Sunday, September 27, 2015

Can Memphis do what Nashville has done and elect a woman mayor?

Dr. Sharon A. Webb, the only woman in the 2015 Memphis mayoral race,
faces an uphill battle against formidable opponents. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
       Dr. Sharon A. Webb’s campaign for mayor could end up dead on arrival in the Memphis municipal election on Oct. 8 after failing to resuscitate a poor debate performance at First Congregational Church on July 28.  
Webb is the only woman on the ballot in the mayor’s race and made that point explicitly clear throughout the debate and from that point forward on the campaign trail. “I am the only woman in this race,” she said. “And we need a woman in that office.”
Webb’s point is well taken. But women have not been successful in their bid for the mayor’s job, said attorney Carol Chumney, who ran unsuccessfully for Shelby County mayor in 2002, city mayor in 2007 and again for city mayor in the 2009 special election.
 “I would hope people during some point will give a woman a chance,” said Chumney, a former state legislator and city council member. “We’ve got a lot of qualified women in this city and state. It’s time to break the glass ceiling. All people want is a level playing field.”
The glass ceiling was broken just recently in Nashville when Megan Barry became the first Metro Council member to be elected mayor. She beat David Fox 55 percent to 45 percent after a five-week run-off to become the first female mayor to head the metropolitan government.
But is it pure conjecture or wishful thinking on Webb’s part to believe that she could become the first female mayor of Memphis? Her performance in July, however, just didn’t jell with some voters and drew harsh criticism. To put it kindly, Webb is in a league of her own, one she believes is undergirded by divine intervention.
 “I do believe in miracles,” said Webb, the founder and senior pastor of Life Changing Word Ministries World Center. “I do believe in divine intervention. I feel good about the race. I feel I have just as good a chance as the other candidates.”
So what drives Webb to hedge her bets against four well-financed, politically astute front-runners – Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Councilman Jim Strickland, Councilman Harold Collins, and Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association?
 “The city is going down,” she said. “The city needs to be nurtured back to health. I’m a nurturer. I know how to love the city back to life. Right now, a man doesn’t know how to fix it – and I do. I’m in the trenches every single day. I see what the people need.”
Like Chumney and a field of other contenders, Webb ran for mayor in the 2009 special election. Wharton ultimately won after ending his seven-year tenure as Shelby County mayor. But Webb loss more than she’d bargained for in that race when she drew a blank during a televised forum after she was asked about two actions she would take as mayor.
Webb admits being intimidated by her well-known opponents: Wharton, Councilman Myron Lowery, attorney Charles Carpenter, WWE standout Jerry “The King” Lawler, former school board member Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., Robert “Mongo” Hodges, former City Council member Wanda Halbert, to name a few.
“During that time I was so afraid,” said Webb. “Fear gripped me and my mind just went blank. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of an answer, or didn’t know the answer, I just went blank.”
Webb is facing Wharton again and others who are just as formidable and well known. But is she intimidated this time on the campaign trail? Or has she learned to craft her answers to avoid being subjected to mockery and unflattering remarks?   
 “If I didn’t love the people, do you think I would put myself through this again? I care about people, so I can look pass that. The need is greater than what they write or say about me. That’s why I keep moving in spite of the ridicule.”
Despite Webb’s perceived shortcomings – and she admits not being a great debater – Chumney acknowledges Webb’s affability “and a person of faith whose heart is right.” But will these attributes translate into votes and bring her within striking distance of City Hall?
“We’ve had an African-American county mayor, an African-American city mayor, African-American county commissioners and African-American city councilmen and women, but we haven’t had a woman in the mayor’s office,” said Chumney, noting the degree of difficulty for a woman to become the chief executive officer.
There is an exception: Former Shelby County Commissioner Joyce Avery served 45 days as the interim county mayor after Wharton took office at City Hall. Avery made history, but the Commission appointed Joe Ford to fill the remaining nine months of Wharton’s term.  
Former commissioner and businesswoman Deidre Malone, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Shelby County in 2014, tried to wrest the seat from incumbent Republican Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., but she suffered a disappointing loss in the general election.
There are 10 mayoral candidates on the Memphis ballot altogether. But the spotlight hasn’t landed squarely on the so-called lower-tier candidates, which could elevate their profile significantly like the profiles of the big four: Wharton, Strickland, Collins and Williams.
“The media selected four candidates. It’s not fair and it’s not right when there are 10 people in the race,” lamented Webb, who was invited to participate in just a couple of forums or debates although there have been several.
“They didn’t invite me to the forums and debates because they don’t think I’m qualified,” she said. “That’s their choice, but it isn’t right.”
Webb has some political experience. She was elected to the school board of legacy Memphis City Schools and the Memphis Charter Commission, a body that reviewed and suggested changes to the city’s charter.
“It didn’t say you have to have 15 years of government experience,” said Webb, noting that her qualifications to run for mayor put her on the ballot. “When you work in a job or an administration you learn on the job.”
It’s a huge challenge for any woman, Chumney maintains. “Are we holding women to too high standards? Are we sexist? These are questions I grapple with. So how do you break the glass ceiling? You can’t break the glass ceiling unless you run.”
Webb says she’s not discouraged even though huge barriers are blocking her path to City Hall. “I refuse to allow anybody to put me in a box and say what I can’t do. It takes courage to stand up there, to put your name on the list. It takes Jesus.”
It also takes a lot of money to run a successful campaign. “Having $400,000 in your war-chest doesn’t make you a winner. It’s the voters,” said Webb, referencing the huge war chests amassed by the top two contenders, Wharton and Strickland.
“You don’t have to have billboards to win an election,” said Webb, running a grass root campaign instead. “Sometimes it gets hard, but you just get out your Kleenex and keep running. You have to encourage yourself. And I’m going to run to the end.”

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