachers, he said, “are afraid to take any action. They’re afraid they’ll lost their jobs.” But, he said, they will acknowledge, off the record, that “students are out of control.” Memphis, he said, should “do what the other municipalities have done” and “reclaim the schools.”
The voting population has been apathetic, Whalum said, with 80 percent not voting, but, “given a chance” — meaning, presumably, a true alternative — they’ll come voting, “rain or snow.”
Whalum pronounced himself wholeheartedly in favor of “school-choice vouchers.” And, he said, “I’m in favor of charters, and I’m in favor of traditional schools, and I’m in favor of home schooling.” And, he said, of the state’s ASD network of taken-over “failing” schools. “Our tradition of public education is the Titanic,” he said. “It is sinking.”
But, he said, “reclaiming the public schools and traditional education will fix the Titanic. Nobody has to drown.”
Asked again about Northwest Preparatory School, he said critics who advocate closing the school are wrong, that the institution’s classes for pregnant girls, for example, are a badly needed innovation.
Whalum, a dedicated exponent of corporal punishment in the schools, contended that many of the behavior problems now afflicting the schools are being committed by the student generation that came of age after the 2005 abolition of corporal punishment in Memphis public schools.