Thursday, October 15, 2009
Lessons From A "Special" Election
It was in the late Sixties when our dorm walls bore a poster: “Suppose they gave a war and nobody came.”
In those heady days of political activism, it was hard to imagine that the poster today should say: “Suppose they held an election and nobody came.”
Voter turnout numbers in Memphis have been tumbling for years, and even though special elections traditionally attract lower turnout, it’s hard to synchronize the pent-up call for change with the voter apathy seen in today’s election for Memphis mayor.
The total votes cast today just barely exceeded 100,000, compared to 165,397 votes cast in a turnout hailed as lackluster in the 2007 city mayor’s race.
Too Nice To Criticize
Perhaps, it was the inevitability of the victory by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton as the new city mayor. In the end, no opponent could ever lay a glove on him, and while criticizing him as too nice to be mayor, the other candidates never came to grips with the reality that voters didn’t want to see such a nice person attacked.
It seemed lost on them that once you set him up as the nice guy in the race, it’s really hard to then jump on him without looking like a heavy. That’s why Carol Chumney’s apparent desperation in the election eve debate merely came off as shrill, just as Charles Carpenter’s earlier shots merely sounded snarky.
Voters simply brushed aside criticisms of an elected official with the highest approval ratings of any politician in the modern political history of Memphis.
Meanwhile, if there’s anybody who gained from the election – and it’s hard to see how any one really did – it’s probably Myron Lowery, who in the next 7 to 10 days will revert back to his post as chairman of a Memphis City Council divided down the middle in their opinions about him.
Down And Out
Despite that, the tone of the Lowery campaign and his determination to make the most of his few months as mayor pro tem gained him a measure of respect (at least among Caucasian voters). Among African-American voters, he could never recover from the damage done as the deciding vote with the white Council members on several controversial issues and the neverending saga of City Attorney Elbert Jefferson that dogged his time in the mayor’s office.
Meanwhile, Mr. Carpenter’s campaign began with high hopes. Some pundits even suggested that although his campaign might be a long-shot, he would prove to be a strong candidate and position himself strongly for next year’s county mayor’s election. Any dreams of future office evaporated with his failure to get into double digits – or more than half way to double digits.
The election also put a period on the political career of Ms. Chumney, former Council member and state legislator. It seemed impossible during the campaign for her to find her stride and her repeated, clumsy attempts to cast herself as a victim of a glass ceiling for women politicians never gained traction with even a significant percentage of women voters. Just two years ago, she received 57,196 votes for city mayor. Today, she got slightly more than 10,000.
School board member Kenneth Whalum was reminded of another sad fact of life about Memphis politics. You can excite the youth vote, but you just can’t get them out to the polls, and as a result, his 2% of the total vote was much less than the 5% he had polled only four days before the election.
If there should have been anyone as happy as the Wharton family, it should have been Shelby County Board of Commissioners Chair Deidre Malone and former state legislator Harold Byrd, who have announced their intentions to run for county mayor next year.
It was widely thought by some news reporters that this election would presage next year’s county election by positioning several candidates strongly for that race. Not so. If anything, the election doomed any serious attempt by any candidate to claim they have the kind of base on which to build a countywide campaign.
Another thing proven by the election is that the impact of controversial blogger Thaddeus Matthews is far more perception than reality. Despite relentless and careless fictions about anyone connected to Mayor Wharton, the Carpenter candidacy, if anything, sunk beneath the weight of his cheerleading.
It reinforced the lesson that some were slow to learn in last year’s campaign against Congressman Steve Cohen. Voters are slow to mobilize around smear campaigns and reckless slanders. The Carpenter campaign proved this again in conclusive fashion. Meanwhile, we are told that a Federal Communications Commission complaint is being drawn up against Mr. Matthews and his radio home, KWAM.
All in all, it was a “take no prisoners” display by Mayor Wharton, who proved conclusive that even a nice guy can put together one mean campaign. It may be too soon for such predictions, but it’s hard to argue with the view that Mayor Wharton is now the dominant political force and if he invests his honeymoon period well, he has the power to change the entire political landscape in Memphis, particularly its tone and civility, for the better.
He is the antithesis of Mayor Herenton, whose stated disdain for consensus-building makes him a strange person to send to Congress and its 435 members. There is no issue that Mayor Wharton does not believe that he can find consensus and common ground. That will unquestionably be put to the test in City Hall.
For us, however, what interests us most is that he’s positioned himself as the political powerhouse who can achieve his goal of ushering in a new generation of young political leaders and public servants.
In his last race for Memphis mayor, Willie Herenton said he had no choice but run because he had neglected to mentor a successor. While it’s hard to imagine Mayor Wharton suggesting that he should pick who will be the next city mayor, he is clearly sincere about the need to attract young people into key positions in City Hall.
If this election was about anything, it was about change.
While Mayor Wharton may have tallied 61%, 100% of the vote was for something different. With 25 candidates in the race, no one stood four square in support of Mayor Herenton. No one defended his record, his philosophy or his approach to his work.
Perhaps, that’s to be expected after 18 years of the same person as city mayor, but it was also a residual effect of the historic election of Barack Obama as president. Suddenly, all things seemed possible, even the once unthinkable – One Memphis.