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VOL. 124 | NO. 163 | Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lawler Laments Being Typecast As He Runs for Mayor

By Bill Dries

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LAWLER RERUN: Supporters of second-time Memphis mayoral candidate Jerry Lawler prepare for a gathering this week. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

He’s a successful businessman of nearly four decades. He had finished a respectable third the last time he ran for Memphis mayor, which was the first time he ran for elected office. He has enough name recognition that people he doesn’t know ask for his autograph. And he can’t make campaign signs, buttons and T-shirts fast enough to satisfy the demand.

Yet Jerry Lawler told a group of supporters in East Memphis this week that his biggest struggle in his bid to be elected mayor in the Oct. 15 special election will be to get voters to take him seriously.

“I’ve just got to ask – wrestling is entertainment. What’s the difference in having a job in entertainment as opposed to having a job as a school superintendent or as opposed to having any kind of job?” Lawler, a former professional wrestler and national television personality, asked The Daily News. “It’s a job and I’ve made a very successful living at it. I’ve run a successful business for 38 years in the entertainment industry. But I learned how tough it is to get taken seriously by the majority of voters.”

Not one for handouts

Lawler’s learning curve was his 1999 bid for Memphis mayor, when he finished third behind the incumbent, Dr. Willie Herenton, and County Commissioner Joe Ford. He finished better than several veteran politicians in the record-setting field of 15 candidates.

“The first thing that I learned was that I was uncomfortable asking people for money,” Lawler said, recalling that his unease began the day after he announced his candidacy and his next door neighbor gave him a $1,000 check. “It made me feel terrible. … The figures that these politicians spent to get elected were staggering.”

Lawler isn’t alone in his loathing of traditional political fundraising. Even veteran politicians are not fond of asking for money to fight the political wars. Some call it “dialing for dollars.”

But this time around, Lawler’s advisers, including his son, Kevin, told him it was essential if he hoped to have any chance in the race.

“I’m going to have to have a lot of help,” Lawler dutifully told a crowd of 50 people at a campaign gathering Tuesday evening at the Fox & Hound restaurant in East Memphis.

He’s also learned to ask those turning out for his rallies whether they live in the city and are eligible to vote in the election, even if they’ve just said they will vote for him.

Different kind of typecasting

Lawler is campaigning as a political outsider who will hire qualified division directors to run city government on a daily basis as he oversees the machinery of government and serves as more of an “ambassador” for the city. Lawler is promising “common sense” judgment.

He also said Memphis, his hometown, is the “most racially divided city” he’s seen.

Lawler recalled talking to former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler after he had decided to run in 1999. Lawler told Chandler that based on the biracial audiences he drew as a wrestler, he expected to get a significant number of black votes – more than white mayoral contenders usually draw.

Chandler said it wouldn’t happen, that black voters would draw a distinction between paying to see Lawler wrestle and voting for him, even though he was drawing decent numbers at political rallies and events in black precincts.

“The people turned out literally in the thousands. … And then after the election I looked back in those precincts and had, in one, eight votes. … That’s the reality of what we’re facing in this city.”

Lawler isn’t the first white candidate to complain of racial polarization in election results.

Veteran black political leaders have pointed out that into the 1970s, African-American voters had a much longer history of voting in significant numbers for white candidates in Memphis than white voters did of voting for black candidates.

The runoff provision in citywide elections was ruled unconstitutional in 1991 by U.S. District Court Judge Jerome Turner. Turner concluded the intent of the 1967 charter provision was to prevent black candidates from winning citywide elections, including the mayor’s race.

A runoff, he said, was a guarantee that white voters, then the majority of the city’s population, would automatically rally around a white contender even if white votes had been split among several white contenders in an earlier election in which no one got a majority of the votes.

Cogent observations

In a now-famous live television interview last week on Action News 5, Herenton described his supporters as a “silent majority” who didn’t have computers or didn’t read blogs or other Internet forums critical of Herenton’s style or his on-again,off-again resignation.

“To me what is scary about that is here’s Mayor Herenton saying that after 18 years of his leadership, the predominantly African-American voters that make up his core of supporters either are too poor to buy a computer or are not smart enough – intelligent enough – to learn how to use a computer,” Lawler told supporters that included three black citizens. “And sadly, that’s the truth. That’s what Mayor Herenton wants them to be. … There’s a difference in being a leader and a manipulator.”

Meanwhile, candidates in the special election are covering some of the same ground these days.

Lawler pulled his qualifying petition for mayor at the Election Commission Tuesday, the same day attorney Charles Carpenter pulled his petition and Memphis school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. filed his.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is to pull his qualifying petition today.

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