When Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery began making regular appearances on "Drake & Zeke," the popular WXMX- FM 98.1 morning program, it seemed a curious choice.
Drake and Zeke cultivate a program anchored in a classic-rock sensibility but do not mind engaging bigger community issues with an intelligence not always evident on morning talk radio -- and a humor that sometimes resonates pitch-perfect and sometimes tries too hard to push politically incorrect boundaries.
In other words, aimed at an audience that may well have more people living outside of Memphis than people eligible to vote in the City of Memphis' special mayoral election. But Lowery's regular Monday gig turned into a hit for him, and some days included Lowery asking division directors to call in and provide answers. Perhaps more than any other venue, it has helped Lowery to find his voice as interim mayor and develop a strong campaign message some believe has helped him gain ground on Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.
The radio hosts do not hide their affection and respect for Lowery, although today they definitely offered Lowery a valedictory tone, already speaking in the past tense about Lowery's appearances as Memphis mayor.
Lowery, of course, tried his best to keep it present tense and even offer future tense assurances -- he wants to keep doing it if he's elected Thursday.
Lowery insists that low turnout in early voting is a good sign for him, because he thinks it means many voters remain undecided and have wanted to gauge his performance since being sworn on July 31 after Willie Herenton's more than 17 years running the city ended with a resignation (or retirement, as Herenton likes to call it).
"Many people are still trying to make up their minds," Lowery said.
Lowery's background as a TV newscaster serves him well in getting out a clear, coherent message. It also helps when he goes after opponents, because he does not sound like he's attacking. Today, for instance, he became more aggressive trying to link Wharton with Herenton, but did it without ever raising his voice or even sounding the least bit irritable. It's a trick none of the other candidates can play -- with many of them, their voices rise or it begins to quaver or it sounds threatening, even when just stating facts like Wharton did help lead Herenton's mayoral campaigns in the 90s.
"The former mayor has already passed the baton to the county mayor and said his mother is voting for the county mayor," Lowery said, referring to an interview in which Herenton was otherwise disdainful of Wharton but said he did not see anyone beating him. Lowery also raised that infamous "Le Chardonnay" meeting between Herenton and Wharton in 2007, when Wharton was considering answering a call by many in the community to run against his longtime ally.
Knowing well the demographic for Drake & Zeke, Lower also linked Herenton again to Carpenter, who managed Herenton's campaigns in 1991, 2003 and 2007: "He's running commercials with the former mayor in them." Whether anyone considering voting for Carpenter was listening is another question.
One caller late in the show, who sounded like maybe he was fond of another candidate, pointedly asked why Lowery voted for the 12-year pensions for city employees that created such a huge uproar early this decade. Lowery ducked the question by pointing out that a) the Council later voter to overturn the 12-year pension and b) he has continued working well past the 12 years and therefore has not received personal gain from it.
(And that sound you just heard was Carol Chumney making sure you know that while on City Council, she led the charge to repeal the 12-year pensions .)
Lowery's 17-plus-year voting record as councilman has mostly avoided scrutiny, an odd dynamic considering the thousands of items opponents could easily sort through to find inevitable bad decisions or votes-gone-wrong that could be exploited for most anyone with long service as a legislator.
Two have come up in debates -- why Lowery flipped his position on providing funding for Memphis City Schools (he was for increased funding to MCS for most of his career before making the deciding vote to drastically cut it in 2008) and why he says he is now against a tax increase to pay MCS money he and the Council have promised (he said in June, before Herenton's announcement, that city taxpayers would accept a rise in taxes on a separate bill for schools). On the former, Lowery said he felt it was time to send a clarion call on what he considers an inequity for Memphis taxpayers, who pay taxes twice on schools while those in Germantown, Millington, Collierville, etc., only pay once. On the latter, Lowery says that he now believes, as mayor, new efficiencies and sources of revenue can be tapped to cover the $34.6 million shortfall.
With a poll from WREG-TV News Channel 3 coming out tonight, it will be interesting to see if Lowery has made up ground with Wharton. And, if he has, whether Wharton's campaign will determine it needs to do more than play prevent defense and ask more probing questions about the interim mayor's record as legislator.