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VOL. 124 | NO. 220 | Monday, November 9, 2009



A City in Transition

Wharton uses charm — and other tools — to move things forward fast

By Bill Dries

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After a resounding victory, former Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is sworn in by retired judge George Brown at the Hall of Mayors at City Hall. -- PHOTOS BY LANCE MURPHEY

Just before sunrise on a rainy Tuesday morning, the armed officers raided the city office. They didn’t make any arrests, but they took files, interviewed employees and served search warrants. And they temporarily closed the Memphis Animal Shelter.

The investigation of the shelter by the District Attorney General’s Office and the raid by sheriff’s deputies surfaced on the first full day of A C Wharton Jr.’s tenure as Memphis mayor.

Hours after the raid, Wharton stopped by to take a look around the Tchulahoma Road facility. He vowed there would be an investigation and report on conditions at the shelter within 90 days.

By that afternoon, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton had confirmed that he had received a letter from federal prosecutors notifying him that he was the target of a long-running grand jury investigation into his private business affairs.

If Wharton didn’t know it already, elections in Memphis rarely afford clean bright lines that separate what is to come from what was. Even a landslide election victory like Wharton’s has a short and crowded shelf life.

But there was a difference. Before, Herenton's target letter would have overwhelmed the local political horizon, slowing work on any other front.

Political traction

The day after the target letter disclosure, Wharton was in Washington, D.C., to meet with officials at the Brookings Institute. The think tank continues working closely with the city on issues such as the transition away from public housing projects.

Wharton even got an invitation to the White House for a session with David Agnew, the Obama administration’s link to big-city mayors. Wharton didn’t hesitate to make his case for more federal involvement in finding funding for the Regional Medical Center.

As Shelby County mayor, Wharton got a rough reception to his attempts at lobbying in Nashville. He went to the state capital several years running, trying to win votes for a real estate transfer tax. The reaction was blunt and unequivocally against, especially among Shelby County legislators.

Those attempts inform Wharton’s aggressive plan for the Memphis mayor’s position. He called it “political muscle” during the last mayoral forum on News Channel 3.

“The city has a stronger political base than does the county,” Wharton said during the election eve forum on Oct. 14.

Later, he told The Memphis News he was referring to the hundreds of thousands of voters in Memphis and the political decisions those voters make in not only city elections, but elections for county offices as well as seats in the Tennessee Legislature.

“You might call that hardball politics – whatever you wish to call it. But that doesn’t bother me as long as I’m using that muscle for the public good,” Wharton said. “If I’m using it for campaign contributions or to get them to help my cousin get a job somewhere, that’s wrong.”

Wharton’s example of how he would use his political muscle involved a state legislator.

“If I were to say we really need to make some advances in combating infant mortality and I have a bill in the Legislature that would require pregnant moms to do whatever, in terms of nutrition, I would have no problem with saying to folks who aspire to become (county) trustee or register – or whatever – ‘I’ll support you, but let’s make sure we have a common agenda,’” Wharton said.

“So, when I start pulling our legislative delegation together, this individual who may be a conservative Republican will be willing when I ask him to call up the conservative Republican members of the Legislature and say, ‘Wharton’s got a bill up there. We all need to get behind it.’ That’s what I mean – the political leverage that comes from controlling a big block of voters. I have no problem with using that muscle.”

Wharton also said he’s willing to use the same kind of leverage to get those who do business with the city through contracts to adopt voluntary standards in support of such concepts as sustainability, environmental or green measures and even locally owned or minority business goals.

Wharton campaigns in the early morning of Election Day at the corner of Third Street and Crump Boulevard.

The idea suggests spending political capital for a more thought-out agenda than Herenton had. It’s not that Herenton didn’t go after some ambitious goals; in his last two terms, there was rarely a game plan for winning support that had been thought out before Herenton announced another go at consolidation or a new Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. Herenton relied on the force of his considerable personality – and little else – to carry the weight of his sweeping plans.

Leadership qualities

Wharton doesn’t have Herenton’s personality. None of the 25 contenders in the special election did. Nor did any of them campaign as a mayor who would automatically continue Herenton's priorities, policies or, more important, his style of doing things at City Hall.

The fall day Wharton took office as Shelby County mayor in 2002, he said it might be the day his popularity peaked. There were difficult decisions to make, he said, including managing the county's debt, which threatened to top $2 billion, and a still-spreading corruption investigation that forced him to put off most of his immediate plans.

His rivals in the special Memphis mayoral election questioned how much Wharton had accomplished during his seven years as the county’s chief executive. But few questioned that his popularity remained intact seven years after taking office. He was the object of a 2007 draft movement to get him to challenge Herenton in that year’s mayor’s race – an offer he considered for several tantalizing days but turned down.

The day after this year's Oct. 15 election, Wharton made no declarations about peaking popularity or dwindling poll numbers.

“I have never known of a more tranquil time and a better time for a transition to occur,” Wharton told The Memphis News. “(Shelby County government is) not threatening to discontinue major services. We’re not threatened with major layoffs. The federal government isn’t threatening to take away our Head Start money.

“Nobody’s threatening to go on strike. Our debate is heading in the right direction. … I wish things had been this way when I walked in.”

Days later, The MED’s board of directors accepted a set of possible cost-cutting measures that included the idea of closing the county-run hospital’s emergency room.

In the hours before he took the oath as Memphis mayor, Wharton was on the telephone with Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office, talking about The MED. Although the public hospital is funded and overseen by Shelby County government, Wharton said he will remain “hands on” in Memphis issues.

He’s not likely to get much of an argument from either acting Shelby County Mayor Joyce Avery or whomever the Shelby County Commission appoints as interim county mayor next week.

Avery took the oath of office 90 minutes before Wharton took the oath as city mayor. She vowed to make no major changes in direction and none at all in personnel during what is expected to be her brief tenure.

“As your mayor, I offer continuity in this time of transition,” Avery said after taking her oath. “It is not the place of an acting mayor to offer grand new plans, propose expensive projects, change things that have worked for years or get out in front of the TV cameras.”

And commissioners already have an understanding that whoever gets the reins for the less than a year left in Wharton’s term of office will not be a candidate in the 2010 county elections.

But if Wharton proposes any city funding of the hospital, he is likely to hit a brick wall. The Memphis City Council has its divisions, as most of its 13 members are about halfway through their first four-year terms of office. But the council is a united front on the idea that countywide services and institutions should be funded by Shelby County government and not the city of Memphis.

Wharton accepted that idea earlier this year as the county assumed the sole funding role of what is now the Shelby County Health Department.

But Wharton didn’t entirely accept the weaker hand the county mayor has compared to the city mayor. It was Wharton who devoted some political focus last year to the idea that five countywide elected offices should become offices under the Shelby County charter instead of having their powers set out in the Tennessee Constitution.

Well-wishers congratulate Wharton after he is sworn in as Willie Herenton's successor at the Hall of Mayors.

The opportunity came with a Tennessee Supreme Court ruling that required a rewording of the county charter to correct a legal ambiguity.

The charter change, approved by voters countywide in 2008 for the offices of sheriff, county clerk, trustee, register and assessor, didn’t get as much attention as the volatile political debate over term limits, of which voters also approved an expansion to include the five countywide offices.

But bringing those same five offices under the county charter gives the county mayor more power over the budgets for those offices. In the past, whoever held the five offices could do pretty much as they pleased with their budgets and hiring decisions.

Wharton stopped the growth of the county’s debt and started a “pay as you go” fund to wean the county off future bond debt. Avery pledged to “strictly” adhere to the debt plan.

Wharton, as county mayor, also signed off on a merger of the Memphis and Shelby County fire departments.

An interlocal agreement merging the fire departments appears to be the low-hanging fruit for Wharton now that he’s at City Hall.

“We are very focused on that,” he said.

Wharton completed the county’s side of the agreement as Shelby County mayor. It was Herenton who left it unsigned and former interim city Mayor Myron Lowery who wouldn’t pull the trigger on it either.

Wharton told The Memphis News the holdup was “oddly enough, a lack of understanding of the demands and wishes of both parties.”

“I’m in the unique position of having known what I was willing to do on the county side. Now I know what I’m willing to do on the city side,” he said. “So, I can probably just sign that contract with myself.”

Hours after The MED board said publicly what has been speculated about for years – that the emergency room closure was one option for the institution – Carol Chumney, Wharton’s political rival of the past eight years, e-mailed reporters a copy of her September campaign press release raising the same possibility. In it she cited Wharton’s incomplete record as county mayor.

She later sent another post election e-mail congratulating Avery for her status as the first woman to serve as county mayor and pointedly not congratulating Wharton.

Not nearly over

Chumney, it appears, is ready to run again in two years.

So is Wharton, as he indicated on election night at his Minglewood Hall victory party. He boasted that his campaign has “saturated” the city.

“We do it like a postage stamp,” Wharton told cheering supporters at the Midtown music hall across the street from the law firm headed by his wife. “In case anybody has any doubts, that was meant for 2011.”

Wharton had several purposes in the mayoral campaign, beyond winning. The “One Memphis” theme he had touted earlier was still being invoked by the new mayor and chanted by his supporters after he took the oath of office Oct. 26 in a packed Hall of Mayors at City Hall.

“What we did deliberately in this campaign – we brought a bunch of young folks along to show them it can be honest and clean,” Wharton told supporters election night. “Politics can be good and clean. … We ran a crash course in political organizing, raising money. You should have seen the operation. This is one of the most massive operations that I’ve ever seen.”

The morning after the election, Herenton was making the rounds, offering his opinion on the election.

“Mr. Wharton did not receive a mandate,” he said on News Channel 3’s “Live at Nine” program. “I think he’s going to be in for a rude awakening on this whole ‘One Memphis’ thing. I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s kind of corny.”

Corny or not, there was more to the Wharton campaign than wishful thinking. And Wharton’s "One Memphis" mantra was built on a solid political foundation years, if not decades, in the making.

Eight years ago, a group of politicos assembled in a backroom at the old Anderton's restaurant in Midtown. Charles Carpenter, an attorney with political credentials as the manager of Willie Herenton's historic 1991 campaign for mayor, introduced Wharton to the small group.

Wharton greets the crowd at his election celebration at Minglewood Hall after winning a resounding victory.

Wharton was Shelby County public defender at the time. His last and only previous bid for elected office had been an unsuccessful 1980 run for Shelby County District Attorney General. 

Wharton had thought about running for other offices but had never committed. He wasn't the kind of candidate who made a lot of noise about getting into a race and then didn't follow through. He was cautious, perhaps too cautious in some people’s opinions.

But he had worked in his share of campaigns for other candidates, so he unquestionably knew the ropes. When Carpenter introduced Wharton in September 2001, he asked the question many in the room who knew Wharton had been thinking – was Wharton serious?

Wharton's answer at that moment was critical to his political future. 

An unlikely opportunity had opened just as the race for county mayor was shaping up as a hard-fought battle between Republican incumbent Jim Rout and Democratic challenger Harold Byrd. Both still had primaries to win, but Rout was the incumbent and Byrd had backing from an impressive and powerful biracial coalition.

Then Rout decided to abandon his bid for a third term. It left no one else in the GOP primary and began a hurried search for a Republican standard bearer. Meanwhile, the political ground shifted beneath Byrd's feet.

The rumors began and Wharton was soon in the back room at Anderton's before a group of likely supporters and contributors.

He answered Carpenter's question directly.

“I wouldn’t have come this far if I wasn’t serious,” he said. “I do intend to go all the way.”

Byrd had considered Wharton to be a potential rival for the Democratic nomination. The two had met to talk things over. What followed is still disputed. Byrd contends Wharton declared that he was out of the race for county mayor. Wharton's version is that he told Byrd he wouldn't run for county mayor as long as Rout was running because Rout had appointed Wharton public defender.

With Rout out, Wharton entered the race and Byrd weighed his options before pulling out on the day of the candidate filing deadline.

Eight years later, Carpenter wouldn’t question Wharton’s commitment. He would directly challenge it along with 24 other people in the first race for Memphis mayor without an incumbent since 1982.

Wharton’s answer and the results were the same, although Carpenter was in a different position. Wharton beat Carpenter and 23 other candidates with 60 percent of the vote. Carpenter finished fourth with a disappointing 5,181 votes.

But the turnout was low – 25 percent of the city’s 400,000 registered voters.

Wharton won by being the only candidate to follow his general strategy through to Election Day.

Carpenter's campaign had the best organization outside Wharton's. But he shifted from trying to be the “business candidate” to attacking Wharton’s record in office as “miserable.” Herenton supporters in his campaign began peeling off at that point and those left in the Carpenter camp began accusing the defectors of being Wharton spies all along. Carpenter had never been comfortable with the shortened time frame for the special election.

Wharton had the best jump on the special election, called when Herenton finally made good on his often stated and often postponed desire to leave City Hall.

Even if Wharton had advance knowledge of precisely when Herenton would leave – something he and Herenton deny – there was nothing to prevent any of his rivals from following his lead.

And like his rivals, Wharton did make some missteps.

Of mayors and men

Wharton set a goal of getting seven or eight council members – a majority of the 13-member body – to endorse him. He fell short of the goal.

Most council members sat out the race that also featured two of their colleagues – Wanda Halbert and Lowery.

Harold Collins became council chairman when Lowery became mayor pro tem at the end of July. Collins dutifully showed up for the campaign openings of Lowery, Wharton and Carpenter along Elvis Presley Boulevard – making clear that he was there to welcome each to his council district.

But the neutrality wasn’t necessarily an indicator that Lowery was gaining ground.

WHARTON'S TO-DO LIST

New Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. does not lack for an agenda as he begins a two-year tenure at City Hall. Here are some of the issues
left over from the Herenton administration.

Fire Services
Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and former Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery left unsigned a
proposal to merge the Memphis and Shelby County fire departments. It is a proposal Wharton already supported as Shelby County mayor. It may be the first big move of his administration
and the easiest in some ways. But what is the
relationship of a merged fire department with
the suburban municipalities without their own fire
departments?

MATA
Lowery already gave the board of the Memphis Area Transit Authority a bit of a jolt by appointing former council member John Vergos to it. Wharton will have another appointment to make to fill the vacancy created by the recent death of longtime MATA board chairman Ray Holt. As Shelby County mayor, Wharton tried to negotiate with MATA to get it to change specific routes to accommodate county green policies.

Animal Shelter
The first task force appointed by Wharton aside from the transition team itself is to examine conditions at the Memphis Animal Shelter, raided by sheriff’s deputies on the first full day of Wharton’s tenure as Memphis mayor. Construction of a new city animal shelter is already under way. It was among the ground-breaking ceremonies Lowery incorporated into his campaign for city mayor.

The Pyramid
Bass Pro Shops CEO Jim Hagale told the City Council in a conference call the week before the special mayoral election that the outdoors retailer is still committed to developing The Pyramid as a super store with other attractions including a hotel. But there is still no development agreement.
Although the county owned a percentage of The Pyramid as the talks with Bass Pro began, Wharton allowed city Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb take the lead. Lipscomb then came up with the plan for the city to buy out the county’s share of the structure. Now Lipscomb works for Wharton and Wharton will no longer defer on getting involved. Hagale said he hopes to have an agreement to begin development by the end of this year.

The Mid-South Fairgrounds
Herenton had a serious parting of the ways with Fair Ground LLC leader Henry Turley over management fees for the planned public recreation space. He also had to mediate in the clash between the individual styles of Turley and Lipscomb as voices were raised at several points. The project then morphed into a plan without the big box retail store Turley claimed was necessary to secure sales tax money crucial to the project's financing. The recession made landing a big box store an uphill chore anyway. But the revamped fairgrounds plan that includes small shops and possibly some housing can’t go anywhere without a developer. Lowery took a step toward some public improvements as construction on the Salvation Army Kroc Center is poised to begin and city-funded demolition of what’s left of the Libertyland amusement park begins with the crating of the Grand Carousel. Lowery’s plan to spruce up the East Parkway frontage between the demolition and construction sites may gather steam and other extra cash leftover from capital projects as the Wharton administration tries again to make a pact with a private developer, possibly Fair Ground LLC, which is still interested.

He was campaigning for the most part from City Hall with no significant organization outside the mayor’s office. He had the advantage of incumbency, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Halbert emerged as a vocal nemesis early in the campaign. Lowery tended to brush it off and found ways to further stir up Halbert’s ire in the process.

But like the protracted attempt to remove Elbert Jefferson as city attorney, it was valuable time wasted on details not that important to most voters – at least most who made it to the polls.

Halbert struggled through a critical part of the campaign with a bad case of the flu.

The last full day of campaigning began for Lowery in the old arena building at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. It’s an old tin shed with a bank of wall fans in the back and lots of holes in the tin.

Lowery had work crews move a pile of dirt onto the concrete floor for a symbolic groundbreaking to announce a start on fairgrounds renovation. Plans to turn the dirt outside were called off because of rain.

Lowery had failed to work out an agreement for the massive reconfiguring of the fairgrounds into a public recreation area with a private developer.

Instead, he had more than $1 million for demolition of the old Libertyland property with some left over. He sketched out a tentative plan to make some public improvements with the extra money along other parts of the East Parkway frontage.

Halbert and other council members learned of the press conference late the evening before and Halbert fired off an e-mail to Lowery’s spokeswoman, Donna Davis. The council hadn’t approved any redevelopment of the fairgrounds under a master plan, she pointed out.

Davis sent a copy of a resolution approved by the council allocating the money for demolition of Libertyland.

“The administration cannot take funds and place on projects without the approval of the council,” Halbert wrote in an e-mail to Davis and council chairman Harold Collins late on a Tuesday evening. “What is Phase I of this project and when was it approved by the council?”

Davis replied at 7:40 the next morning in a three-sentence e-mail.

“Talk to (chief administrative officer) Jack (Sammons) if you have questions. I’m busy. My release was accurate.”

Halbert said the terse reply was “completely inappropriate and disrespectful.”

Lowery had his groundbreaking and later told reporters Halbert’s objections were “petty politics.”

“This is a last-ditch effort from a minor candidate in the mayoral campaign to get publicity. It has no foundation whatsoever,” Lowery said. “She’s just trying to get publicity.”

She wasn’t alone.

Lowery closed out his campaign with a full schedule of appearances.

When it became apparent that there would be no deal to develop The Pyramid or the fairgrounds or the merger of the fire departments, Lowery still did his best with the subjects.

“It’s a new day,” he announced at the start of a council executive session that was followed by a phone call to the council from Bass Pro Shops CEO Jim Hagale. Hagale didn’t have any permanent development agreement to announce, but he confirmed the outdoors retailer remains interested in developing The Pyramid.

Two days before the election, Lowery summoned reporters to Memphis Fire Department headquarters on Front Street. He announced a new, more efficient billing and medical information system for fire department ambulance services.

Wharton said his transition team will work on a plan for any revisions to the inner workings of city government before he considers whether current division directors should stay or go.

Chief Administrative Officer Jack Sammons was to stay on in the interim.

Speculation began that county CAO Jim Huntzicker, who has been doubling as county finance and administration director, might follow Wharton to City Hall. City and county government are different in many ways. But in both governments, the CAO serves the role of day to day manager of the various divisions of each.

“He’s certainly done a great job. His credentials certainly stack up extremely well,” Wharton told The Memphis News when asked specifically about Huntzicker. “It’s my understanding that there are some retirement considerations that might compel him to stay with the county. I haven’t gotten beyond that.”

Wharton’s first appointment as Memphis mayor was made before he actually became mayor. Lowery made it as one of his last acts as mayor pro tem – the appointment of Herman Morris as city attorney. Morris is a former president of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, appointed by Herenton and who later fell out of favor with Herenton in a very public way.

Herenton declined to reappoint Morris. Morris ran against Herenton in 2007 and came in third, behind Chumney.

Wharton’s next five choices, also made through Lowery, were more telling. They were the five members the city mayor is entitled to appoint to the metro charter commission, the body charged with drafting a city-county government consolidation proposal.

Wharton had already appointed the other 10 members in his role as Shelby County mayor. The City Council made it clear they didn’t want Lowery to appoint the Memphis representatives but they scheduled their vote on the appointees for Oct. 20, after the election but before the results were certified by the Shelby County Election Commission – clearing the way for Wharton to take office as Memphis mayor.

Wharton, through Lowery, chose only from a list of suggestions from council members.

But the council disagreed on one of the five picks – council member Shea Flinn’s choice, local political blogger Steve Ross. Several council members objected to Ross because of critical comments he had made about the council on his blog. It was a repeat of their rejection just weeks earlier of Joe Saino as a pension board member.

Council members objected to Saino based on criticism he aired on his blog. Lowery took the matter to a council vote and Saino was rejected. Wharton pulled Ross’ nomination based on the discussion at the council’s executive session before it came up for a vote.

Wharton had a ringside seat for the council discussion, sitting with Lowery at the end of the committee table as Flinn and Council member Joe Brown faced off inches away from them. Flinn tried to come to the defense of Ross, who wasn’t present. Brown declared himself a “real black man” and said he hoped Flinn was a “real white man.”

Earlier Brown made some introductory remarks in which he told Wharton directly, “Welcome to the land of fire.”

Lowery thought it was embarrassing. Brown didn’t. Wharton seemed unfazed. Collins, who used his gavel to beat back further words between Flinn and Brown, laughed later.

“It can get real hot, real fast, on this side of the street,” he told The Memphis News. “I’m sure the mayor has no illusions. If he did, he doesn’t anymore.”

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RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 61 331 19,904
MORTGAGES 80 391 23,305
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 0 83 8,387
BUILDING PERMITS 0 338 40,366
BANKRUPTCIES 35 231 13,335
BUSINESS LICENSES 28 76 6,213
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 125 13,120
MARRIAGE LICENSES 21 94 4,936

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