The following article is taken from the June 2010 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
On the River: The Race for Mayor Part I
By: Michael Roy Hollihan
Do the two major candidates for Shelby County mayor offer the voters too much choice this time? One is methodical and the other is opportunistic. I use those terms not pejoratively but descriptively. I think the answer is yes.
Even though the primaries are over and Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell, the Republican, has promised to take his campaign to the next level, you’d be hard pressed to notice it. He’s just so low-key, so mild-mannered and soft-spoken, he doesn’t generate much heat, much less dazzle. Memphis Mayor A C Wharton is similar, which is why they make such an excellent pair. Both excel with radiance and bonhomie.
No doubt Luttrell’s confident in his 2009 re-election numbers, where he garnered the same stratospheric support from voters, black and white, as Wharton did. And a relatively recent poll reportedly shows his support seems to be holding. That’s rare for white Republicans here.
Luttrell also has that uniquely Republican “next man in line” deference accumulated about him. It’s a common theme for Republicans to reward long, satisfactory service in a progression of offices so that, when the top job opens up everyone defers to their status as the “next man in line” to run for it. It’s something he’s been slowly angling for, carefully building his support and steadily approaching without seeming in any way desperate or ambitious. Not unlike his former County partner in office, A C Wharton.
In his essentially un-opposed race Luttrell racked up nearly as many votes as the simultaneous, and more heated, Democratic primary did in total. But will that support stick with him? And will he add enough more to outpoll Ford?
Joe Ford, on the other hand, has displayed a new style, of nimble political opportunism. For years he’s been characterized as quiet mannered to the point of passivity. It’s been both bane of his political ambitions and a palliative to the public’s perceptions of the Ford family. When the County Commission was negotiating for a replacement for Wharton, Ford got the nod by promising to be just the interim mayor. Once he got into the office, he quickly announced he was going to run for election anyway. When pressed by the media, he brushed his questioners aside by declaring that he’d simply changed his mind.
When years of slowly boiling financial troubles at The MED reached critical, a large and varied group of politicians brought a stop-gap resolution. It’s not a permanent solution, but that didn’t stop Interim Mayor Ford from quickly declaring he’d “solved” The MED’s problems. Even after being challenged by others – including Mark Luttrell – he’s held to that claim, waving it like a captured enemy flag. He’s picked up some of his brothers’ shameless boldness and it’s suiting him.
During the end of the countless stalemated rounds of voting by County Commissioners for an interim mayor it was Commissioner Henri Brooks who credited her constituents, the people, with shifting her deciding vote over to Ford. Is there a tsunami-like swelling of support out there for Ford, almost undetectable until it rolls ashore?
His handy defeat of fellow commissioner Deidre Malone, who’s announced her mayoral ambitions, loudly and often, only added to his electoral luster.
When applied these to the issue of consolidation, their public personae leave the voter with a conundrum.
Like the well-trained law enforcement official he is, Luttrell responded to questions about his support for the consolidation plan coming from the Metro Charter Commission by saying he’d have to wait and see what the plan was first. Will he or won’t he? We won’t really know until he’s already in office and then the Charter Commission reports its plan to the people for the November referendum.
Ford, on the other hand, quickly jumped to oppose consolidation in any form. That’s a position sure to win him some support from nervous East Shelbians and suburbanites. But can his word be trusted to hold? Will he, after becoming County mayor in part by riding the anti-consolidation surge, suddenly see the merit in the plan and “change his mind” to support it?
I think it’s a tighter race than many assume. And the most radical question for Shelby Countians to decide about their future has no sure champion pointing a way. We’ll be living on tenterhooks from now through November, it seems.