Let’s start at the beginning. Why do we have city elections in odd-numbered years? And why do Memphians vote in October rather than November?
For reasons that remain obscure, the referendum of November 1966 which established the city’s mayor/council form of government (see below) also chose to set the city’s election date as the first Thursday after the first Tuesday of October — leaving an unusually lengthy lame-duck period of nearly three months for every mayoral transition since then, with swearing-in ceremonies taking place on New Year’s Day following an election. As for why city elections occur quadrennially in odd-numbered years, that tradition goes way back to the late nineteenth century.
Interesting. Now let’s get specific: next month, whom should we pick as mayor?
That’s your own business, of course. But before choosing a candidate to vote for, everyone needs to know just what a mayor is — and does — in specifically Memphis terms.
In our old City Commission form of government devised in the early twentieth century by Edward H. Crump, who ran the city for decades to suit himself, the mayor was a mainly ceremonial figure, a co-equal at best with five city commissioners, elected at large, who functioned as de facto division heads. All, of course, took most of their marching orders from “Boss” Crump.
By the election year of 1967, some 13 years after Crump’s death, the citizens of Memphis finally got around to filling the power vacuum, giving themselves actual power, by establishing, via referendum, a mayor/city council form of government. They chose a “strong mayor” form, one in which the chief executive has real authority; he sets the city agenda, prepares budgets, appoints and oversees division heads, and executes contracts. All that requires experience, ability, and demonstrably good judgment, right? So keep that in mind when voting.
Okay, so what about the Memphis City Council? What exactly is it that they do?
The 13 members of the council are elected from each of the city’s ethnically and geographically diverse areas on the theory that everybody in town, through their elected representatives, gets a say in how things are done. (How un-Crumpian is that!) The council gets to say Yes or No on a range of matters proposed by the mayor — and specifically must approve all expenditures.
Since the council’s decisions are (a) truly significant and (b) require a majority vote, the ideal council member is loyal to his/her constituents’ interests; strong-minded enough to hold his/her own with the 12 others gathered around the trough; diplomatic enough to influence the decisions of those others; and independent enough to hold the mayor to account. It’s quite a tall order for those seeking what are essentially part-time jobs.
Why are some council positions elected from single districts and others from at-large districts?
Ah, the answer to that one tells you something about recent Memphis history, which, not to spill any secrets or anything, has involved some racially tense moments — especially, as it happens, in the half-century since the advent of mayor/city council government. As amended following a ruling by the late U.S. District Judge Jerry Turner in 1991, the city is divided into seven districts, more or less equally populated and drawn to reflect an appropriate racial/ethnic balance overall. Each of these districts elects one member to the council for a four-year term.
In addition, there are two “Super Districts,” each one corresponding to a different geographic half of the city. Population shifts have diluted the percentage of white city residents overall, but Super District 9, which is roughly the eastern half of the city, is still predominantly white, while Super District 8, which tends westward, is even more predominantly African-American. Each of the two Super Districts elects three council representatives.
I get that there are two kinds of city council districts. But why do some of them have run-offs between the top two finishers, and others don’t?
This is where the race issue comes most into play. In the suit before Judge Turner in 1991, black litigants contended that runoff elections discriminated against their interests because white voters, at that time a bare majority in the city, would avail themselves of the run-off option — either consciously or unconsciously — to pare a crowded at-large field down to a showdown involving one white candidate versus one black candidate, in theory using their superior numbers to keep the black out of power. Q.E.D.: De facto discrimination.
Judge Turner agreed with the litigants, and imposed a ban on run-offs in city-wide races, like those for mayor as well as for the two Super Districts. That solution put in place an electoral structure that, in its balance of district and at-large representation, would tilt decisively toward racial equity overall.
All in all, Turner’s was a fairly Solomonic solution, and one of the first fruits of it was the epochal razor’s-edge victory of Willie Herenton, Memphis’ first elected black mayor, in a winner-take-all three-way race, held in October of the same year as Turner’s decision. Mayoral races since then have not had runoffs, as they had had for two decades previously.
So is this electoral structure still working in the interests of fairness for the community?
That’s maybe the most important question here, and there are two ways of answering it, depending on one’s vantage point. If the structure is seen as something designed to protect the interests of African Americans (who were, let us remember, the original litigants), the answer would be No. Population shifts over the last two decades have given blacks such a decisive voting majority in the city that the winner-take-all arithmetic of this year’s mayor’s race gives the one major white candidate a real shot against his three serious black opponents.
But if the electoral structure is seen as a means of safeguarding the chances of a candidate belonging to a distinct ethnic minority (in this case the white mayoral candidate), then Yes, the plan still works.
Okay, then, more times than not, the best man (or woman) should win, right?
That’s a tougher one to answer than it seems. Because, well, nobody’s going to agree on what the word “best” means in a political context. The question is: best what? Best intentioned? Best educated? Best set of issues? Superlatives that run like that generally don’t survive the kind of pie-throwing contests that our elections are, much less do they win them.
The kinds of advantages that do make a difference usually begin with a different adjective: “Most.” As in: Most money. Most campaign volunteers. Most seasoned networkers, etc.
The thing to remember about politics is that it’s a collective activity. The point is not for you to win. It’s for your side to win. Most of the “best” people, real or fancied, make terrible candidates, because they see themselves as … well, better. They don’t fit in with common causes or ordinary folk.
Every now and then some heroic personality emerges who expresses the best instincts or needs of a large group of people, maybe even of society at large, and wins. That’s when you can definitively say: “The system works.” Unfortunately, all too often the supposed heroic tribune of the people turns out to be a pied piper and/or a demagogue, who takes advantage of popular frustrations and takes off in absolutely the wrong direction, with everybody in tow. There are plenty of examples of this happening. Don’t get me started.
What about charisma? Doesn’t that play a role in every election?
Well, sure. And such a thing does exist. Although, all too often, what is billed as charisma isn’t the real thing. It’s just some advertising agency’s clever packaging of a none-too-spectacular personage. A nice blue suit. A photogenic family. A smile that photographs well. And there you go.
But there is such a thing as charisma, for sure. Take the two most popular U.S. presidents of the last century: FDR and Reagan. To a fair-minded person, it is inarguable that both of them had what we call charisma — although they couldn’t be further apart in what they represented politically.
Well, surely, it goes without saying that one problem with our elections — in Memphis as well as in the nation at large — is that the media gets too wrapped up in “horse race” coverage rather than in dealing with the issues.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Of all the observations people make about the political process — and this one gets made all the time in one form or another — this one may be the most misguided of all. The worst mischief the media make is when they try to decide what the issues are. That’s why they’re always being blind-sided when the voters do something they’re not supposed to do. But let’s assume that the issues in a given race are clear to everybody. Who should win the election: the candidate whose staff puts together a perfectly stated collection of position papers on those issues? Or the candidate whose endurance, flashes of humor, and hints of solid character somehow show through the wear and tear of the stressful human experience that a campaign is? You can guess the answer.
The current Memphis mayoral race has been going on since late winter (even earlier for some candidates) and will have lasted the greater part of a year when it concludes on October 8th. (Council candidates involved in runoffs will have to keep hacking it out for another four weeks, until November 5th.) At the very least, whoever can swim out of that goldfish bowl in one piece has proven something important.
Can money buy an election?
Now, there’s a nitty-gritty question. And this year’s Memphis city election will put it to the test. Money certainly can pay for yard signs and TV and radio spots and mailers and robo-calls and people to go door-to-door for a candidate, in great quantity.
In at least two council races this year, there are candidates whom nobody has ever heard of before who have raised (or been favored with) almost as much money as the two biggest spenders among the mayoral candidates. If these candidates end up winning in races where some of their opponents have spent years building up reputations in political or civic activity, it will answer that question.