EDMOND, Okla. – Charles Lamb, elected three times as beloved mayor of this bustling Oklahoma City suburb, stands a good chance of winning again in the April 2 general election.
But he won’t be able to serve.
Lamb, 72, died at home of a cardiac issue more than two months ago, on Dec. 11, too late to remove his name from the ballot, raising the specter of a dead man victor.
While saddened by Lamb’s death, his supporters promptly rallied around City Councilor Nick Massey, who is not on the ballot. They launched an unusual campaign to elect the deceased Lamb so Massey can become the city’s next mayor by appointment of the city council.
On the ballot is a living former mayor, Dan O’Neil, who Lamb supporters say is not progressive enough to run the city of 94,500, a criticism he disputes. “I will continue doing what he (Lamb) did,” O'Neil has said. “I have all the building blocks.”
O’Neil, 72, served one term as mayor of Edmond, from 2007 to 2009.
David Miller, a former councilor heading the effort to elect Lamb, said his group is taking no chances on what O’Neil might or might not do as mayor. He wants Massey appointed mayor if Lamb wins the election posthumously.
“We want to make sure the next mayor is one who will preserve the legacy, and move forward with the programs (Lamb) put in place,” he said, adding the late mayor was well-liked for his personality and his ideas.
For Massey to ascend to the mayor’s office from his position as the city’s mayor pro tem -- a substitute for the mayor when he or she is out of town, sick or disabled – Lamb has to finish ahead of O’Neil, who is the only other name on the mayoral ballot.
If that happens, Massey will replace the temporary mayor, City Councilor Elizabeth Waner, who was mayor pro tem at the time of Lamb’s death.
“It’s a complicated situation,” said Jason Duncan, owner of the Café Evoke. “This has never happened before.”
Nor has a campaign for a dead candidate occurred previously. It started with a “VoteforCharles” Facebook page by a local insurance agent, Michelle Schaefer, shortly after Lamb’s death and before the three-candidate primary election in February.
Lamb, O’Neil and longshot candidate Richard Prawdzienski competed on the primary ballot. The two candidates with the highest vote totals moved on to face each other in the general election under city rule.
O’Neil outpolled the dead Lamb by 1,456 votes (3,494 to 2,038) while Prawdzienski , the other living candidate, received only 717 votes.
But the totals didn’t deter those folks who want Lamb to defeat O’Neil so Massey can become the next mayor. They're counting on a winning turnout for Lamb on general election day.
“April 2 will be a very important date for the future of Edmond,” declared a posting on the “VoteForCharles” Facebook page. “Do we vote to keep the legacy of excellence Charles (Lamb) has given us? Or do we vote for a candidate who is on record as saying we need a moratorium on growth?”
The post added that a vote for Lamb “pretty much insures Nick Massey will be our next mayor. Spread the word.”
Massey admitted he’s in a knotty situation since he is not campaigning to become mayor. But he said he would serve if appointed to the office by the city council.
Masey said had Lamb lived to be re-elected and then died in office, the council “would have appointed somebody, probably the mayor pro tem, and nobody would have thought anything of it.”
Duncan, the Café Evoke owner, said everybody in Edmond was “shocked by the timing” of Lamb’s death. Duncan prefers a special election of living candidates instead of an appointment process for mayor should Lamb win.
“I hear a lot about throwing votes away,” said Duncan. “It is not right to not let voters have a choice” of living candidates.
Having a pulse is required to file for political office in Edmond, but City Attorney Steve Murdock said if a candidate dies beyond the deadline for ballot replacement, then the city council appoints the mayor if the deceased is elected.
The awkwardness of a dead candidate on an election ballot is rare. Yet it has happened several times elsewhere.
One of the most famous cases involved Congressmen Hale Boggs of Louisiana and Nicolas Begich of Alaska. They were up for re-election when their small plane disappeared while flying on a campaign trip from Anchorage to Juneau in October of 1972. They were believed to have crashed and died in the Alaskan wilderness and yet both names remained on their respective state ballots -- and both won.
Twenty-eight years later, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan was elected U.S. Senator in that state even though he had died three weeks earlier in a plane crash. His name could not be removed from the ballot because his death occurred too close to the election and the ballots had already been printed.
Voters who cast their ballots in those situations were aware they were embracing a dead candidate, though unlike Edmond, there was no organized campaign to elect the deceased.
James Coburn is a reporter for the Edmond, Okla., Sun. Reach him at jcoburn@edmondsun.