The first television debate of the Memphis mayoral campaign drew nine contenders and some legitimate differences of opinion.
The debate aired live from Opera Memphis on Action News 5 for an hour and a half Thursday evening.
The candidates in attendance were: Charles Carpenter, Carol Chumney, Wanda Halbert, Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges, Jerry Lawler, Myron Lowery, Sharon Webb, Kenneth Whalum Jr. and A C Wharton Jr.
Using a debate format that eliminated such time consuming political customs as profusely thanking the debate hosts and telling stories of citizens the candidates have encountered, there were lots of specific questions.
Asked what he would do if Bass Pro Shops were to decide not to renovate The Pyramid, Carpenter said he would favor tearing down The Pyramid to clear the land for future development.
“That is some of the most valuable land we have in the city of Memphis,” said Carpenter, an attorney who has served as bond counsel for the city and county governments.
Chumney and Whalum brushed aside suggestions that because of their personalities they might each have problems working with others as the city’s chief executive.
“I’m not elected to get along with others,” said Whalum, who is a city school board member.
“As mayor, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m liked,” Chumney responded when asked about working with City Council members. Chumney is a former council member and former state representative making her second bid for Memphis Mayor in as many years.
The only give and take among the candidates came when Chumney repeated her story of helping victims in a recent storm that knocked out power to several parts of the city for several days. Chumney said there was no local government response to the neighborhoods she visited.
Wharton, the mayor of Shelby County, disputed that.
“I’m not going to let anybody slur our county employees because of your lack of knowledge. That’s just not fair,” he told Chumney.
Chumney said she didn’t see Wharton in the neighborhoods she visited while taking water and other necessities to those without power.
“You didn’t stay long enough Ms. Chumney,” Wharton replied. “You can’t just pop up when the cameras are there.”
A few questions later, Chumney veered off subject to portray herself as a political outsider and plug her website. “I’m the only candidate with no ties to the former administration,” she said, speaking of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton. She also alluded to Wharton’s 2007 meeting with Herenton at Le Chardonnay, after which Wharton turned down a campaign to draft him into challenging Herenton.
Wharton said he wouldn’t dignify the inference of a political deal by responding to it.
Lawler, a former professional wrestler who has not ties to Herenton, laid his own claim to political outsider status. “I’m not one of them,” he said. “I’m not a politician. I’m about telling people the truth.”
Lawler is host of a popular nationally televised wrestling program. Asked if he would give up the gig if elected mayor, Lawler, who ran for mayor in 1999, said no. “I work two hours a week on Monday night, “ Lawler said as he cited million of viewers around the world as an opportunity to promote the city. “That’s promotion money can’t buy.”
Despite the claim to outsider status, Lawler was less than thrilled to be seated next to Hodges, who was slathered in several shades of body paint, wore several necklaces, a pair of goggles and a coat bedecked with a rubber chicken and a fake skull. The candidates were seated in alphabetical order. Before the debate, Lawler said Hodges was an affront to the serious nature of the discussion.
Lowery, who is Mayor Pro Tempore following the July resignation of Herenton, described his nearly one month tenure in the mayor’s office as “phenomenal.” He also said some city employees and supervisors had been disciplined in a transition in city garbage pick up schedules. The transition, which began before he took office, left some waste by the curbside for weeks in several neighborhoods.
Halbert, a City Council member, said “illegal tactics” were used to rule out some applicants for jobs on the Memphis Police Department. Lowery termed it “a lot of allegations without any substance.”
Halbert was the only one of the nine to say she supports the idea of a payroll tax on all who work within Memphis, whether they live in the city or not.
Whalum pledged a full audit of city government if elected. He also declined to offer his side of the story in a Sunday incident that resulted in two women being ejected from the church he pastors, New Olivet Baptist Church. The women claim they were roughed up by members of the congregation because they are lesbians. Whalum told supporters earlier in the week that the women were “lying out of their behinds.” At Thursday night’s debate, he responded to a question about the incident by saying, “You know what happened. … Come over there and find out.”
Meanwhile, scratch Edmund Ford Sr. and Jr. from the field for the mayor’s race. The former and current city council members, respectively, endorsed Wharton Thursday. The elder Ford had talked of running but then suggested his son might be running instead. The endorsement of the younger Ford brings to two the number of current council members backing Wharton. Council member Jim Strickland had pulled a qualifying petition for the mayor’s race before deciding to serve as one of several co chairs of the Wharton campaign.