September 17, 2007

Unity Strategy Requires Persuasion

The first time I came across a bumper sticker with the campaign slogan for mayoral candidate Herman Morris, I was impressed at the simple yet meaningful message: Together. For a change. There are two potential meanings, both appropriate for this moment in Memphis history: "We will do things together for a change," or "We will work for a change, together."

Fellow contender Carol Chumney is also sloganeering for change. Her campaign mantra (For the People, For a Change) seeks to tap into the same appetite for a new direction in city leadership, while the slogan on Mayor Willie Herenton's billboards and Web site (Continuing Progress) promises to build on the accomplishments of his previous terms. This election season, it has been the mayor's unofficial slogan (Shake the Haters Off) that has gotten the most attention, but it is Morris' theme of togetherness that I find most intriguing.

This column is not meant as an endorsement or rejection of any candidate -- there is far more to judge all three of these hopefuls on than their slogans. Instead, with the election just over two weeks away, I wonder whether a campaign based on togetherness, as Morris' campaign is, can succeed in Memphis.

Memphis has a history of electing candidates whose campaigns divide, rather than unite, the community, and much of that dividing occurs along racial lines. In 1967, Henry Loeb was elected with virtually no African-American support, a strategy that did not serve him well as the city encountered the sanitation workers' strike of 1968. More recently, Herenton was first elected in 1991 with little white support over incumbent Dick Hackett by a mere 142 votes.

In a book studying the 1991 election, "Racial Politics at the Crossroads," Rhodes College professors Marcus Pohlmann and Michael Kirby wrote that Memphis had reached a "point of racial reflexivity," where any crossover support for one candidate would dampen enthusiasm (and with it, potential voter turnout) in the candidate's own racial community. For candidate Herenton, therefore, any impression of white support was likely to diminish the crusade-like enthusiasm in the African-American community that ultimately made it possible for Memphis to elect its first black mayor. Indeed, Herenton received approximately 3 percent of the white vote, while Hackett received only 1 percent of the African-American vote in 1991.

If Herenton is to win a fifth term on Oct. 4, it appears that it will be won, just as his first election was, without substantial white support. In a July poll commissioned by The Commercial Appeal, only 4 percent of white respondents thought the mayor should be re-elected. In that sense, 2007 looks a lot like 1991.
Based on his slogan, Herman Morris is betting that Memphis has pulled back from the 1991 level of racial reflexivity and that an interracial coalition can sweep him into the mayor's office. His co-campaign manager John Ryder recently stated that Morris can win by getting 40 percent of the white vote along with 40 percent of the African-American vote. Whether Morris can garner that percentage in either community remains to be seen, but 16 years removed from the incredibly divided 1991 election, there is some evidence that a unifying candidate can succeed, regardless of that candidate's race.

Most significantly, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, former U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. and Ford's successor, Rep. Steve Cohen, have enjoyed significant crossover voting, although in Cohen's case, his support in the African-American community was hard won and appears to be even harder kept. For his part, even Herenton has previously enjoyed substantial white support in rolling to his landslide elections in 1995, 1999 and 2003.

If Morris, or any candidate, is going to follow these examples of interracial coalitions, he will have to convince voters in diverse segments of the community that togetherness can and must work for Memphis to thrive going forward. As Herenton himself said after his historic first election in 1991: "As your new mayor, not just for a few, but for all Memphians, I envision a great and vital metropolis rushing excitedly towards the 21st century, a century which will feature a Memphis that proudly boasts equal opportunity and access, racial justice and peace, cultural unity and harmony -- for all."

That kind of interracial togetherness would be some progress worth continuing.