Memphis Flyer – July 22-28, 1999
By Jackson Baker
Guaranteed: Here are two ideas that you won’t hear from any other mayoral candidate.
(1) “If there was some kind of way that, if I wrestled Jesse Ventura at The Pyramid and all the money would go to help air-condition the schools, I would be a fool not to do that, and I would dare anybody to stand up and say, ‘Oh, he’s making the office of mayor look bad by doing that”;
(2) On the current mayor’s penthouse office in City Hall: “What I would like to do is turn that into a money-making situation, so the people could use it, maybe. I’d have a little satellite office out in ClarkTower, somewhere like that, closer to the majority of people, more accessible. $1.9 million is what it [the penthouse office] cost? How many air-conditioners would that have bought?”
Do not misunderstand: Jerry “the King” Lawler knows he is nearing “the end of my wrestling career” and, while not quite ready to sever all relations with the nationally televised World Wrestling Federation, of which he is both an administrative officer and chief attraction, he is prepared to hang up his famous caveman leotards in order to serve Memphis as its chief executive officer — the fifth since the city adopted a strong-mayor government in 1967.
And, while the idea of turning the top floor of City Hall into some sort of popular attraction may be far-fetched, the same could be said for most of the other tourist schemes pursued by city governments over the last several years — everything from the ill-defined “Rakapolis” theme park which huckster Sidney Shlenker once conceived for Mud Island to the lakefront-on-the-river envisioned by incumbent Mayor Willie Herenton to what mayoral candidate Jerry Lawler calls “the little trolley with nobody riding it” that currently loops around Main Street and Riverside Drive.
“Common sense” is the principle which the 49-year-old Lawler intends to apply to the problems of city government if elected by the people from among the full score of aspirants who filed by last week to run for mayor. Lawler has a “seven-point positive plan of action” which addresses some of the city’s conventional problems — ranging from “safe streets” to beautification to educational enhancement.
But when he left his house on Walnut Grove last Wednesday just before noon and, accompanied by two companions, came downtown to file his qualifying petitions at the Election Commission, Lawler was greeted not only by the kind of media horde a celebrity deserves but by the kind of John and Jane Does who, like Lawler, believe ordinary people are being short-circuited by “politics as usual.”
There was Betty, for example, a young black woman who had been wearing a “Reelect Herenton” T-shirt the previous week when Lawler came down to pick up his qualifying petition but, she was quick to inform passersby, had now switched sides, attracted by Lawler’s nonconformist persona.
There was Sharon, a young white woman who was downtown on jury duty, losing momentum and money from being off work, she said, and having to worry every day about where to find a paid parking place while she waited for a case to hear.
“You mean, they don’t provide free parking for jurors?” Lawler asked, surprised. “What you need is a guy like me who you can come to and say, ‘Hey look, we’re on jury duty, and we don’t even have a place to park. If nobody in City Hall is listening to you, nothing gets done.”
The candidate still has some homework to do, of course.
The problem of parking for jurors may be more of a county-government problem than one for the city to resolve. And when Lawler later on resolves to deal with a common frustration — that the original straight-on Interstate-40 leg (now called Sam Cooper Boulevard) peters out at the approach to Overton Park — he seems unfamiliar with the facts of the long-drawn-out legal challenges of the ’60s and ’70s which halted construction of that planned east-west axis and with the fact that the federal government, not the city or even the state, is the prime mover in interstate-highway matters.
Reportedly, some prominent business supporters of Mayor Herenton urged Lawler not to get in the mayor’s race and dangled before him the prospect of board memberships and financial help for a future race if he desisted this year and spent the intervening time booking up on the details of government.
Acknowledging as much, Lawler says, “But I didn’t want to spend the next four years learning how to be a politician.” A group representing suburban interests also called on the would-be candidate.
“People from Nashoba Bank,” says Lawler. Their interest in him was more short-term. “They wanted me to run. But they just sounded so creepy. I just wondered, ‘What am I getting into? This is scary.’ These guys proposed that we go somewhere fancy to eat and talk. I just said, ‘How about McDonald’s?’ and the idea just sort of got dropped.”
Jackie Welch, a prominent Nashoba stockholder and a supporter of Joe Ford, said that, while he never personally contacted Lawler, “I’m sure somebody from the bank did, and I’m tickled to death he’s in there.” Added developer Welch, an avowed foe of Herenton during the 1997 “toy towns” battle and one who might welcome any potential split in the mayor’s vote: “I think Lawler is smart enough to be a better mayor than Herenton, who doesn’t even try to be one.”
A supplicant of a different sort was Bill Boyd, the erstwhile county assessor who was a major figure in several mayoral campaigns, including all those run by former Mayor Dick Hackett (who was narrowly beaten by Herenton in his historic 1991 upset).
“The day I picked up my petition, this distinguished-looking guy came over and handed me a piece of paper with his name and number on it and told me he had handled Dick Hackett’s campaign. I thought, Wow!” Lawler remembers. “But then I talked to Hackett when Boyd was on his way over to my house and Hackett said, ‘He’s with [former Shelby County Commissioner] Pete Sisson. He’ll be coming to get you out of the race.’
“Really?’ I said. I told him I didn’t think anybody but Pete Sisson or his immediate family would be voting for him. ‘You watch and see,’ Hackett told me.”
What actually transpired when Boyd made the pilgrimage to Lawler’s expansive home on Walnut Grove (it has several theme rooms, including one devoted to Coca-Cola paraphernalia and another to artifacts from Gone With the Wind) was that Boyd laid before him a set of numbers predicting the outcome of a three-way race for mayor, Lawler says.
“There were three initials: H for Herenton, F for Ford, and L for me.”
According to Lawler, Boyd’s calculations showed black voters giving 76,170 votes to F, 38,000 to H, and only 2,380 to L. White voters were shown favoring L with 79,134 votes, while H and F were assigned 6,389 and 2,791 votes, respectively. The category listed by the Election Commission as “others” (Asians, Hispanics, and white and blacks who decline to identify themselves by race) were projected to give L 10,766 votes, H 4,504, and F 6,776.
The grand total of all that was that L — Lawler — would win with 91,680 votes as against Ford’s 85,738 votes and Herenton’s 48,958.
“He [Boyd] had the whole thing doped out on racial lines. He said they never would change. ‘I’ll tell you right now, the figures don’t lie,’ he told me. He never did actually come out and say he wanted me to drop out in favor of Sisson. When I confronted him with that, he said, ‘I’ll be honest with you. I don’t care who wins. I just want somebody other than Ford or Herenton to win.’ But, he told me, he did go to Pete Sisson’s house. And if you substituted S for L, his numbers stayed the same.”
Boyd remembers the conversation differently. “He’s very imaginative, I’ll say that. I never gave any figures to Jerry Lawler with his initial on them indicating he could win the mayor’s race. I did suggest to him that I thought Pete Sisson, whom I do support, could do very well in a three-person race. But he’s right; I didn’t directly urge him to get out. I just wanted him to draw his own conclusions. By now, of course, the field of mayoral candidates has proliferated — up to 21, pending this Thursday’s official withdrawal deadline. But the number of truly viable candidates is still small enough — maybe four: Lawler, Sisson, Ford, and Herenton — for the racial arithmetic to have some meaning.
“‘I know the blacks come to see you, love you to death, scream and holler their heads off. But I’m going to tell you, when you get inside that polling booth, they’re not going to vote for you. Maybe 2 percent of them will,'” Lawler quotes Boyd as telling him. (Boyd remembers suggesting that Lawler might get as much as 5 percent of the black vote and says that Lawler told him he expected to get at least 15 percent.)
The wrestler-turned-candidate refused to believe he’d do as poorly with African Americans as Boyd suggested.
“I feel that I have a tremendous amount of popularity with the black community. They made me what I am today,” he says. He thinks the rock-bottom estimate of black votes he could end up with is 10 percent.
“The first thing we’ve got to do is get somebody in City Hall who doesn’t get power from polarization. Ford and Herenton both do. It’s always been that way in the political arena. But I think the black population can see through it. They’re smarter than that.”
It is certainly true that, as Jerry Lawler moves about town on any given day, there would seem to be little or no racial discrimination in the way the crowds come on to him. Wherever he stops, whether at the Election Commission or in a parking lot or a park or shopping mall or at a place like the Cottage on Summer (where he ate lunch, with his two companions, on the day he filed), the volume of well-wishers and autograph-seekers — for him, the categories are virtually synonymous — is both nonstop and racially diverse.
“Go, Jerry!” hollers a passing motorist as Lawler pauses to sign autographs after filing at the Election Commission. “Get ’em, champ!” says another. And on his way to his white minivan — parked on Third Street in a spot lined up for him in advance by a friendly policeman — he deals with several more.
At the Cottage later on, he munches on a fried-chicken dinner and keeps up a steady stream of discourse amid constant interruptions — from fellow diners, from waitresses, from the manager, from the kitchen help, from anybody and everybody who is in or near the place.
“This is an honor for me to meet you. I want you to know you have my full support,” says a young black man as Jerry nods, smiles, signs one of his newly minted campaign photos showing himself with the World Wrestling Federation crown on, and says “Thank you.”
“Who should I make this out to?” Lawler asks a lady on the kitchen staff. It is the third picture he has signed for various members of her family. “We’re 100 percent with you, you know,” says a businessman as he gets his picture signed. “Do you have enough pictures left?” one of Lawler’s companions asks during a break in the signing.
The pack of picture cards at Lawler’s elbow, once thick, is visibly dwindling. “I’ve got some more at home,” Lawler replies. It becomes ever more apparent that, along with whatever else might differentiate Jerry “the King” Lawler from the other 20 mayoral candidates running this year (and, for that matter, from most other candidates running anywhere anytime), he owns, and will forever own, this one singular distinction. He — and he alone — will be asked to sign autographs.
Lawler makes no bones about it. Ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura’s election last fall as Reform Party governor of Minnesota was important in his decision to run for mayor of Memphis. “I’d been thinking of running for mayor for a long time, actually, but without a doubt he was the stimulus. Of course, people have been coming up and talking to me. They approached me as far back as the early ’80s, saying, ‘Hey, you’re the most popular person in Memphis. Why don’t you run for mayor?’ Well, I’m getting closer to the end of my wrestling career,” said Lawler, who added he’d been “lucky” enough so far over his nearly three decades of wrestling (besides the WWF national feeds, Lawler does locally originated wrestling on Saturdays at WMC-TV Channel 5) not to have any major injuries other than a broken leg and some loose bone chips.
“As you mature, as you really start to look around you, you realize that you hold yourself responsible, you yourself need to do something about it all.” The “respect level” for politicians is at an all-time low and “deservedly so,” Lawler says. “But you go around the country and look at these sold-out arenas, and you realize that the respect level for wrestlers is far greater right now.”
Lawler is aware that his calling is not a status profession in certain political circles. “But how dare somebody look down on somebody for how they make a living? I wouldn’t be up there in some ivory tower, looking down my nose at the people who put me there.”
Instead of a permanent campaign headquarters, Lawler last week unveiled his portable HQ, a Winnebago emblazoned with “Lawler for Mayor” signs. “Mine is a campaign of convenience. What I’m going to tell the people, is ‘The campaign is in your neighborhood.’ I’ll use my Web site [Kinglawler.com] to tell people where the motor home will be.”
Once in office, he might even go his ClarkTower idea one better, using the mobile-home idea to shift the mayor’s official headquarters from neighborhood to neighborhood. Lawler has decided to do without some of the paraphernalia of campaigning. No yard signs, for example.
“All that’s about is name recognition, and I’ve got all the name recognition I need already.” No campaign manager. That would be too traditionally “political.” If elected, Lawler promises to stay in touch. “I’d have regular town meetings. That would be one way to stay in touch with people. And I think we’re on the verge of a tremendous opportunity with the Internet. How easy it is to e-mail somebody, to ask somebody to e-mail!”
Unlike the incumbent mayor, who has had several well-publicized tiffs with the press, Lawler vows to be a pussycat.
“I’d try not to have run-ins, because you’ll never win. The pen is mightier than the sword, and that will always be true. I’d have regular press conferences. I love the media. I’ve dealt with the media all my life. Old Jackie Fargo [a vintage wrestling colleague] first taught me: ‘Let me tell you one thing. That camera is your best friend.’ I never forgot that.”
Ventura has started a regular radio call-in show up in Minnesota, Lawler noted. “I’d like to do that, or even go it one better, have my own television show. It wouldn’t have to be a boring, political show. It could be multifaceted, people coming out and talking about what they wanted to, like in the old Jerry Lawler Show.”
A partner on that old Saturday-morning show was Lawler’s previous wife Paula, who, during football season, revealed “Paula’s picks” of the winners in important NFL games. (Lawler — an inveterate fan of the once and future Cleveland Browns — is a onetime resident of the Ohio city, where his father, a Ford Motor Company assembly-line worker, had to relocate temporarily when the Memphis Ford plant closed in the ’50s.
“That was my first inkling that something was wrong with our leadership in Memphis,” he says now.) Presumably, in a revived mayoral-based talk show, there would be a role for Lawler’s current companion, Stacy Carter, who serves as a kind of all-purpose amanuensis for Lawler and a buffer and facilitator vis-a-vis his public.
She also became something of a cause celebre in her own right recently when the National Organization of Women raised a complaint about some cheesecake pictures of her that were featured on the King’s Web site. Those were pulled two weeks ago and replaced by a message from Lawler which chastised N.O.W., championed equal rights for women in “show business,” raised the standard of the First Amendment, but promised a redesign of the site. That redesign is now at hand, and Stacy’s admirers need not fear. The bikini-clad shots featured are every bit as provocative as those they replaced. Stacy’s pics share space on the Web site with some vintage wrestling shots and, these days, with Lawler’s opening-round political manifesto.
Among other things, it recapitulates his “seven-point Plan of Positive Action”: (1) “Safer Streets” (with a “well-paid police force with high morals and high morale”); (2) “Educational Excellence” (complete with an effort “to identify potentially violent students and provide a police presence in every school!” (3) “A Cleaner Community”; (4) “Attracting New Business”; (5) “Get Traffic Moving”; (6) “Lessen the Property Tax Burden”; and (7) “More Parks for Families.”
The Lawler manifesto concludes with an appeal: “To my neighbors and friends I say listen to your hearts not to your professional politicians. The hidden strength of my candidacy is in your hands, and the simplicity of our message. I say it is time to run Memphis like a business, where the taxpayers are the customers and the customers are always right!”
These lines are novel, like the candidate who devised them. Customers, indeed! From now on, until October 7th, when the measure is finally taken of his unorthodox candidacy, Jerry Lawler has to be hoping that a new one is born every minute.
And his opponents — the Herentons, Fords, and Sissons who see his unpredictable constituency cutting into their votes, have to be fearing the same thing.