Sanford: With the election in the home stretch, here are the races to watch

By , Daily Memphian Published: July 28, 2022 4:00 AM CT
Otis Sanford
Daily Memphian

Otis Sanford

Otis Sanford is professor emeritus of Journalism and Strategic Media at the University of Memphis and political commentator for WATN-TV ABC24 News. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @otissanford.

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With one week remaining before the Shelby County general election, along with state and federal primaries, interest among county voters is increasing.

Early voting is up noticeably compared to four years ago and is on par with eight years ago when the ballot contained a slew of judicial races as it does this year.

A county mayoral debate Tuesday, July 26, between incumbent Lee Harris and challenger Worth Morgan, sponsored by the Memphis Rotary Club, drew an impressive crowd of about 75 members and guests.

Harris, Morgan clash again at Memphis Rotary mayoral debate

Plus, just tune your television to a local channel and you’ll be inundated with campaign ads — most of them negative and primarily involving the race for district attorney.

So, now that the home stretch has arrived, here are my observations about the election in general and some key races in particular:

Turnout is taking shape

No matter how important these races are or the number of campaign signs that litter almost every major intersection in the county, it is always a chore to get turnout to reach 30% for an August election. Despite that, turnout so far, while not great, is not embarrassing either.

Through the first eight days of early voting, 36,268 votes were cast — 57% of them by people choosing the Democratic ballot. In 2018, when there was a hotly contested Republican gubernatorial primary race on the ballot, turnout after eight days of early voting was 32,470.

More than 7,700 cast ballots in first 2 days of early voting

In the August 2014 election, which featured a spectacle of sorts with erratic former television judge Joe Brown seeking to become district attorney, turnout after eight days was 37,164 — just 896 more than this year.

One reason for a larger turnout this year compared to 2018 is that all 26 early voting sites were open on the first day. Four years ago, only five sites were open the first three days.

In addition, various community and faith-based groups and the Shelby County Election Commission have put a stronger emphasis on helping voters get to the polls to cast early ballots.

Total turnout for both the 2014 and 2018 August elections were about 27%. Because of intense interest in races this year, don’t be surprised if total turnout approaches 30%, which would be a significant improvement.

No rest for the prosecution

The race for Shelby County district attorney has clearly been the most heated, the most negative and the most discussed of all the campaigns on the Aug. 4 ballot.

Republican incumbent Amy Weirich — who cruised to victory in 2014 over Brown — is in a dogfight this time with Democratic challenger Steve Mulroy. And their campaigns could not be more dissimilar.

DA’s office files motion to try second teen as adult in Eason-Williams carjacking, slaying

Weirich barely mentions the fact that she is running as a Republican. Instead, she has tried to focus on bread-and-butter concerns over public safety such as ensuring that convicted violent criminals do not gain early release from prison. Her campaign has sought to paint Mulroy, a University of Memphis law professor and former county commissioner, as being soft on crime.

Mulroy has sought to nationalize the race by touting endorsements from criminal justice reform-minded national figures such as the family members of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and celebrities such as singer John Legend. Mulroy also constantly accuses Weirich of unethical behavior as attorney general, while reminding voters that he is running as a Democrat.

Steve Mulroy wins Democratic primary for DA

With Democrats outnumbering Republicans countywide and Weirich being forced to defend her prosecutorial record, Mulroy could be positioned to pull an upset.

But Weirich and the county Republican Party are spending heavily on TV and direct mail ads. Plus, a radio ad, released ahead of early voting, featured Deborah Marion, the mother of slain basketball star Lorenzen Wright, endorsing Weirich. The ad was designed to peel off some of Mulroy’s support among Black voters.

Even longtime local politicos are uncertain how this race will go.

Which streak will end?

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris has won three straight elections for three different offices. In 2011, he was elected to the Memphis City Council. Three years later, he defeated incumbent state Sen. Ophelia Ford for the District 29 seat. And in 2018 he returned the county mayor’s office to Democratic hands by defeating former county trustee David Lenoir.

Harris goes on the offense in first face-to-face clash with Morgan in county mayor’s race

But current City Councilman Worth Morgan is looking to end Harris’ winning streak and extend one of his own. He was elected to the council in 2015 in his first run for public office and was reelected in 2019. Now facing term limits on the council, Morgan is campaigning for county mayor by making crime his top issue.

He’s also hoping to tap into sentiments — mostly by suburban voters — that the Harris administration performed poorly during the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021.

Harris, meanwhile, is attacking Morgan by painting him as a weak leader who has accomplished nothing during his nearly seven years as a councilman.

The challenger has out-raised Harris, according to second quarter campaign finance disclosures. Still, most pundits agree that a Morgan victory would be a monumental upset.

 Suddenly, we have a race

In May, when Shelby County Clerk Wanda Halbert grabbed 72% of the vote and easily defeated three opponents in the county’s Democratic primary, she was thought to be invincible in her quest for reelection. Not anymore.

Halbert now finds herself in a tough race against Republican Jeff Jacobs, a former 22-year employee of the county clerk’s office.

The reason for the turnaround is the avalanche of criticism for how Halbert has handled the distribution of automobile tags and new state license plates.

The debacle could not have come at a worse time. Hundreds of people have been forced to stand in long lines for two hours or more at clerk’s offices throughout the county in stifling heat waiting to get tags.

Car tag renewal lines move quickly on first day of new waiting system

As the delays dragged on, local Republicans sensed an opening. They are now pouring money into Jacobs’ campaign. One mailer distributed this week has Jacobs at the top of the GOP ticket with Weirich and Morgan.

County Clerk’s license plate backlog stands at 5,200

Halbert is trying desperately to right the ship. And she is hoping that Democratic voters don’t abandon her campaign. But many of those Democratic voters have been standing on those long lines, too. And the county clerk’s office is all about service, not politics.

Odds and ends

The remainder of the lengthy August ballot is dominated by judicial races, mostly ho-hum state and federal primary races and only a few contested races for county commission seats.

The ultimate guide to the judicial races on the August ballot

Councilman JB Smiley Jr. is seeking to become the Democratic nominee for governor against two challengers. If he wins, it sets up a November contest against incumbent Gov. Bill Lee, who is heavily favored to win reelection.

Also, perennial candidates Leo AwGoWhat and Charlotte Bergmann are joined by newcomer Brown Dudley in the race for the Republican nomination to the Ninth District Congressional seat.

The winner will face longtime incumbent Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, who has token opposition from another perennial candidate, M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams.

Memphis voters are also being asked if they want term limits extended from two to three terms for the mayor and city council. I believe the answer will be an emphatic no.

And barring an upset or two, women will make up a majority of the county commission for the first time in the commission’s history starting in September.

Democrats are also favored to claim 9 of the 13 commission seats for the first time ever.

So, a lot is at stake up and down the ballot. And it’s important that all eligible voters voice their choice.


2022 district attorney race 2022 county mayor's race 2022 county clerk's race


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