The way Mark Luttrell sees it, his campaign for mayor in 2014 is different than his campaign four years ago because then he was challenging an incumbent and now he is the incumbent.
Four years ago, Joe Ford was the interim Shelby County mayor following the October 2009 resignation of A C Wharton Jr. to become Memphis mayor. And Ford was the Democratic Party’s nominee for mayor.
But Luttrell was the two-term Shelby County sheriff and Republican nominee heavily favored in a general election in which Republican candidates would win every countywide race.
Luttrell opened his re-election campaign Sunday, June 8, by preparing about 100 supporters in East Memphis for what looks to be a different campaign.
“We’ve got a campaign that we’ve got to work for this year,” he told the group on a back parking lot of his campaign headquarters.
That was a reference to the 10 percent turnout in the May primaries as much as it was to Democratic mayoral nominee Deidre Malone.
But Malone promises to be more aggressive than Ford was.
At several political events, some with Luttrell in attendance, Malone has said she will take the challenge to Luttrell. That includes his actions on a backlog of several hundred untested rape kits during his two terms as sheriff that were discovered in 2010 as the larger Memphis Police backlog began to come to light.
“She’s going to reach for any issue she can,” Luttrell said Sunday. “I stand by the decisions we made. … I think there are a number of offices involved in this whole rape kit issue. Darts can be thrown at the way they did things. What we are focusing on now is what can we do to double check our operational procedures to make sure that any gaps that are in our operations procedures have been corrected. We are doing that.”
Malone has said Luttrell still hasn’t accounted for why the rape kits were allowed to sit untested during his tenure as sheriff.
“It’s fair to ask the questions and I think it’s up to us in these positions to tell the public what we are doing to correct the problem going forward,” Luttrell said, mirroring the response on the city side by Wharton.
Wharton has also emphasized what the city is doing going forward and left questions about how the backlog came to be for a report to come from former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis.
Luttrell took office as mayor in September 2010, three months before the schools merger was about to be approved by the Memphis City Schools board sending the proposition to Memphis voters in a March 2011 referendum in which city voters approved it.
Luttrell urged the school board not to take the action that has triggered historic changes in public education. Those changes continue in the new school year that begins in August with the demerger into seven public school systems including one for each of the six suburban towns and cities.
“I had two school systems. I was the only one who really had a foot in both camps,” Luttrell said of his role in the move to the merger once Memphis voters decided the question. “I’ve got a vested interest in trying to get this worked out.”
Malone has criticized Luttrell for not being involved enough despite his role in the transition planning commission that set the blueprint of recommendations for the schools merger.
“My responsibility was to see how we could take chaos and bring some civility to the discourse and work out a solution,” Luttrell said. “My position all along was to be very constructive – to not be destructive to discourse. I worked purposely to not take sides in that fight and to try and mediate and resolve it. I think we did a pretty good job.”
Luttrell said his position has earned him criticism from both sides in the merger and demerger. He recommended against the $51 million capital funding proposal ultimately approved by the Shelby County Commission for Shelby County Schools in the current fiscal year. The compromise included $1 million each in immediate capital funding for each of the suburban school systems.
Luttrell has advocated tighter reins on county funding as county government becomes the sole local funder of Shelby County Schools and the major funder of the suburban school systems who also have local funding from their respective municipal governments.
“We’re in our second year of the three-year reset of the maintenance of effort,” Luttrell said of the state law that requires a certain level of local funding that cannot be dropped except if attendance drops. “We have a rare unique opportunity … to really dive into the deep water and figure out the schools’ needs.”