It seems that a lot of people won’t believe Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is really leaving City Hall until he turns in his keys July 10.

Such is the mystique of unpredictability that surrounds him. Although reports of a resignation have circulated and sounded firm for weeks, there were still people at the City Hall press conference who half expected him to announce that he was appointing a new chief administrative officer.

Because of his dominating presence over the city he has served, it is almost impossible to imagine a post-Herenton Memphis, and passions for and against him are so strong that it will probably rest ultimately with historians to sort out his record time in the mayor’s office.

There are those who think that his political base suffers from Stockholm Syndrome, and there are those who are equally convinced that his critics refuse to recognize that he is truly a fighter for people who have shared his life experience, particularly his hard scrabble upbringing, and his overachieving career.

No Time For Eulogies

There’s little time for reflecting on the Herenton legacy any way, since the line forms on the right for the covey of candidates quequing up for an October election that has a timeline that seems more akin to Great Britain politics.

The mayor’s announcement was reminiscent of the funeral of a county elected official where his potential successors solicited votes in the shadow of the casket. The difference today is that Mayor Herenton is no political corpse, and absent action by the never ending federal investigation, his odds for taking the oath of office as a freshman Congressman are awfully good.

His resignation has produced the political equivalent of a dam bursting. With the pressure soon unleashed, candidates seemed to come out of the woodwork – a couple of them serious candidates, more of them engaged in wishful thinking and even more floating trial balloons that will soon float to the ground.

There are two things you can never have enough of in a campaign – time and money. This time around, candidates will find themselves without enough of either. The candidates who have the power to raise the kinds of money that will be needed to mount a serious campaign – particularly against the popular favorite, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton – can be counted on one hand (with several fingers left over).

Tag Team Match

In a normal election, before ramping up the media saturation in the last couple of months, candidates take a year (or more) to raise money and set up their ground campaigns. This time around, they will need to out fund raise Mayor Wharton, a considerable hurdle to clear.

With such an abbreviated schedule, the combination of Mayor Wharton’s fundraising abilities and his high approval ratings presents a formidable challenge, because it means that an opponent needs to raise more money than he does if that person is going to position himself/herself and to compete in the air wars.

Because of the short fuse for this election, the advantage goes to candidates who can raise money, who have an existing citywide campaign structure, a strong base and high favorability. Those are tough objectives in campaigns four times longer than the upcoming mayor’s race.

Put simply, the overall campaign objective will be for opponents of Mayor Wharton to bring down his favorable ratings, and to this end, he is said to be preparing for the cadre of contenders to alternate between acting as a tag team attacking him and a Greek chorus describing what they want the audience to believe the drama means.

The Fun Begins

They are counting on Mayor Wharton’s reputation as measured and cautious to keep him off balance, but the Wharton team say they relish the chance for him to show “the real A C.” “People underestimate him because they think he’s dispassionate. We can’t wait.”

It promises to be the most interesting six months in modern Memphis political history. We can’t wait. This is going to be so much fun.

Here’s our post from a couple of weeks ago about the selection process:

Reports about an imminent resignation by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton are rumbling again, and this time around, they seem to have more credence than before.

But with Mayor Herenton, we’ve learned to believe it when we see it, but if he steps aside, it will have far-reaching ramifications – for not just who follows him as city mayor but who gets elected county mayor.

His political friends report that the lack of passion in City Hall is quickly being replaced with the energy triggered by a potential race for U.S. Congress against two-term incumbent Steve Cohen.

The Contest

Despite the breathless coverage by the media, we are a long way from having any idea how that race is likely to shake out. The poll headlined by Channel 5 showing Rep. Cohen trouncing Mayor Herenton was specious and has little connection with the reality of the situation.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Mayor Herenton still has a strong base, and the race for Congress between two political veterans – one who’s a master of the sound bite and another whose mastery runs more to biting when least expected – is likely to be a street fight to the death.

At this point, the main questions are how early will the mayor play the race card – or if he will leave it to be played by others – and how early the congressman will bedevil him with his patented barbs designed to either draw laughs or blood.

Swimming Upstream

Congressman Cohen already expects to swim against a strong political current in favor of returning an African-American to the congressional seat in a majority African-American district. In turn, Mayor Herenton should expect to confront an opponent who raises more money than he does and can point to African-American colleagues in Congress who have lauded his work.

But this election is still more than a year away – a lifetime in politics – and a great deal can change, notably Mayor Herenton’s legal status as the federal investigation continues.

More current are the dominoes that will fall if Mayor Herenton steps down within weeks to concentrate on his race for Congress and a new business arrangement with one of his sons.

Options And Plenty Of Them

But we want to talk about mayors’ elections, so consider what happens if the mayor resigns. If Mayor Herenton steps down next month or August, his successor will be chosen in a special election in October or November respectively. Immediately upon the mayor leaving office, Memphis City Council Chairman Myron Lowery would be appointed as interim mayor, and the special election scheduled within 90 days.

At this point, he’s planning to run for mayor, and the prospects of yard signs, “Keep Lowery as Mayor,” are pretty appealing, as well as the ability to leverage the city’s most important bully pulpit as he campaigned.

That said, it’s obvious that a special mayor’s election in such short order favors the person with the county’s highest approval ratings and the deepest campaign pockets – A C Wharton. He would be formidable in the best of circumstances, but in an election called with such a short fuse, it would take lightning striking for him to lose.

One Scenario

We know there is the speculation that the mayor’s race will attract a cavalry of candidates, and as the electorate is divided up like a pie with too many people at the table, Mayor Wharton’s slice will shrink, allowing former Council member Carol Chumney to ease into office. All things are possible in politics but it’s not a prediction to which we subscribe for a variety of reasons, including his ability to attract both black and white votes and that the other candidates are largely fighting for the same votes.

It’s our sense that anyone trying to undercut Mayor Wharton will need to raise at least 50% more than his campaign budget and with only 90 days to do it, the points go to the candidate with a proven ability to raise big money and with an existing war chest.

Assume we’re right: Mayor Herenton resigns and Mayor Wharton is elected city mayor in October. His victory immediately opens up the county mayor’s seat, and the chairman of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners fills in temporarily.

County Options

At this point, the next chair of the legislative body – whose term begins Sept. 1 – is expected to be Joyce Avery, now chairman pro tempore. She would serve for 45 days, upon which time an interim mayor would be elected by the board of commissioners. Commissioner Sidney Chism is interested in running for the next chairman pro tempore and using it as a springboard for the appointment as interim mayor.

All in all, a Herenton exit now is a near miss for the current chair of the board of commissioners, Deidre Malone, a leading candidate for county mayor. Filling in as the 45-day mayor with hopes to create some momentum if appointed interim mayor, her campaign would have been jump started with a head start for the mayor’s race.

It would probably have been tough since Commissioner Chism is backing former state legislator and Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, and he’d try to block her appointment. (On the other hand, it’s just as likely that she’ll work hard to block him being named to the same position.)

Post-Republican Era

Whoever is elected as interim mayor by the board of commissioners, that person will serve until September 1, 2010, when the winner in the county general election takes office as Shelby County’s fifth mayor.

Interestingly, on that same August 5, 2010, ballot will be the election that will be a magnet for large Democratic turnout – the Cohen-Herenton Congressional battle. The returns 14 months from now will ratify the proposition that if we are not in fact in a post-racial world, our community is indeed in a post-Republican world.

It could even make for a difficult race for two-term sheriff Mark Luttrell, and it makes Attorney General Bill Gibbons’ campaign as the Republican candidate for governor an even greater long shot.

And as has been the case for 17 years, everything seems to start with Mayor Herenton.