Early Birds 

2007 saw a large pre-Election Day voter turnout and an emerging new culture among municipal candidates.

Phase One of the 2007 Memphis municipal election — early voting — ended on Saturday with what appeared to be a record turnout. The final head-count of voters at the Election Commission and at 14 satellite locations was nearly 75,000 — a huge number — despite an alarm sounded the week before last by incumbent mayor Willie Herenton that the Diebold machines being employed for the vote were unreliable.

The mayor's reaction was interpreted by his main adversaries — Councilwoman Carol Chumney and former MLGW head Herman Morris — as a red herring and as what Morris called a "desperate" act. Whatever the case, the volume of responses during this year's early voting attests to the widespread public interest in both the mayor's race and the 13 races for City Council.

And so crucial was the two-week period regarded that some candidates — notably Reid Hedgepeth, running for the District 9, Position 3 seat, and Cecil Hale, vying for the District 9, Position 1 seat — devoted almost all their time and energies to long stints of greeting voters at early-voting sites. (Hale taking pains always, both verbally and with signs, to remind arriving voters that he was "U.S. Army, Retired".)

Even those hopefuls who varied their campaign activities to include attendance at other events, including candidate forums, made a point of logging considerable time at several of the early-site locations.

One of the East Memphis locations especially favored was White Station Church of Christ on Colonial Road. There, so many of the District 9, District 5, and District 2 candidates gathered on a daily basis that they often developed relationships transcending their rivalry for this or that position.

That wasn't inevitably the case, though. A distinct coolness governed encounters between Hedgepeth and his supporters (prominent among whom was his close friend Richard Smith, son of FedEx founder Fred Smith) on one side and opponent Lester Lit, who had been critical of the political newcomer — early, often, and explicitly — on the other. (It should be said that the Hedgepeth crew, which at various times and various locations included the candidate's mother and mother-in-law, were generally patient and gracious to an extreme.)

And, once in a while, cool turned into hot, as it did at the Bert Ferguson Community Center location in Cordova, where competing District 2 candidates Brian Stephens and Todd Gilreath got into each other's space one too many times, leading to a heated verbal exchange between the two.

But mostly, all was sweetness and light. Opponents stood shoulder to shoulder as they handed out literature to voters, asked about each others' families, and traded jokes and gossip in the manner of ad hoc comrades in arms.

Entirely good-natured was the teasing that District 9, Position 2 candidate Kemp Conrad took from his rivals for his habit of running after new arrivals to be the first candidate they encountered. And, in the wake of a now famous Commercial Appeal article outlining various office-seekers' financial and legal misfortunes — those who, like District 2 candidate Scott Pearce, took bigger-than-usual hits — got friendly (and maybe even sincere) commiseration from other candidates.

Rarely, it should be said, was discussion of issues the dominant leitmotif of exchanges between candidates and their respective entourages — or, for that matter, in their conversations with prospective voters.

Overall, as indicated, the atmosphere at White Station and at other heavily frequented sites begat a kind of apolitical camaraderie among the various competing hopefuls that one might associate with TV reality shows like American Idol.

To be sure, there was backbiting off-stage, as on that idealized TV version of Americana. Conrad's hail-fellow-well-met relationship with opponent Shea Flinn did not prevent a barrage of e-mails and ads boosting him and denigrating Flinn who, as an interim state senator this year, sponsored what all these broadsides called a "liberal fringe agenda."

And Conrad fared no better in acerbic asides from another opponent, Joe Baier, though the two of them were cordial in personal encounters.

Regardless of all that, and whatever its portents, for better or for worse, there is no doubting that early voting is now a permanent part of the election culture in these parts.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.

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