The Shelby County Election Commission is to be congratulated for its prompt and decisive action last Thursday in determining a special election schedule in the hurly-burly of Mayor — soon to be ex-Mayor — Willie Herenton's latest bombshell announcement of a retirement to take place July 10th.
Indeed, the commission was in the predicament of being unable to certify the special election because it hadn't yet heard from the City Council officially. Soon-to-be "mayor pro tem" Myron Lowery, the current council chairman, did his best to expedite that formality, and, with any luck at all, this thing is actually going to happen.
In the course of an extended chat with the Flyer this week, Herenton observed, "When I walk the streets of Memphis and it finally hits people — the fact I am no longer the mayor, the fact that Willie Herenton, who has been in the lives of people for the last 18 years — they can't believe that I am no longer doing it. Conversely, you've got some people jumping and shouting that I'm no longer mayor. They're happy as hell. But there are some people out there who are distressed that I'm no longer the mayor."
Well ... maybe. The proof of this assertion will come in the course of two events: the turnout for the scheduled October 28th special mayoral election and the outcome of next year's 9th District congressional showdown between Herenton and incumbent U.S. representative Steve Cohen.
Herenton says he foresees minimal interest in the special election. We disagree. As special elections go, this one is unique. For the very reasons that the outgoing mayor states, it will turn the page to a whole new era in Memphis self-government, giving voters a chance they haven't had in almost a generation. (The 2007 mayoral election, which gave Herenton a plurality of 42 percent, was, to be sure, an omen for this historical canebrake.)
And the Herenton-Cohen race may well tell us whether race, as Herenton frankly avers, is still the motivator it once was in determining the outcome of political contests. Cohen's 4-to-1 victory over a well-funded black challenger in 2008 would suggest that race as an issue has lost its force. And so would the last two easy wins of Shelby County mayor A C Wharton over white challengers in county races for which the white part of the electorate still figured large. The fact of Wharton's currently presumed lead over a proliferating field of challengers for city mayor also would suggest as much.
But all of that remains to be seen. The thought, in fact, has occurred to us that, for several reasons, the outcome of these next two elections — the special mayoral election this year and the congressional race next year — will be closely watched by national observers for clues to the political future.
Yet another reason why, in addition to congratulating the Election Commission for its dispatch in one instance, we want to challenge it in another — the securing, in accordance with state law, of optical-scan equipment in time for the elections of 2010. Such equipment will ensure accuracy in vote-counting, and we do want to be sure.