Little by little, a degree of suspense has crept into the generally ho-hum Memphis municipal election, and minimal early-voting turnout figures — far from cinching the expected series of victories by incumbents — have made a few of the city council races look unexpectedly close.
Of at least one outcome, though — that of the mayor's race — there can be little doubt. Incumbent A C Wharton will win, and win big. Not only did the financially well-backed mayor swamp his opposition in the only objective poll so far — conducted early this month by Yacoubian Research — but he has sufficient all-purpose appeal to have put out his own sample ballot of preferred candidates in other races.
The mayor has even bagged a union endorsement, from the Building & Construction Trades Council, in a year in which he gave the high sign for a 4.6 percent decrease in public employees' pay.
From an electoral point of view, the chief consequence of that budgetary decision has been to give former city council member Edmund Ford Sr., who has espoused the cause of the employees' unions and was endorsed by the Memphis Labor Council, a clear entrée into a low-double-digits second place (which he might have secured anyhow, thanks to the enduring clout of the Ford family name).
James Harvey, who has his impressive moments on the Shelby County Commission, has failed altogether to generate momentum, notwithstanding his potentially saleable skepticism regarding Wharton's come-hither policy of industrial recruitment. Harvey will battle it out with Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges for third place. Nobody else is in the game.
City council races could be more suspenseful:
A close race could develop in District 1, where first-termer Bill Morrison is challenged by deputy sheriff Kendrick Sneed, who touts his erstwhile employment in the office of former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr. Morrison is white; Sneed is African-American in a district that is almost equally balanced racially but could tilt black. Sneed has endorsements from the Memphis Labor Council and the Tennessee Equality Project but has raised less money than the incumbent, who has name recognition and key endorsements from the mayor and from The Commercial Appeal as well as from the socially conservative Family Action of Tennessee.
District 2, also somewhat balanced racially but with a slight white majority, is another case where a favored incumbent, Bill Boyd, has a single challenger, former Metro Charter Commission member and IT contractor Sylvia Cox. And, as with District 1, the social lobbies have locked horns — with Family Action of Tennessee for Boyd and the TEP for Cox. Cox, who owns a prior victory over Boyd in the 2006 race for the charter commission, is also involved in the animal rights reform movement, one of the causes of the day.
Former council chairman Harold Collins, an employee of the district attorney general's office, is unopposed in District 3.
District 4 sees incumbent Wanda Halbert opposed by three contenders: Louis Matthew Morganfield III, Michelle Smith, and George Walker, none of whom would seem to have the name recognition or wherewithal to overcome the entrenched Halbert, a sometimes controversial member of the council and one with a penchant for taking on hot-button issues. Despite (or because of) the latter, she has Wharton's ballot endorsement. Smith has an outside shot at a runoff.
Lawyer Jim Strickland, a likely future mayoral hopeful, is unopposed in District 5.
Ed Ford Jr., who ran for his father's seat when the senior Ford stepped down four years ago, has won credit with his colleagues and played a major role in resolving 2011 city budget issues. As with Halbert, that should be enough to hold off challenges from three opponents: Rhoda Mays Stigall, former charter commission member and Memphis City Schools board member Sharon Webb, and Clara Ford, the latter not a member of the well-known political clan but capable of snagging some votes because of name confusion. Ed Ford Jr. is probably in good shape but has to run at least somewhat scared. A runoff situation is possible, if not probable.
In District 7, the only open seat, there's something of a free-for-all: Lee Harris, a young professor of law at the University of Memphis, has campaign cadres, phone banks, and — perhaps most importantly — fund-raisers. He is supported by establishment figures and, from the beginning of the campaign season, has been considered in some quarters the favorite in this race. Harris rates highest on the Coalition for a Better Memphis scale (but just barely over some others) and has the TEP recommendation, as well as the mayor's and the CA's. The question is, does he have grass-roots support?
Kemba Ford, an erstwhile actress and the daughter of the currently imprisoned former state senator John Ford, has two advantages: She is a Ford, number one, and, while the famous power clan is no longer the leviathan it once was, the family name and the loyalties it inspires clearly still count for something in the precincts of the inner city. Omnipresent at recent political events, Ford's other advantage is that she is crisp, highly presentable, and grounded in such populist issues as insisting on local workers for local construction projects.
Michael Steven Moore is a political offspring, as well, the son of the now retired longtime incumbent in this seat, Barbara Swearengen Ware. Moore, a self-described "musician, minister, marketing specialist, [and] community activist," was heavily involved in his mother's political campaigns and could well inherit a substantial amount of her North Memphis base. So far, though, he may not have flexed his base enough. A late mailer from Mama could help.
Most likely, the runoff duo will come from those three, with Harris and Ford the best bets. Activist Scott Banbury is well known for his hard work in a dozen causes in his North Memphis neighborhood and in the city at large. Like Banbury, Raymond Bursi, a past president of the Frayser Community Development Corporation, is well respected.
Others are Evelyn Fields, Erskine Caldwell, Jesse Jeff, Julia Ray, Artie Smith, Coby Smith (a onetime leading member of the 1960s activist group the Invaders), Darrell Wright, David Vinciarelli, and Leandra Rene Taylor.
Two of the three Super District 8 races have contests. In so many words or less (as he would say), Joe Brown, the sometimes edgy incumbent in Position 1, is favored over two challengers, Mark Coleman and Timothy Warren. There has been a fair amount of talk that Janis Fullilove, the ever-embattled incumbent in Position 2, is threatened by Rosalyn R. Nichols, a respected minister who has an energetic campaign and big-time endorsements from Wharton, civil rights icon Maxine Smith, and the CA. The presence of two other opponents, Mario Dennis and Isaac Wright, could influence the results, probably in favor of Fullilove, who, with endorsements from the Memphis Labor Council and the TEP, may still have an edge.
Council chairman Myron Lowery is unopposed in Position 3.
District 9 also boasts two contested races. In Position 1, there is something of a grudge match. Incumbent Kemp Conrad, the former Republican chairman who was best known in the budget wrangles of 2011 for proposing a governmental downsizing that included privatization of the city's sanitation department, is opposed by Paul Shaffer, the business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local, a figure well-liked in union and Democratic Party ranks. If an aggrieved labor community can mount a significant challenge, it will be here, but Conrad, who got the CA nod and is running some TV ads, remains the favorite. Interestingly, Wharton is giving this race a pass.
The District 9, Position 2 race pits two candidates who rated high with the Coalition for a Better Memphis — incumbent Shea Flinn and challenger James A. Sdoia. Sdoia, a retired businessman and the force behind the Urban Debate League, matched up reasonably well with Flinn during a recent League of Women Voters forum, but Flinn is one of the real political comers in these parts, a media star, a phrasemaker, and a tireless student of the issues with the ability to cut deals that prove acceptable across factional lines.
The other District 9 seat in Position 3 belongs to incumbent Reid Hedgepeth, who is unopposed.
The heavily favored and somewhat innovative long-term city court clerk Thomas Long is opposed for reelection by Betty Boyette, a spunky former employee of that office, and Antonio Harris, another veteran of the office who hopes the voters give him a promotion. Meanwhile, city court judges Earnestine Hunt Dorse, Tarik Sugarmon, and Jayne Chandler are unopposed.