Here’s the most telling statistic from the election for Memphis Mayor:

* Willie W. Herenton 16.38 percent
* Carol Chumney 13.35 percent
* Herman Morris 8.21 percent

Those are the percentages of the total number of Memphis registered voters who cast their ballots for each candidate. That’s right, less than 17 percent of Memphis voters decided who the next mayor of Memphis is.

And keep in mind, this was supposed to be the election that galvanized the Memphis public and so captured our imagination that we’d turn out in droves to change the direction of our city.

Two Out Of Three

In the end, 165,360 Memphians cast ballots while 263,624 sat on their hands.

If nothing else, it represented a compelling rejection of the myth that Memphians were so fatigued from the Herenton Era that they were anxious to usher him into retirement. Of course, they weren’t enamored of him enough to rush out and vote for him either, puncturing the myth that he commands the kind of voter loyalty once flexed by the Ford machine.

This is an interesting moment in Memphis history and a troubling commentary on its citizens. With their city grappling to compete in the global economy and with a bushel of indicators suggesting that it’s on a bubble, two-thirds of Memphians apparently cared so little that they just stayed home (or perhaps they heard little from the candidates that inspired them to get to the polling place).


With 13,000 more votes – the equivalent of coaxing only 5 percent of the unvoting Memphians – Council Member Chumney would be taking the oath of office in January. All in all, the voting turnout (or lack thereof) is a dramatic indictment of the public’s lack of interest in the main candidates and the lack of effectiveness of their campaign organizations.

That certainly should be a powerful lesson for groups like Coalition for Better Memphis – organization eats information for breakfast. Despite website and newspaper inserts, the Coalition found itself on the losing side of the most contested races and now finds itself in need of reevaluating its best way of encouraging higher quality candidates.

At the least, the Coalition’s lack of traction in these races suggests that it’s falling short in the somewhat naïve notion that information alone can bring about the change needed on our public bodies. More precisely, change comes from a more proven agenda: recruiting candidates, raising money for ads and GOTV and organizing a highly effective organization.

Out Of Touch

Also, it appears that the Coalition for a Better Memphis is being seen as just another group of activists, and there’s a growing need for greater transparency about the ratings of candidates, including the names of the people on the grading panels, more clearly stated priorities for the organization and what it considers to be the “right” answers. Some of the grades are simply incredulous and we predict that more and more candidates will simply opt to ignore screenings by the group.

If the election proves anything, it’s how out of touch mainstream organizations and the business community are when it comes to the grassroots political dynamics of Memphis voters. It is evidenced by the wishful thinking of white business leaders who interpret the growing cadre of professional African-Americans in their circle as an indication that transformative change is taking place in neighborhood politics. It isn’t.

Rather, these favored few – who seem to embody what the business community wishes African-American candidates would look like – often share so little narrative with the political base that they attract little buzz. In the end, the failure of hand-picked candidates to make many waves in Memphis political life leaves the private sector even more confused about how to affect change.

Counting Crows

So, now, rather than celebrate a new mayor, they must come to grips with how much crow they will need to eat before attending the January swearing in for the fifth Herenton term. Then again, if they do attend, it won’t be in response to an invitation from the mayor.

That much is clear from his election night rant which seemed anchored in the delusion that his first priority remains settling political scores rather than demonstrating the kind of leadership that gives Memphians renewed confidence in his ability to set a meaningful agenda for our city. Sadly, in recent months, Mayor Herenton has spent more time explaining why he can’t do anything to move the city ahead – crime, economic development and racial unit – than articulate a progressive agenda for our city.

Election night should have been the night of Mayor Herenton’s ultimate revenge as a politician…and ultimate rebirth as a leader. In the end, it was neither.

Revenge Served Cold

There’s no greater satisfaction for a politician than the chance to rub the noses of his harshest critics in the reality of an impressive election victory. In truth, there’s little need to say or do anything; just savor the validation that only the ballot box can bring. Instead, the mayor turned his opponents into victims, publicly maligned and excoriated.

It was an exercise of narcissism in the extreme, as Mayor Herenton fed his self-image as a victim with tales of personal slights. There’s no denying that race contributes to a greater decibel level but the propensity for booing in this city once led the staff of a white mayor to establish a policy forbidding him from presenting or accepting any honor at a large public event.

As for the opportunity for rebirth as a respected public official, election night didn’t kill it although the wounds are now deeper. After a campaign where more energy was spent to keep from talking about real issues than lay out a real platform, it’s a strange turnaround for a man who spoke so often about his vision for his city and who so regularly rolled them out.

Education, Not Race

While he spoke in shorthand on election night, the anti-Herenton voters are defined more by educational attainment than race — the more education, the lower the inclination to vote for Mayor Herenton.

We’ve written before about the justification for Mayor Herenton’s feelings of rejection and abandonment by the mainstream, so we won’t repeat it here, but suffice it to say, his deep-seeded anger is not without foundation.

And yet, the first sign of a truly great mayor is the ability to set aside his personal political agenda in service to his city. It was the city that got short shrift in his election night speech, and hopefully, soon, he’ll come to grips with the fact that if he believes that the personal attacks on him are destructive for Memphis, he’ll understand that the same goes double for his attacks on others.

Our Share Of The Blame

It’s like the psychological trait, transference, where someone conveys to another person their own feelings. The classic example is the burglar who thinks every one is trying to steal from him. These days, there are times when it seems that Mayor Herenton thinks every one is attacking him personally, perhaps because that’s precisely what he’s doing to them.

On one thing, we do agree with him. It is not his job to improve the racial divisiveness in our city. In truth, it is all of our jobs. In fact, we think that while The Commercial Appeal implores Mayor Herenton to heal racial wounds and to tone down his rhetoric, the newspaper could become an example to all of us by doing the same. (Some of the election coverage gives credence to charges of Herenton-bashing with some gratuitous adjectives such as “scandal-ridden administration” that aren’t substantiated by the facts.)

All in all, it’s the perfect time for all of us to turn down the volume and tone down the rhetoric.

Deciding On The Legacy

The next four years are going to be difficult enough just on the basis of the challenges and troubling issues facing Memphis, but if we remain at war with each other and if our mayor continues to put his personal interests ahead of his political obligations, we will likely be relegated to the lower rungs of U.S. cities.

We know enough about Mayor Herenton to know that this isn’t a legacy that the mayor wants to leave his children and grand children – a city so dysfunctional that it’s unable to pull itself out of a downward spiral.

But one thing is clear: if we are to succeed, we need every one, especially the two out of three Memphians who didn’t vote last week, to get off the sidelines and into the game.