Election 2015: The Mike Williams Factor 

Some think three’s already a crowd in the mayor’s race, but a fourth candidate insists there’s room for more.

Mike Williams, looking deadpan as usual, bides his time, here listening to Mayor A C Wharton at last week’s mayoral forum at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. The cash-poor Williams is largely dependent on debates and social media to get his message out.

Jackson Baker

Mike Williams, looking deadpan as usual, bides his time, here listening to Mayor A C Wharton at last week’s mayoral forum at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church. The cash-poor Williams is largely dependent on debates and social media to get his message out.

All right. The shape of the mayoral race — and perhaps of the City Council races — has changed, and it's time to take note of it.

It is still true that there are four principal mayoral candidates, though WREG-TV News Channel 3, for purposes of its forthcoming televised debate on September 15th, seems to regard the proper number as three.

Applying a yardstick that limited eligibility for its debate to candidates who had raised at least $50,000 as of August 1st and who maintained a public headquarters, Channel 3 will feature only incumbent Mayor A C Wharton and Councilmen Jim Strickland and Harold Collins.

Left out by that arithmetic was Mike Williams, the Memphis Police Association president-on-sabbatical, who will shortly open a headquarters on Poplar, across the street from East High School, but who had raised well below $50,000 by the designated target date.

Williams still hasn't raised big-time money, though he's had a couple of fund-raisers since August 1st. More important to his prospects is the presence he's developed on social media, on websites of his own, as well as those he seems to share informally with various other rebels against the established system.

Williams' critics maintain that he's a one-issue candidate, and while making the case against benefits cuts on behalf of city employees, and of first responders in particular, does seem to have been his motivation in making the race, Williams is increasingly working other issues.

Among them are reform of the city's oft-challenged animal rescue operation and defense of the Mid-South Coliseum against an existent city blueprint for its demise, and Williams, who insists his first act as mayor would be to institute a rigorous "forensic audit," calls for a slowdown in what he sees as high-risk economic development schemes.

His campaign has brought him abreast of several council candidates pursuing similar themes, including the potential hot-button issue of de-annexation, and there are several websites — the Facebook "Just the Facts" page prominent among them — where he and they post so regularly as to seem a ticket unto themselves.

Among his de facto fellow travelers are council candidates Jim Tomasik (District 2), Robin Spielberger (Super-District 9, Position 1), and Lynn Moss (Super District 9, Position 2), though other candidates in other races are known to post in the same matrix from time to time.

While everybody recognizes the growing importance of social media in political campaigning — nobody more so than Williams — everybody also recognizes that money and organized support, both of which maximize a candidate's public exposure, are of paramount importance.

There are ways to offset others' possession of such advantages, and the kind of free media that comes with public debates, especially televised ones, is one such. Williams has been included in several recent mayoral debates, including two high-visibility ones — a televised debate on WMC Action News 5, and a well-attended one co-sponsored by The Commercial Appeal and the University of Memphis.

The observers' consensus was that Williams did well on both occasions, raising his profile significantly. Hence, the perils of being excluded from the Channel 3 debate, which is sure to have a large audience.

Outraged, Williams' supporters first thought to organize a boycott of Channel 3, but cooler heads, including the candidate himself, prevailed, and the Williams entourage will spend the night of September 15th at a "Thank You WREG" debate-watch party-cum-"twitter-thon."

That show of equanimity might be more useful to Williams than an outright reaction of anger would have been, but more exposure to the candidate's ever-evolving populist message continues to be what he needs most.

And, even if his support base is kept small, it still might be large enough to influence the fortunes of others. The question is: Whose?

At this point, the naked eye, on the basis of frequent Williams-sightings, will tell you that Williams' support base, comprising both police and fire employees and populist reformers at large, is almost totally white, though he himself is an African American.

A modest extrapolation from that would indicate that Strickland, who has a few grievances against the Wharton administration in common with Williams, could be a logical second choice for a Williams supporter — though many Williams backers, seeing the well-funded District 5 councilman as yet another establishmentarian, might demur at that prospect.

A more apt corollary is that a certain kind of Voter X— a recently annexed Cordova suburbanite, say — might find himself/herself pondering between candidates Strickland and Williams. In that sense, Williams could function as a voter hedge against Strickland's ultimate vote total.

Should Strickland be secretly gratified, then, by Channel 3's decision to exclude Williams from its debate, or by any other action that effectively limits the voter alternatives to incumbent Wharton?

Not necessarily, because Strickland, who is bound to draw a significant share of the city's white vote (the packed crowd that lined the walls of his Poplar Plaza headquarters opening in July was a revelation in that respect) has an obvious need. His chances of dethroning Wharton would seem to require further inroads on the mayor's (allegedly) declining black vote — on Strickland's own or on the part of Collins or Williams.

That the mayor is worried about Collins goes without saying. Financially, the Whitehaven councilman lags well behind Strickland and Wharton (who refreshed his already significant coffers with a Fred Smith-sponsored fund-raiser last week) but is well-to-do enough to have a radio spot and to do some modest paid TV.

Collins has been effective in slamming the mayor's vaunted economic development agenda for producing only a modest number of low-paid jobs while — or so contends the councilman— ignoring strategies for upgrading the kind of job opportunities in high-tech and financial fields that would keep Memphis' aspiring youth population from emigrating elsewhere.

Williams not only advocates a slowdown of showy economic development projects per se, he claims that the ongoing shutdown of schools and community centers in African-American neighborhoods is part of an effort by developers, in cahoots with city officials, consciously or unconsciously to gut the inner city in the interests of gentrification.

That kind of pitch could, if given enough exposure, net a substantial upsurge for Williams in the black community. It plays large in his new campaign video circulating via Facebook.

click to enlarge “The opponent of my opponent is my friend,” an extrapolation of an old Arab proverb, would seem to apply to the District 2 City Council race, where Rachel Knox (left) and Jim Tomasik, who bumped into each other at the Flying Saucer on Germantown Parkway, face a common foe, the favored Frank Colvett Jr. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • “The opponent of my opponent is my friend,” an extrapolation of an old Arab proverb, would seem to apply to the District 2 City Council race, where Rachel Knox (left) and Jim Tomasik, who bumped into each other at the Flying Saucer on Germantown Parkway, face a common foe, the favored Frank Colvett Jr.

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