“Delusions of Grandeur” was a recent headline on an article about the growing number of Republican candidates for U.S. president.

Back here, the election of Memphis mayor has attracted even more possible candidates.  While we’re way too Southern to label most of them delusional, the odds for many of them are about as good as they are for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez or North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum to be elected president.

Seventeen people have pulled petitions to run for mayor and they have until the end of the month to make a final decision.  Many are expected to forego the race.

The key factor in who goes and who stays is money.  A leading consultant said $500,000 is required to run a credible race if the candidate has name recognition but it will cost much more for a candidate with low name recognition.

Conventional wisdom suggests there are four main contenders – Willie W. Herenton, Floyd Bonner, Van Turner, and Paul Young.  Merging the two polls made public in May shows only four candidates with double-digit support – Mr. Herenton at 14%, Mr. Turner at 13%, Mr. Bonner at 12%, and Paul Young at 10%.

Languishing between 2 and 4 percent are State Rep. Karen Camper, businessman JW Gibson, Memphis and Shelby County School Board member Michelle McKissack, and Councilman Frank Colvett.  Former television judge Joe Brown is at 6.5% but the disparate poll results and confusing him with the former City Councilman of the same name raise questions about his strength.  

The ”Minor” Candidates

It’s possible that a candidate who receives 25% of the vote could be the next mayor and at this point, it’s hard to see any of the candidates in single digits making up that much ground.

However, the campaign is just now beginning in earnest and as the old axiom says, a lot can happen between now and the election in the next three months, particularly when political ads begin to saturate television.  It will take deep pockets, and in this regard, among all of the “minor” candidates, no one has deeper pockets than JW Gibson. He will need to reach deeply into them to build the kind of name recognition that gives him a decent shot at the mayor’s office.

Ms. McKissack is an intriguing, young candidate with a political base that comes from her school board election.  The lure of a woman in the mayor’s office has its own appeal; however, the true value of a mayor’s race for her at this point is that it gets her more exposure and higher name recognition for the future.  She gets positive reviews but needs significant money to increase her name recognition.    

Another candidate with good reviews is Mr. Colvett but his hopes seem to hang on galvanizing Whites voting in a bloc.  The problem is even if they do, he would still fall short.  He’s promised to be the “development mayor” but for many people that conjures up thoughts of tax breaks, corporate welfare, and developer insiders.  It would be better to talk about being “economic development mayor” because it gives him more traction.  He needs momentum sooner rather than later and to excel in debates to have any chance.    

Herenton and Bonner

Former Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton is positioned as the wild card.  In the past two mayoral elections, 100,000 people voted. In the last election against incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland, the former mayor got 29% of the vote.  If he receives that percentage, or the 27,694 votes this time around, he is likely to be mayor.

However, in this race, there are more candidates dividing up the vote. At this point, he has only half of the support in polling that he received at the polls four years ago.  Last time around, he campaigned lightly and didn’t spend much money.  This time around, there are questions about whether at 83 years old, he has the fire in the belly for this campaign.

His campaign lacks a cohesive theme but it suggests something like this: “you might not like my personality, but you sure liked Memphis when I was mayor – the crime rate was lower, I built FedExForum and AutoZone Park, I ended public housing, and I laid plans that led to Liberty Park and South City.”  So far, his lack of political speak and talking tough commentaries are attracting a new look from people who celebrated when he left the mayor’s office in 2009.

Sheriff Floyd Bonner benefits from the highest name recognition and a high favorability rating, which are as much a part of being sheriff as the six-pointed badge – #1.  But he has something even better – a hefty campaign bank account.

Mr. Bonner has a solid campaign staff, and their presence has attracted support from some who gravitated early more from an interest in backing a winner than looking for an inspirational, stirring speaker.  There’s added value in looking like a winner and that has powered the early part of his campaign.

Mr. Bonner often projects an “old school” political approach, the kind of command presence, “what you see is what you get” career law officer.  He will need to prove that his decades in law enforcement background prepares him to fight violent crime in Memphis.  As sheriff, he’s been much more involved in warehousing prisoners than enforcement.  The jail is the repository for people arrested all over Shelby County while the sheriff’s department only enforces in the unincorporated part of the county with its population of about 100,000.

He fights charges about lack of transparency after eight inmates died in jail and in the aftermath of the murder of Tyre Nichols.  It’s given rise to the question: how can he manage 901 when he can’t manage 201? All this puts extra pressure on his performance on the debate stage and on proving his four decades of law enforcement experience has produced innovative strategies to fight violent crime in Memphis.

Turner and Young

Attorney, former county commissioner, and NAACP president Van Turner has a political base from previous elections, from his leadership in removing Confederate statues from Memphis parks, and from his high-profile appearances on the national news related to Mr. Nichols’ killing. 

His fundraising has lagged behind Mr. Bonner and Mr. Young, which contributes to a concern that he lacks a finely-tooled campaign with a well-thought-out plan that can leverage his national publicity into local votes.  Put directly, he needs the next financial disclosure form to be attention-getting and momentum-building if he’s to prove that he deserves to be called a front runner.

Mr. Turner’s fundraising was likely hampered by a question that lingered for months about whether he met the city’s residency requirements.  The same question loomed over Mr. Bonner but he benefited from already having money in the bank from his previous election where he ran unopposed.  It remains to be seen whether announcing a run for mayor of Memphis while living outside the city limits and filing a lawsuit to run becomes a problem on the campaign trail.  Political observers said it won’t.    

Downtown Memphis Commission president –  and former HCD director appointed by Mayor Jim Strickland – Paul Young stunned observers when he raised more than $400,000 but likely spent more than any other campaign to increase name recognition.  His candidacy has attracted the support of enthusiastic supporters anxious to have a younger mayor whose background they believe provides him with a better understanding of policy and how to make government work more innovatively.  

That link to the current mayor cuts both ways.  For many, it suggests that he would provide a continuation of the Strickland Administration and the backing of so many people in the Administration reenforces the suggestion.  He has led the Downtown Memphis Commission at a time when Main Street needs serious help and some marquee projects failed to launch.

Mr. Young may be a novice to running for office but his campaign machinery gives no hint that it’s a rookie operation.  It reflects his long-held plans to run for mayor and how in previous years, he has given a great deal of planning to his fundraising and kickoff.

Debates Up The Ante

With slightly more than two months before early voting begins for the October 5 election day, candidates will soon be put through their paces and the goal is to be a clear frontrunner with momentum 4-6 weeks from now. 

So far, it’s more personality-driven than anything else.  It’s hard to distinguish one candidate’s rhetoric from another.  Comments range toward the generic and website bios range to the hyperbolic but as they say, the rubber hits the road after the Fourth of July.   

While they continue to assemble campaign teams and a ground game behind the scenes, the upcoming debates will put an unforgiving spotlight on each candidate.  Their performances on the debate stages broadcast to the public will go a long way in determining who is ready for prime time.


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