Doomsday polling and an accompanying perception of vulnerability are about the only competitive advantage held by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton.
That’s because buoyed by polling that shows Mayor Herenton languishing in voter support, additional candidates for mayor are already preparing to jump into the race.
They include an African-American young Turk, an African-American businesswoman and a reasonably well-known African-American man, not to mention a couple of white candidates with major name recognition.
All in all, it’s enough to make Mayor Herenton giddy. After all, from his point of view, the more the merrier, because in a badly fractured race, his chances for success grow.
The highly-publicized April 9 poll by The Commercial Appeal concluded that the 16-year incumbent had voter support more in keeping with a novice candidate – 12 percent.
That said, it’s way too early for the other candidates to be celebrating the demise of the most dominant political figure in Memphis’ modern history. Although Mayor Herenton is given to hyperbolic excess when describing himself and his political prowess (not to mention his legacy), he may actually be close to being right when he says that if we want to gauge his real political strength, we need to listen to the people in New Chicago and Boxtown, not the downtown insiders.
While it seems clear that for the first time in his political career, Mayor Herenton is seeing his African-American support vanish, we also believe that it is indeed difficult to accurately poll the mayor’s political base.
First, it’s difficult to conduct personal interviews with a proportional percentage of low-income African-Americans, because they are more transient than the general population and are less likely to have stable telephone listings. That’s compounded by the fact that African-Americans, more than Caucasians, refuse in greater numbers to participate when called by pollsters.
Second, in addition, African-Americans generally are less open in answering pollster’s questions, tending to answer the questions in ways that they think the pollster wants.
The recent poll by The Commercial Appeal may reflect this phenomenon. When asked for whom they would vote for mayor, only 20 percent of African-Americans said they would vote for Mayor Herenton. Strikingly, when asked their impressions of the mayor, 51 percent of African-Americans had favorable opinions.
By way of comparison, Herman Morris, attorney and former president of Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division, is viewed positively by 37 percent of African-American voters; Memphis City Council member Carol Chumney is viewed positively by 38 percent and former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham is viewed positively by 22 percent.
In a race destined to be the most polarizing election since Mayor Herenton defeated former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett way back when, Mayor Herenton’s continued favorability ratings will become the basis for a campaign that targets black voters and all but ignores white ones.
Of course, we are quick to add that the trial heats in these polls make for interesting political gossip right now, but little else. It is way too early for them to mean anything and no real campaigns are under way to galvanize voters’ attention. All in all, it seems clear that Mayor Herenton’s description as a street fighter will never be as apt as in the upcoming race, and that’s why whoever enters the race should be ready to fight to the death.
High County Positives
Despite the strong showing by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton in the polls, no one close to the second term mayor, who cannot run for reelection because of term limits, is predicting that he will run. They report that Mayor Wharton promised his city counterpart that he would not run against him, and that Mayor Wharton takes his word seriously. Others say that if the two mayors went head-to-head, it would be a bloodletting, because they know so much about each other.
While some business leaders and political insiders are doing all that they can to urge Mayor Wharton into the race because of his positive polling, some of the mayor’s advisors are well-aware that county mayors routinely poll above 75 percent. It seems that voters don’t generally understand what the county mayor does, while in Memphis, any problem seems to stick to the city mayor. While the county mayor’s favorable ratings sit at 82 percent, they are almost identical to those by former Shelby County Mayor William N. Morris Jr. in the 1980s, and as a result, many political observers consider them to be artificially high.
All the polling – there have been two private polls that foreshadowed the one by The Commercial Appeal – has generated a great deal of buzz, if not gossip, in the political community. Some say that the three gloomy assessments of Mayor Herenton’s electability all but doom his reelection, while others contend that because all of the polls were done by the same firm, there’s no secondary validation of the results.
Not Too Favorable
All of this spinning aside, it’s difficult to comprehend that the once invincible city mayor has seen his support crumble to its current level. The overall favorable ratings for the candidates stand at 36 percent for Mayor Herenton, 45 percent for Mr. Morris, 58 percent for Council member Chumney and 31 percent for Mr. Willingham.
And yet, it’s hard to shake the feeling that predictions of Mayor Herenton’s political death are greatly exaggerated. He’s always been a lightning rod for voter anger, and as his campaign unfolds, it will be revealing to see if he plays on his historic role as the first African-American mayor. There are a considerable number of local political observers who just can’t see African-American voters kicking out of office the man that took them to the political Promised Land.
Meanwhile, intermediaries for some prominent local business leaders continue the trek to City Hall to meet with Mayor Herenton. They lay out their polls, tell him that he cannot win reelection and press him to withdrawn from the race. Allies of the mayor suggest that the meetings have actually done just the opposite – increasing his resolve to run and to prove them wrong.
It’s A Matter Of Respect
If the business leaders want to see if they can encourage the mayor to get out of the race, they should call in someone who works with Japanese businessmen. That’s because Mayor Herenton takes a distinctly Asian approach to his political persona. To the mayor, it’s all about face. Now that all of the polling has been made public, Mayor Herenton is put in the position of losing face by bowing out of a race in the face of bad poll results.
We don’t think at this point that the mayor can right a city ship of state that is badly foundering, but we know him too well to count him out. Although it’s way too early to be making declarations about the upcoming race, we can’t help but have the opinion that Mr. Morris’ campaign is a nonstarter and that Council member Chumney’s campaign peaked on the day that The Commercial Appeal poll was published.
That’s why the upcoming announcements could be so exciting. Cities around the country have triggered new eras of success by looking outside the usual suspects to find nontraditional candidates who have brought fresh thinking, candor and regional support to their mayors’ offices.
Clearly, Memphis needs a breath of fresh air. It’s a rare person who can maintain the same level of energy, focus and vision after 16 years at the helm of a $1 billion a year city government. Mayor Herenton has said that these days he’s looking to his legacy.
We hope that is the case, because if he is, he will set aside his pride and his obsession on paying back anyone who disrespects him, and look ahead to a new challenge. In fact, there’s no decision that he can make that would have a more positive impact on his legacy than this.