Memphis Mayor’s Race is On 

A mayoral debate highlights the week, as petitions multiply for positions on the 2015 city ballot.

Mayor A C Wharton checks something with aide Maura Black Sullivan before Monday night’s debate.

Jackson Baker

Mayor A C Wharton checks something with aide Maura Black Sullivan before Monday night’s debate.

Janis Fullilove may be feeling lonely, but she's not going to complain. As of the end of Monday, the Super District 8, Position 2 councilwoman was the only incumbent running for reelection in this year's city election who did not have a declared opponent. All other city races are contested at this point (which is to say that multiple petitions have been drawn for each of them, actual filing having occurred so far in only a minority of cases). 

The other council seats would seem to be assured of contests, with District 5 and Super District 9, Position 2 — the seats vacated, respectively, by mayoral candidate Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn — attracting the most action. There are eight entries so far for District 5, most of them with enough backing to appear serious, and something of the same situation exists for the Super District 9 vacancy, where six petitions have been drawn up to this point.

By contrast, Position 3 in Super District 8, which, as was recently announced, will be vacated by council Chairman Myron Lowery, has so far seen only three petitions drawn. One of those was by the incumbent's son Mickell Lowery, and the legacy name may be enough to dissuade most comers. District 4 incumbent Wanda Halbert's announcement of non-candidacy (she's a candidate instead for City Court clerk) is too recent to have occasioned a rush of would-be candidates. Four petitions have so far been drawn for that seat.

Another mayoral candidate, Harold Collins, will be vacating his District 3 seat, and that one has generated a fair amount of action, with five petitions drawn so far.

The race for mayor has seen 13 petitions drawn; and it is a safe bet that more are coming. Meanwhile, the first mayoral debate — or forum, as emcee Kyle Veazey of the sponsoring Commercial Appeal, preferred to call it — of the 2015 city election season took place before a good crowd at the old Tennessee Brewery Monday night, and, while there were no winners as such among the five hopefuls invited, it was possible to make out some distinctions. 

To start with, Justin Ford, the youthful county commission chairman, demonstrated likeability but nothing much to anchor it except a recap of his résumé and prerogatives ("I make appointments."), a recommended slogan ("Listen, Assist, and Invest."), and enough platitudes and expressions of good will to start a smarm farm.

This is not to doubt Ford's capability, merely to suggest that he was short on specifics, no doubt on purpose, and did nothing to counter a widespread impression that he is in the race not so much with expectations of winning it as to extend his name recognition for some future electoral purpose.

By contrast, Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams, generally considered a long shot, was all agenda. Pledged to represent the interests of city employees and ordinary citizens, Williams talked up small business and deplored the strategy of enticing big industries here by means of PILOT (payment-in-lieu-of- taxes) arrangements. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that Electrolux, a relatively recent acquisition on the city landscape, is already looking to go "out the door" because "they didn't get the profits they thought."

Williams suggested that Memphis' problem was not limited revenue but over-spending. He said the city should stick to basics and hire more fire and police. He also weighed in on behalf of those citizens who want to save the Mid-South Coliseum. More than the other candidates, he had audible boosting from a claque of supporters on hand.

Councilman Collins, whose task is to expand on his sprawling Whitehaven base and to convince voters that he and no one else is the legitimate alternative to incumbent Mayor A C Wharton, sounded notes akin to those of Williams, advocating a focus on education to create the basis for "professional" jobs at a "living wage" and against the "$9- or $10-an-hour jobs" available at "Bass Pro and Mitsubishi."

Collins also joined with Williams in taking a dim view of bike lanes, an issue that separated the five hopefuls into two camps. Collins and Williams made the point that Memphis has an automobile culture and that bike lanes in what Collins called "major neighborhoods" (meaning Frayser, Raleigh, and Whitehaven) were impediments to necessary transportation.

Ford disagreed, pointing out that the bike lanes were paid for by federal "pass-through" money, a point made also by Councilman Strickland, who took Mayor Wharton to task for having "zero bike lanes in the budget" until prodded by the council, after which the mayor allegedly "relented." Wharton, who had touted the bike lanes early in his remarks as part of his vision of planning for the "city on the move" and the citizens of the future rather than "through the eyes of today," seemed irate at Strickland's allegation and insisted that his "plans underway" for the bike lanes were retarded by one city engineer but had been re-established, at the mayor's insistence, by a "new engineer."

That bit of sniping seemed more in line with the "debate" that Veazey suggested the CA would be sponsoring down the line than with the informational forum he had in mind for Monday evening. But in fact, everybody but Ford, who was careful to praise his fellow participants, did a little mud-balling. 

The most obvious confrontation was between Strickland, the former two-time budget chairman and self-proclaimed "fiscal conservative" who has been aiming at the mayoralty for years now, and the increasingly beleaguered Wharton, still too spry to be a sitting duck but, clearly, Target Number One for the others in this year's mayoral race.

Although circumstances could turn out to belie the premise, most observers (and virtually the entire media) see the rest of the mayoral field as being made up of supporting players, while the real drama is the one-on-one between Strickland and Wharton, both well-endowed financially, essentially by donations from the same business interests, and waging an intense battle for the hearts and minds of the Poplar Corridor.

Strickland's tough-love pitch is to arrest what he sees as the city's dangerously dwindling population base by practicing fiscal efficiency and focusing on "basic services" and eliminating frills (the city's "Music Commission" was one he named) and a superfluity of "deputy directors and P.R. people," while simultaneously attacking blight and crime.

Wharton counters this image of "gloom and doom" with a concept of "revitalizing the entire city in growth mode" and concentrating on "quality of life" issues. This week's grand opening of the Bass Pro Shop monolith in the Pyramid did not go unspoken for as an exhibit of the mayor's vision (although the project, brainchild of city housing and community development director Robert Lipscomb, was actually hatched during the mayoralty of Wharton's predecessor Willie Herenton). 

What gives the notion of a Wharton-Strickland race some validity is the fact that the councilman's presumed lower profile in African-American communities is balanced by potential inroads there, at Wharton's expense, by "neighborhood" advocates like Collins and Williams.

There are other candidates, to be sure, including many who were not included in Monday night's event (several were seated or standing in the audience, however, and Collins gallantly gave shout-outs to several of them), but the distribution of voices Monday night gave some preliminary sense of how this election will play out. If firebrand pastor/former school board member Kenneth Whalum ends up in the race instead of Williams (as per their agreement that one of them, and one only, will run for mayor), the kaleidoscope could shift and radically so.

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