Lowery Notches Up Credentials as Election Nears

Wharton still considered front-runner in mayor’s race

Thursday, October 8, 2009, Vol. 124, No. 198

MAY THE BEST WIN: Memphis mayoral rivals Myron Lowery, left, and A C Wharton Jr. talk after this week’s mayoral forum at the Memphis Rotary Club. It was likely the last of the forums Wharton will attend before Election Day. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Myron Lowery has about a week to go in his tenure as Memphis’ mayor pro tem depending on how long it takes to certify the Oct. 15 election results.

Since taking office July 31, Lowery has worked hard to make a tenure of 11 weeks count for enough votes to get two more years in the city’s top job.

“I know that I’ve turned some people’s minds around,” Lowery said at the Memphis Rotary Club candidates’ forum this week at Rhodes College. “Many people questioned my leadership ability before. … They see now.”

Lowery was at the intersection of Winchester and Riverdale roads Wednesday morning for the installation of the first camera system designed to detect red light runners. Lowery has pursued the red light cameras for the past 10 years.

An interim kind of guy

Lowery’s administration also released more documents showing former Mayor Willie Herenton was paid huge sums of money for unused vacation time.

“I believe those funds were paid illegally – policy or not,” Lowery said. “For the record, that only came out because the city attorney has not been there. These were records that were maintained in his office and were hidden in his office.”

Lowery was referring to City Attorney Elbert Jefferson, whom Lowery tried unsuccessfully to fire as his first official act as mayor. The continuing struggle between Lowery and Jefferson has now spanned all of the compressed campaign season.

Lowery’s claims didn’t go unchallenged in the Rotary forum that also featured Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Carol Chumney and Charles Carpenter.

Chumney accused Lowery of “brinksmanship” for being among the City Council majority who voted to cut city funding to the Memphis school system. The funding cut triggered a Chancery Court lawsuit, still being appealed, over whether the city is required to fund the school system.

Even Wharton took a swing, saying the city shouldn’t “wreak havoc” as it tries to change local government in otherwise constructive ways.

Lowery was unapologetic for the council’s move.

“I think regardless of what happens in the race, (Myron Lowery will) continue to be a vital part of this city on the City Council.”
– Dick Hackett
Former mayor of Memphis

“For 16 or 17 years I said yes,” Lowery said of past votes to increase funding for Memphis schools. “When you do the same thing every day and you expect different results, that is craziness. I did something different. I stood up with the new members of the City Council and decided to cut the budget because we thought funding was the responsibility of the county.”

While Lowery continued running on his record as the council’s longest-serving member and his less than 90 days as mayor, he also began saying two more years is all he’s interested in.

Lowery positioned himself as a choice for voters who aren’t comfortable enough with the field of candidates to elect anyone who would also be their choice for the 2011 city elections.

“I’m not running for 2011,” Lowery said at the forum held at Rhodes College. He later said he also would not be a candidate for Shelby County mayor in 2010.

Rivalry and rhetoric

Meanwhile, Lowery went to the City Council this week with updates but no agreements for long-term development of either the vacant Pyramid arena or the Mid-South Fairgrounds.

In both presentations at the last council session before the election, Lowery and his administration held out the prospect of some kind of development agreement in both projects in the near future.

Former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett was in the audience at the rotary forum.

“Mayor Lowery has certainly run his stock up quite a bit in the last two weeks,” Hackett said. “People are seeing him as being a transparent government leader. I think regardless of what happens in the race, he’ll continue to be a vital part of this city on the City Council.”

Hackett’s debate with challenger Willie Herenton at the rotary mayoral forum in 1991 came a few days before the historic election that Herenton won by 142 votes. It was also the only time Hackett agreed to a joint appearance with Herenton during the entire campaign.

Hackett remembered introducing his wife during the debate and catching flak later because Herenton supporters took it as a contrast with Herenton’s divorce and a recent sexual harassment lawsuit filed by a woman he was dating.

Hackett watched this week as Lowery, Chumney and Carpenter again focused on Wharton in what was likely Wharton’s last joint appearance with them.

“It’s evident from the way the candidates answered the questions, they were all – all – attacking Mayor Wharton,” Hackett said. “So they see who the front-runner is. I don’t know if I disagree with that. … It appears to be a landslide.”

At one point, Carpenter questioned Wharton about the county’s $1.8 billion in bond indebtedness. Wharton countered that bond counsels such as Carpenter were responsible for the debt Wharton claims credit for capping and gradually reducing.

Carpenter is bond counsel for the city of Memphis. He faulted Wharton for keeping the same bond counsel for county government over a 30-year period.

Chumney continued to portray herself as the only candidate who can deliver on change. She also emphasized her failed bids for Shelby County mayor in the 2002 Democratic primary and her 2007 campaign for Memphis mayor.

“What message does it send if someone like me doesn’t get to be mayor, ever?” she said. “What message does it send to little girls?”

Chumney also told the crowd that in each of the earlier races she appeared to be on her way to victory until political opponents united behind a rival.

“What’s this about?” she asked rhetorically.

Only the top four contenders, as judged by a recent Mason-Dixon poll of 400 likely city voters, were invited to the rotary debate.

Nevertheless, mayoral contender Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges showed up at the forum. Dressed in an overcoat and wearing silver goggles and a white wig with a rubber chicken attached to his overcoat, Mongo watched most of the debate from the audience before leaving quietly.

Early voting in advance of Election Day runs through Saturday.

Through Monday, 28,687 citizens had cast early ballots. Go to www.shelbyvote.com for early voting locations and hours.