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VOL. 130 | NO. 22 | Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Size of Mayoral Field Shadows Race

By Bill Dries

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Nobody running for election on the Oct. 8 ballot can even pull a qualifying petition to get on the ballot until April, yet February is shaping up as the month when it is determined what kind of challenge and how many challengers incumbent Mayor A C Wharton Jr. will face.


City council member Jim Strickland is in the race; fellow council member Harold Collins is about to announce his intentions; and Shelby County Commissioner Justin Ford is, too.

Former county commissioner James Harvey, who challenged Wharton in 2011, is also in the race as is former University of Memphis basketball player Detric Golden, who has been campaigning for more than a year. Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams is also weighing a run for mayor.

As the names surface and intentions become clearer, there remain very different opinions about what the size of the field means – who it helps and who it hurts.

Even assuming everyone mentioned above gets in the mayor’s race, it would be far from a record field.

The record mayoral field under the mayor-council form of government that began in 1968, including the field for the 1967 city elections, was the 25-candidate field that ran in the 2009 special election won by Wharton.

Wharton won with 60 percent of the vote with interim-mayor Myron Lowery a distant second with 18 percent of the vote followed by former council member Carol Chumney with 10 percent and attorney Charles Carpenter with 4 percent.


The 2009 field broke the record set by the 15-candidate field in the 1999 race for Memphis Mayor in which Willie Herenton was elected to a third term in office.

And the 1999 race is where the effect of more than a dozen contenders in a mayor’s race seemed to work to the incumbents favor but with a form of political handwriting on the wall for the incumbents – winning without a majority.

Herenton won with 45.7 percent of the vote. His closest challenger was then-city council member Joe Ford who had 25.1 percent of the vote and professional wrestler and television host Jerry Lawler was third with 11.7 percent.

Herenton was elected to this fifth and final term of office in the 2007 city elections that featured a 14-candidate field for mayor, including Herenton.

And in that election, Herenton again won, this time with 42 percent -- less than half the vote.

Chumney finished second with 35 percent and attorney Herman Morris with 21 percent. None of the other 11 contenders reached 1 percent of the vote.

Some politicos look at the 2007 numbers, add the percentages for Chumney and Morris and come up with a percentage that would have beaten Herenton if one of the two had not run. But that supposes the supporters of one would be transferrable to the other.

Another interpretation is that Memphis voters are doing what the now extinct runoff provision once did for city voters.

The runoff provision, abolished in citywide races with a 1991 Federal Court ruling, required a simple majority of the votes cast to claim any city office. If no candidate got 50 percent plus one in the regularly scheduled city election, the top two contenders by vote total would meet in a runoff election.

U.S. District Judge Jerome Turner ruled that the specific intent of the provision was to make it difficult if not impossible for an African-American candidate to win any citywide office.

The 1991 city election was the earliest opportunity to test the city’s new African-American voting majority.

And most black political leaders rallied around the idea that the new majority shouldn’t be split among several black challengers to Mayor Dick Hackett.

The concept had had several city election cycles to gain momentum starting with the 1982 special election following the resignation of Mayor Wyeth Chandler.

City council member J.O. Patterson, who had served briefly as interim mayor by virtue of being council chairman and thus, the city’s first black mayor, finished ahead of Hackett in the special election but didn’t get a simple majority of the votes.

In the runoff that followed Hackett beat Patterson.

It was the last time Hackett was forced into a runoff. He won without a runoff a year later in the regularly scheduled city elections that featured several African-American contenders including then-state Senator John Ford, attorney D’Army Bailey and attorney and former judge Otis Higgs.

Four years later, Hackett won without a runoff over county commissioner Minerva Johnican and city council member Bill Gibbons, in that order.

Between the 1987 election and the historic 1991 contest, Herenton had said several times before deciding to run that there should be a consensus black challenger to Hackett. That included a memorable mention of the subject at Clayborn Temple with Hackett sitting just a few feet away from Herenton.

Herenton emerged as that consensus challenger to Hackett with the presence of perennial Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges as the third candidate in the 1991 mayor’s race.

Herenton won by 142 votes to become the city’s first black elected mayor.

Yet more than 20 years later there is still debate about how the contest would have ended if Mongo hadn’t been in the race since Mongo drew more votes than the 142 vote margin that separated Herenton and Hackett.

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