Willingham, Morris Each Win Something in Gentlemanly GOP Mano-a-Mano 

BY JACKSON BAKER | MAY 24, 2007

If there was a “winner” in the two-candidate mayoral forum held Tuesday night at a meeting of the East Shelby Republican Club, it was former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham, who came off more effectively than did rival candidate Herman Morris, the former MLGW head.

Part of the reason was that the crowd at Pickering Community Center in Germantown (strange place that, for a Memphis mayoral forum!) was more familiar with Willingham, a longtime club member himself. Another was that Willingham, who is given to verbal prolixity the way Britney Spears is given to nights out, profited from the one-minute-per-answer rule imposed by moderator Stan Peppenhorn.

Yet another reason was that Willingham, no fool despite his sometime air of eccentricity, knew the subject matters asked about in greater detail -- whether they concerned governmental subjects at large or Willingham hobby-horses like the FedEx Forum GarageGate scandal which he did as much as anyone to uncover.

Morris came off as able and responsive, though his answers were generally delivered in over-broad outline, even in the case of a brief discourse on the utility which he once headed.

Sometimes that penchant worked to his advantage, as when he began an answer to a question about prospective new taxes by saying, “We don’t need any.” (Really that’s all his audience wanted to hear, and any explanation as to why that was the case was so much icing on the cake.) Similarly, Morris deftly dispensed with a question about term limits with the line: “Good idea. Three terms too late!”

Quips, Ideas, and Red Flags

Both men lamented the current limbo fate of The Pyramid, Willingham suggesting that a feeler from the “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” organization had been rebuffed and Morris holding out hope that St. Jude Research Hospital might be able to expand into the marooned facility.

The most intriguing new idea came from Willingham, who indicated that it might be “worth it” to look into public financing of an on-campus football stadium for the University of Memphis if the school and the state of Tennessee could provide as much as two-thirds of the funding. Morris seemed more open to a Fairgrounds site at some point down the line.

Though, as indicated, the tightness of the format restricted Willingham’s tendency to ramble, it did not preclude an occasional red-flag statement, like a joke about Chelsea Clinton’s interviewing an Iraq War veteran concerning his service. Did he experience fear? “Ma’am,” goes the soldier’s response, “the only things I’m afraid of are Osama, Obama, and yo’ Mama.”

Still, all in all, it was Willingham’s night, though Morris may have done what he needed to for the long haul of a race that, after all, ends in October. His very reason for being there was to indicate to the attending Republicans that he was amenable to their concerns -- a point reinforced as well by the presence of his co-campaign manager, party veteran John Ryder. (The other co-chair is former office-holder Minerva Johnican, a longtime Democrat.)

And though Shelby County Republican chairman Bill Giannini has publicly said there was “no chance” that Morris would get an endorsement from the local GOP, the chairman has also asserted that there was “no chance,” either, that Willingham could get elected -- a belief widely held in political circles, even among members of Willingham’s own circle.

An End-Game Strategy

Under the circumstances, Morris needs only to hold on long enough -- meanwhile building up name identification, credibility, funding, and support -- to become identifiable in the public mind as the logical alternative to incumbent mayor Willie Herenton, who polls suggest is plumbing the depths of unpopularity right now.

Presupposing that there is no bounceback for Herenton (which cannot be ruled out), Morris’ hopes depend largely on a stall developing in the campaign of councilwoman Carol Chumney, who was the leader in early mayoral polls but whose go-it-alone reputation may at some point cost her. That, and there being no major change in the current field, which was last added to significantly when FedEx executive Jim Perkins, who has money to burn, jumped in.

The former MLGW chief has one more obstacle, though -- an introverted personality that lends itself more to the pursuit of hobbies like painting (which Morris is surprisingly accomplished at) than to the hurly-burly, hail-fellow-well-met world of elective politics.

In any case, the Willingham-Morris mano-a-mano -- ridiculed in some quarters for not being more inclusive -- served its purpose as a friendly intramural sparring match, put on for the edification of Republicans looking for a candidate to get behind. One note of caution for both men: One influential Republican commented afterward that Chumney, who has a following among grass-roots sorts alienated from politics as usual, might get as many GOP votes as “both these guys put together.”?

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