At 7:45 at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis Thursday night, things are quiet. A few folks are meandering in, riding the escalator up to the mezzanine in twos and threes. Kevin Paige and his band are singing "Crazy" in the ballroom.
The crowd, such as it is, is racially mixed and age-diverse. A big screen at the back of the ballroom flashes photographs of candidate Herman Morris and his family — Herman as a young track star, a young lawyer, a family man, etc.
Downstairs in the lobby, the South Carolina-Kentucky game is on a television in the corner. The game is close and exciting, but the numbers crawling across the bottom of the screen give early indication that the race for mayor is going to be neither.
The early voting and absentee totals — almost half the predicted vote — show incumbent Willie Herenton with 43 percent, Carol Chumney at 34 percent, and Morris a distant third, with 24 percent. Those percentages wouldn't vary significantly all night.
Kevin Paige begins singing "Killing Me Softly."
The food lines and bar lines in the ballroom are growing quickly. There seems to be little optimism. There are lots of hugs and wry smiles.
At 8:30, with a little more than 20 percent of precincts reporting, the percentages haven't changed much: Herenton 43, Chumney 32, Morris 25. It's over. With perfect ironic and, no doubt unintentional, timing, Paige's band breaks into "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." Ooops.
Republican maverick Tom Guleff wanders about with 5-year-old son Logan in tow. Adman Dan Conaway sips a beer and chats up latecomers. Campaign co-chairman and longtime judge and civil rights activist Russell Sugarman quietly works the door. Memphis schoolboard member Jeff Warren leans over a laptop, checking the discouraging numbers.
Sadly, for this campaign, the only number getting bigger is the number of folks in the ballroom. But their man, Morris, appears doomed to finish a distant third.
With 50 percent of precincts counted, the percentages remain markedly consistent: 42, 33, 24. As the numbers flash on the television screen, someone shouts, "Time for a drink!"
Warren shakes his head ruefully and says, "I'm very disappointed. I think Herman is the one man who could have brought this city together."
There is a growing brushfire of applause in the outer room. The candidate, surrounded by his wife, children, and family, enters the ballroom. The outpouring of affection seems genuine and more than a little poignant.
Morris steps to the microphone, quiets the crowd, and says, "It's a great day for Memphis." But nobody in the room believes him.
Morris continues gamely, thanking his campaign committee and supporters and thanking his wife Brenda for 27 years of marriage. It is, in fact, the couple's wedding anniversary. Morris presents a large bouquet of red roses to his wife and says, "Happy anniversary."
The rest of Morris' speech sounds suspiciously like a hurriedly edited "victory" speech. He repeats the "great day in Memphis" line, and thanks the crowd for playing a part in "bringing the city together." He implores his supporters to work with the apparent victor, Willie Herenton, and even asks for a round of applause for the mayor.
When the crowd responds weakly, he exhorts them: "We can do better than that!" They do, barely.
"And now," he says, "let's have one heck of an anniversary party!"
The band strikes up the old Etta James song, "At Last," and Herman Morris and his wife dance, staring into each other's eyes, encircled by photographers and television cameras.
It could have been a helluva party.
As the crowd files out, the television in the corner of the lobby is showing happy women doing "The Electric Slide" at Herenton headquarters. But here at the Holiday Inn nobody feels much like dancing.