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VOL. 125 | NO. 209 | Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Consensus Seeker

One year in, Wharton feels ‘right at home’

By Andy Meek

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Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. greets attendees at a multicultural expo outside City Hall on Thursday. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

With a few unscripted remarks in late 2009, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. laid out what could be considered the theme of his just-ended first year in office.

It came while addressing the media last fall about changes he was making to the Memphis Animal Shelter, which Shelby County sheriff’s deputies raided in the early morning hours to investigate allegations of animal cruelty.

While announcing changes like new cameras inside the shelter with feeds accessible via the Internet, one reporter asked if the crisis made Wharton re-evaluate Memphis City Councilman Joe Brown’s ominous greeting during a City Council meeting: “Welcome to the land of fire.”

Wharton grinned and reminded the reporters that he thrived amid crises, and as a lawyer he used to take phone calls all night and “not miss a lick.”

“I feel like a rabbit in a brier patch,” Wharton said.

One year later, “right at home” is apparently still how he feels.

That feeling is evident when he’s forced to comb the city budget to find tens of millions of dollars to end a school-funding crisis he inherited, while at the same time promising full cooperation with the Memphis City Schools superintendent.

It’s evident via the more than 130 lawsuits he filed this week in Shelby County Environmental Court against owners of blighted property. Wharton made his general motivation for that move clear in a nationally televised PBS interview at the end of 2009.

“I’m a lawyer, and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just saying, ‘Hey, I gotta sue somebody,’” Wharton said.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton speaks to Ma Zheng, left, and Wang-Ying Glasgow after receiving a gift of Chinese calligraphy at a multicultural expo outside City Hall on Thursday. Wharton has just completed his first year in office as the first new elected Memphis mayor in nearly two decades.

Wharton’s “right at home” feeling also is evident when he’s meeting with reporters and bloggers to talk about his first year, which he did last week. For that meeting, he eschewed charts and statistics in favor of his trademark sunniness.

“You never see me arguing with council members,” Wharton said. “Wonder why that is?”

It’s because Wharton clearly has a different take on the job that his predecessor, Willie Herenton, suffused with a style that involved standing flat-footed and drawing bold lines in the sand.

Arnold Perl, secretary and counsel of the Greater Memphis Chamber, describes Wharton as someone who “creates consensus” within government and is “widely admired and respected” among business leaders.

Wharton maintains a Twitter account and Facebook page, both of which convey details of trips he takes, conferences he attends, civic initiatives and more.

The same day Pinnacle Airlines Corp. announced it’s bringing its corporate headquarters Downtown, Wharton’s Facebook page encouraged his followers to “Follow Pinnacle Airlines on Twitter and let them know how excited we are that they are coming to Downtown Memphis!”

That’s also an outgrowth of one of the most important and behind-the-scenes features of Wharton’s time in office so far: his evolution into something resembling a one-man chamber of commerce.

The mayor has been paying frequent visits to Memphis business leaders, getting personally involved in economic development discussions and having his say in the creation of incentive packages.

Wharton was personally involved in negotiations with Pinnacle. But his ambitions don’t even stop at the Memphis city limits.

A few days after his October swearing in, Wharton was in Washington for a meeting with David Agnew, deputy director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. The mayor also met Chicago businesswoman Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama.

On a trip to New York City with Memphis civic leaders, Wharton met with Daisuke Koshima, the chairman and CEO of Sharp Electronics Corp. Wharton also spent time with Japanese trade officials and billionaire entertainment mogul Robert Sillerman.

Wharton also led a group of business officials earlier this year on a trip to Mexico.

At the victory party to celebrate his win in last year’s mayoral election, Wharton boasted his campaign had “saturated” the city.

“We do it like a postage stamp,” he said, a sentiment that he’s arguably put into practice every day since then.

PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
MORTGAGES 55 244 916
BUILDING PERMITS 158 699 2,751