POLITICS: In the Spotlight 

What we talk about when we talk about running for mayor.

There come times when you wonder why everyone isn't a political junkie. Last year's nail-biting U.S. Senate race between winner Bob Corker and (narrow) loser Harold Ford Jr. - climaxing with the now famous Battle of Wilson Air, when the GOP's Corker deftly out dueled Democrat Ford at the latter's ambush of a Corker press conference -- was one such time.

Another, believe it or not, is this year's Memphis mayoral race, which -- despite the opting out of one potential lead actor, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, and the refusal of another, incumbent Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, to play ensemble - has had its dramatic, as well as its comedic, moments.

Much of the entertainment value has come, as expected, from the scramble involving the three major contenders to Herenton - city councilwoman Carol Chumney, former MLGW head Herman Morris, and former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham. We'll get to that core drama in a moment.

But besides this main plot, which some have called by the shorthand initials A.B.H. (for "Anybody-but-Herenton"), there's running mini-drama involving the several supporting players in the 14-member mayoral field. We can call that one A.G.H. - for "Ain't Gonna Happen."

For, if there is real doubt as to whether Willingham, whom the polls have shown to be hovering in the low single digits, is delusional in his hopes of winning, it's a dead-level cinch that these others are. None of them even blip the radar screen.

Which is not to say that they haven't made their contribution to the dialogue. Nor that they haven't made for compelling theater on those rare occasions when they've been admitted to a forum involving the Big Three (as for the Big Unit himself, the incumbent mayor, fahgitaboutit!, he's made it clear he's not about to show in tandem with the others).

Consider this piece of wisdom from Laura Davis Aaron, delivered at the League of Women Voters' omnium gatherum affair at the Main Library on Poplar on Sunday:

Knowing what she was about to unleash, Aaron first issued this full-disclosure caveat to the attending audience (fairly numerous, all things considered): "I want you close your eyes for a minute. I wanted to be a lawyer once, but they ran out of the courtroom." Non sequitur or not, we got the drift of that. Then came the moment she was preparing us for:

"God gave me a plan and a vison: "Dr. Aaron, you must put senior citizens in The Pyramid!'" (Pause.) "And I said: 'To do what?'"

Once again the voice of the Almighty: "'Take what they've got in their homes to the Pyramid. and you're gonna have them run a flea market in that Pyramid!'"

And that, mind you, was only the first of two instances of divine intervention at Sunday's forum. Aaron was followed minutes later by fellow candidate Dewayne A. Jones, who proclaimed more modestly, "God makes the leader. I am your David," and promised at some point to bring forth his own "vision of empowerment." He may even have had it ready on Sunday, but wisely decided to hold it in reserve after Aaron's bombshell.

There were contributions of a more secular sort from the candidate chorus on Sunday. Roosevelt Jamison, in particular, proved himself something of a phrasemaker. At one point, the youthful-appearing Jamison, a Desert Storm vet, said disarmingly to the crowd, "I know I don't look old, but I am old."

And he certainly got his fellow also-rans on his side when he complained that "the media isn't playing with a full deck" - meaning that he and the other unsung names on the mayoral ballot weren't getting their proper share of attention.

The line from Jamison that got the whole audience going, though, was this zinger, in response to the issue of gang activity and what to do about it: ""We need to stop the gangs on top!" -- a clear reference to the rascals in charge of the governmental and business status quo.

Jamison was not done. He went on to insist, "Our government has corrupted us in our city," designating as particular problems "welfare" and "babies having babies." He got murmurs of approval from the conservatives in the audience when he said, "We need mens [sic] to stand up to be mens. Stop leaving everything to our women!"

Then there was Randy Cagle, who embraced past traditions as well, calling, among other things, for a return to corporal punishment in the schools. As he pointed out, "I got busted a lot of times at school, but I'm not dead."

Businessman Cagle, who has made every forum so far to which all mayoral candidates have been invited, obviously relished the attention. Often Cagle was gently corralled by a hint from LWV moderator Danielle Schonbaum that he was about to exceed his allotted time limit.

On one such occasion, he said the obvious: "I could go on forever. I love it."

As candid and direct as that remark of Cagle's was in its own right, it had the ancillary virtue of prompting a rare understatement from the famously voluble Willingham. "I'm like Cagle," said the former commissioner. "I can talk to you for three hours."

Three hours was not quite what Willingham and fellow top-tier candidates Morris and Chumney enjoyed during Monday night's prime-time broadcast forum on News Channel 3, WREG-TV, but the three of them managed a compelling hour.

Observers' opinions differed afterward as to who came out ahead in a format that culminated with direct exchanges between the candidates themselves.

But there were several discoveries to be had by the viewers, who learned, among other things, that Chumney has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO (she mentioned the fact four, maybe five times) and that Willingham, who would seem to be about as white as white can be (ditto for his supporters), considers himself the exponent, first and foremost, of "my base in the black community," which he helpfully enumerated as being in the vicinity of 13,000 voters.

Cynics may dispute it all they want, but the former commissioner made it clear several times in his opening statement and thereafter that he thinks of himself as the candidate of black Memphians. Willingham also made the claim that his commission race of 2002, which resulted in an upset victory over then incumbent Morris Fair, had been but a trial run for the two mayoral races he's run since (three, counting one for county mayor last year).

He had run back then, Willingham confided, "to get my name out."

Whatever.

More to the point, he certainly got his name out Monday night, sparring with the other two candidates (and occasionally, lightly, with moderators Claudia Barr and Richard Ransom) and discoursing on several of his pet schemes, two of which - converting the Fairgrounds into a mini-Olympic village for international competitions and reserving desk jobs in the Memphis Police Department for returning vets of the Iraq war - were distinctly original.

In WREG's own post-debate viewer poll, Willingham was, in fact, running a strong second to Chumney.

As for the councilwoman, she had boasted on air - as she has every right to - that such scientific polls as have been taken all position her at the lead of the mayoral pack or tied for it. That was the basis for her no-thank-you answer to commentator Norm Brewer's first question, asking all the candidates if they shouldn't back out, making room for a single consensus contender to take on Herenton, who remains a not-quite-prohibitive favorite.

(No one else volunteered for self-sacrifice, either.)

Though occasionally lapsing into some repetitive-sounding spin, Chumney certainly managed to seize her share of the spotlight and to get out large chunks of her crime plan (also available on her Web site) and other proposals.

Morris, too, had his moments, staking out his claim to be a racial uniter and unflappably fending off his opponents' attacks on his record at MLGW (Chumney on the alleged V.I.P. list he'd kept while head of the utility and Willingham on what he - but not Morris, still a true believer - saw as the folly of investing in Memphis Networx).

With some logic, Morris could claim afterwards that the others' persistent questioning of him meant that they must have regarded him as "the frontrunner." He wishes.

The bottom line is that all three candidates handled themselves well and did themselves no damage, as each continued to vie for the right to be regarded as the main contender to Herenton.

To Be Continued, you may be sure.

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