Sunday column: Eyeing the summer’s big city mayoral races

While Knoxville is poised to reelect Mayor Madeline Rogero to a new term with a yawn, voters in Tennessee’s two larger cities have been witnessing a wondrous summer spectacle of political combat between multiple mayoral candidates that has involved some wild spending and strange doings.

Whether this is a cause for celebration or envy in Knoxville, of course, is a matter of opinion. But for political junkie entertainment value, the contests in Nashville and Memphis are darn near on a par with the presidential campaigns on the national level – and the outcome will have ramifications in the rest of the state.

Insofar as general human interest goes, maybe Memphis tops Nashville. Consider that one of the 10 candidates, Leo Awgowhat, was charged last week with vandalizing a statute of Nathan Bedford Forrest by painting “Aw Go What” on it – a new type of campaign ad? — and another, perennial contender Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges, professes to come from the planet Zambodia.

By most accounts, incumbent Mayor A C Wharton is the favorite – but not by much – and his chief challenger is Jim Strickland, a prominent city councilman. The election is Oct. 9.

Memphis has a majority black electorate and race is often an underlying factor in its elections. Wharton is black and so are most other contenders, including another city councilman, the Memphis Police Association president and a former school board member. Strickland is white.

Insofar as spending goes, Nashville unquestionably tops Memphis. It appears that seven candidates collectively spent about $15 million prior to the Aug. 6 general election, not counting Super PACs that got involved. In Memphis, it appears the collective total so far is around $1 million – mostly by Wharton and Strickland – though more can be expected as the election develops. Rogero had $76,718 in her campaign account at last report.

Nashville does have a runoff, scheduled for Sept. 10. It pits Megan Barry, a city council member, and David Fox, a former school board member and hedge-fund manager in a classic liberal-versus-conservative contest. Under state law, all municipal elections are nonpartisan, but this one has strong partisan overtones – and many think that benefits Barry in Nashville, which is fairly characterized as a blue island surrounded by a red sea comprised of adjoining Middle Tennessee counties.

The biggest spender in the regular election, real estate developer William Freeman, finished third and is out of the picture. He spent about $4.5 million, most of it self-financing.
Fox leads Barry in spending, having pumped more than $1.5 million in personal funds into the pre-runoff race. He also was supported by $500,000 in spending by a Super PAC, which turned out to be totally funded by Fox’s brother, who lives in Connecticut.

Fox has sought to portray Barry, who presided at Nashville’s first gay marriage ceremony, as an extreme social liberal. Barry has sought to portray Barry, who attends Republican fundraisers, as an extreme conservative. Both try to portray themselves as somewhat centrist.

It’s notable that most of the state’s leading Republican politicians, including Gov. Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell, who represents part of Nashville in the Legislature, have declined to take sides – as has the city’s Chamber of Commerce.

Last weekend, Fox attended a fundraiser for state Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, where Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican presidential candidate, was keynote speaker. Johnson endorsed Fox and Barry subsequently declared in a debate that Fox, “left Nashville to get the endorsement of a Republican legislator who is focused on overturning the will of Nashville.” Johnson has indicated he may file legislation to override a Nashville charter amendment that requires hiring of local residents for work on city-financed construction projects.

That got more Nashville media attention, by far, than Walker’s campaign appearance. Johnson told The Nashville Scene that he endorsed because what happens in Nashville, as the state’s capitol, has an impact statewide and he think its important that a “pro-business” mayor be presiding there.

He included outgoing Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and former Mayor Phil Bredesen, who went on to serve eight years as governor, as examples of pro-business leaders, even though they’re Democrats. Bredesen has endorsed Barry.

The state’s “Big Four” mayors – those from Chattanooga, Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis – jointly lobby the Legislature each year on issues impacting cities. So there’s some common interest there. They’re also all Democrats now and, with Republicans dominating the statewide scene, the mayors are increasingly viewed as leaders within their party.

Dean and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who is not up for reelection until next year, have been mentioned as prospective 2018 gubernatorial candidates. Maybe Rogero should get some attention, too, since she must be a consensus builder to avoid opposition in a city that is not as Democrat-dominated as others in the Big Four.

But then again, she isn’t getting much campaign experience.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.