Can we speak frankly, as mature adults, in blunt words, about a sensitive subject? We can and we must. Memphis is suffering from E.D.— electile dysfunction. On October 8th this embarrassing but treatable problem will be on display once again as Memphians elect a mayor and 13 members of the city council. Will there be a robust turnout? Or will interest peter out once again? History suggests the latter.
Like the television commercial says, there can be many contrib-uting factors to E.D. Here are some of them.
The relationship has lost its zip. When A C Wharton was reelected in 2011 he got 48,645 votes. That’s a nice attendance number for a football game at Liberty Bowl Stadium but a sorry one for an incumbent mayor. In 1983, Dick Hackett got 133,000 votes. In 1991 he got 122,454 votes, and lost. Kenneth Whalum Jr. got more than 80,000 votes in a school board election. Twice.
Memphis has had only four elected mayors since 1972. If Wharton wins in October and serves out his term that will be four mayors in 48 years. School superintendents, football and basketball coaches, and college presidents come and go, but may-ors stay around like the last guest at a party. After two or three terms they’re planning their exit strategy — Wyeth Chandler quit in 1982, Willie Herenton quit in 2009, and Hackett left $348,000 unspent in his campaign fund when he lost in 1991. If Wharton wins in October, he will have had the title of mayor for 18 years, counting his city and county terms.
The cure is worse than the dis-ease. Nobody likes to have peo-ple watching over their shoulder when they’re trying to have an election. In 1991, busybodies from the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. District Court Judge Jerome Turner decided to intervene in the election process. Runoff elec-tions were banned in mayoral and at-large city elections, supposedly to give black candidates a better chance of winning.
The intervention was questionable then and seems wholly non-sensical now. By 1991 Memphis had a slightly majority-black pop-ulation. Herenton defeated Hack-ett by 142 votes. He was reelected, with significant white support, in 1995, 1999, and 2003. Thoroughly burned out, he limped to victory in 2007 with just 42 percent of the vote. Ironically, the second-place finisher, Carol Chumney with 57,196 votes, might have become the first woman to be elected mayor of Memphis had there been a runoff. The Justice De-partment said nothing about that inequity. And it’s possible that the winning candidate in the 2015 mayoral election could prevail with 40 percent or less of the total vote. The candidate most likely to benefit from the no-runoff rule: a white man, Jim Strickland.
More is less. Getting up for an election is not easy. Few things are more satisfying than a big election with lots of back and forth, give and take, leading to a satisfying climax.
The job of mayor is overrated and underpaid. The mayor of Memphis makes about $175,000. The former mayor of Memphis, Dick Hackett, makes $312,000 running the Children’s Museum. The Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce paid its former leader $462,000. Former city council members Mike Carpen-ter and Scott McCormick made more than $250,000 for running the Plough Foundation. Wharton would be worth three times that much based on his resume, tem-perament, and suaveness.
The mayor has no say over Memphis schools. The bigger public parks have been out-sourced to conservancies and nonprofits. Memphis Light, Gas and Water is an independent en-tity with its own board and CEO. Private foundations with $100 million or more in assets play the role of futurists and visionaries and financial angels. The mayor and city council are mere func-tionaries.
More is less. Getting up for an election is not easy. Few things are more satisfying than a big election with lots of back and forth, give and take, leading to a satisfying climax. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing — another prime cause of E.D. Several years ago some election geniuses decided that early voting would increase turnout. It did no such thing. By election day, tens of thousands of voters had, so to speak, come too early. The Big Day was a Big Dud. Early voting has taken the romance out of what was once a cherished ritual. Then there are runoff elections, and Shelby County elections, and nation-al elections for president and Congress. Maybe our prudish grandpar-ents were right after all. A little abstinence might not be such a bad idea.