For a while there, after Harold Byrd's last-minute withdrawal from the Democratic field for Shelby County mayor, it appeared that the mayor's race might lack for drama. On the strength of a lively five-way forum on the issues held last Saturday at the monthly meeting of the Dutch Treat Luncheon, however, it appears that this may not be the case.
Maybe it's still true that Democrat A C Wharton is the prohibitive favorite in the race for demographic reasons and others, among which are the quality and expanse of his impressive preparation. But it may not be quite the cakewalk it earlier seemed. Attendees at Saturday's event saw Wharton's chief Democratic opponent, state Rep. Carol Chumney, take the argument to him, very aggressively at times, on matters ranging from the specificity of his approach to consolidation to whether or not Wharton had amended his position on public money for the yet-to-be-built NBA arena. Chumney was on point most of the time.
Not that Wharton didn't make excellent presentations in his own right. The Shelby County public defender, who has ably served on boards and commissions relating to education, health care, planning, and law enforcement, always does. And he did again Saturday, to the extent that a Republican candidate for mayor, radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn, felt compelled to express his regard for Wharton's performance afterward.
Flinn himself, a political neophyte, seems to have resolved upon occupying the conservative edge of the political spectrum -- stating, and holding to, a maxim that tax money ought to be spent primarily on economic development, education, and public safety, with all other expenditures to be regarded as "on the table" in a time of fiscal crisis. He achieved a consistency of approach in lieu of the more knowledgeable positions taken by his far more experienced GOP opponent, state Rep. Larry Scroggs, who did nothing Saturday to diminish his reputation as one of the more dutiful stewards of the public's business.
The turnaway crowd in attendance at the luncheon was another positive factor. Granted, there were the usual candidate claques and unredeemed ideologues on hand, but one of the latter, a well-seasoned gent whose normal approach to public matters is that taxation is socialism, was sufficiently moved by the quality of the debate to veer off in a new and unexpected direction during the question-and-answer period. What would all the candidates propose, he asked, to ensure that the quality of Shelby County's environment could be sustained during the next mayoral term?
Whereupon the five candidates all gave clear, thoughtful answers.
Everybody involved in the affair was to be commended -- candidates, audience members, and the luncheon's two hosts, Ed McAteer and Charlie Peete. Maybe we won't have a down-to-the-wire race, or maybe we will, but it now appears that we could have a bona fide mayoral election -- in the pure sense that legitimate public options will be rationally discussed.