Election Day (Aug. 2) unfolded with a pleasant feel for Dr. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr. and his wife, Sheila Whalum. Along the course of the day, they greeted voters, shaking hands and saying hello to old friends in what is now District 4 of the Shelby County School Board.
That evening, a gathering of family, friends and church members were in good spirits as Dr. Whalum, the pastor of The New Olivet Baptist Church, enjoyed a consistent lead as precincts sent in election results after polls closed at 7 p.m.
Then came the final count, and challenger Kevin Woods, whose first political experience came when the Shelby County Commission appointed him to the unified school board, was credited with an 88-vote victory: Woods – 6,473; Whalum – 6,385.
"We were stunned," said Sheila Whalum. "I just couldn't believe it. When those final numbers flashed on the television screen, we all gasped in disbelief. My husband was leading all day, but then the final count had him losing the race by 88 votes. It just didn't feel right, but Ken made the decision to graciously concede to Mr. Woods and to congratulate him."
Meanwhile, Stand for Children, an education advocacy organization that financially funded several candidates, including Woods in District 4, was celebrating its successes.
"Our successes in this election, I believe, were a reflection of the time and effort that went into our candidates," said Kenya Bradshaw, executive director of Stand For Children in Tennessee. "We were delighted to see so many people show interest and become actively engaged with our work these past five years. Our members and staff did an amazing job, investing thousands of hours.
"We didn't just enter the school board races last week," she said. "We knew last December that the school board races would be very crucial. We're extremely pleased with the outcome."
Dr. Whalum raised concerns about the influx of "outside" money into the local elections and the possibility of a clear conflict of interest. Stand For Children reportedly raised more than $300,000 for its candidates, with about $30,000 of those funds raised locally.
The Memphis Education Association endorsed Whalum, contributing $750 to its candidates in opposed races, and $500 to those who ran unopposed.
Fair and legal is how Stand for Children sees its support for candidates.
"We have been extremely transparent and very open about our funds," said Bradshaw. "We asked our members locally to contribute $7 – $1 for each candidate. This was a grassroots effort. The larger donations from outside were contributed just like any other national organization."
Bradshaw said Stand for Children enjoys the benefits that come with being a part of a national organization.
"I believe we are in an era now where you have to raise a large amount of money and run an effective ground campaign to be successful. Campaigns can't be run the way they have been run for the past 100 years. Doing the same thing over and over expecting different results is the definition of insanity," she said.
"We are re-inventing the way local campaigns are being run. I reject the assumption that big money in some way compromises local elections. We have never had a donor to make a donation and say to us, 'I'm making this donation, but I want such and such in return.' That has never happened. Without question, I reject that implication."
Sheila Whalum was unable to sleep late Saturday evening.
"My husband was asleep, and I lay there, tossing and turning, trying to get to sleep. And the Lord said to me, 'Ask for a recount.' I couldn't wait for Ken to wake up. It was 1:06 a.m. because I looked at the time on my cell phone. He woke up a little after 4:00, and I told him, 'Ken, the Lord told me to ask for a recount.'"
She posted an advisory on her Facebook page that she was calling a press conference for Monday (Aug. 6) morning on the steps of the Shelby County Election Commission. At the press conference, a prepared statement was read, citing documented irregularities throughout the balloting process and the "early voting fiasco of 3,000 incorrect ballots."
"I used an early voting ballot to cast my vote. Little did I know that mine and 3,000 early voters were issued inaccurate ballots. They could not be counted. This alone warrants a recount or a new election altogether," said Sheila Whalum.
Dr. Whalum, who addressed the media after his wife's statement, said that although he had conceded the race to Woods, he was choosing to retract that concession and exercise his constitutional right to a recount.
"My husband has run in a number of elections. He's won some and lost some. That's how it goes. But these last two elections, he has enjoyed more than 80,000 votes of support. To lose by 88 votes just doesn't seem right. We've gotten so many calls from supporters who are also calling for a recount. It's just the right thing to do."
Dr. Whalum said he is ready to file a lawsuit calling for a recount. Election Commissioner Richard Holden, Whalum said, "was an honorable man," worthy of his trust as the steps to a recount process are mapped out.
"Mr. Holden said I have to prove fraud in court to obtain a recount," said Dr. Whalum. "I welcome the opportunity. The membership list and the email content of Stand for Children becomes discoverable evidence in court.
"How many election commissioners are affiliated with this organization? How many school board commissioners are members? How many members of the TPC (Transitional Planning Committee) have ties to this organization? I look forward to our day in court. All those questions will be answered."
'Loud and clear'
Woods said the community has spoken loud and clear, calling for a change in leadership.
"It was a hard-fought race. We pulled together a team of dedicated Memphians committed to our message of change and who believe strongly in improving public education," said Woods.
" I was not surprised at all by the outcome."