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VOL. 8 | NO. 16 | Saturday, April 11, 2015

Wharton's Way

Mayoral contenders Strickland, Collins challenge current leadership

By Bill Dries

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City elections in Memphis begin unadorned.

Yard signs don’t bloom until mid- to late summer, when the strategic use of television ads and the much higher cycle of radio advertising kick in.

Even by those standards, Jim Strickland’s Jan. 15 declaration of his bid for mayor was spartan.

No signage, not even a streamer and no familiar faces standing behind him to signify the citizens who, according to virtually every candidate, have been urging them to run.

“Memphis is at a critical juncture. Violent crime is up and jobs are down,” Strickland told the group of reporters assembled at the Falls Building conference room along with some of those who would be vying for his open District 5 Memphis City Council seat.

“By any objective measure, the Wharton administration is failing,” Strickland said.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. responded hours later.

“If that’s his way of seeing the city, then that’s okay for a personal view, but that’s not a view for a mayor,” Wharton said. “Where he sees gloom and doom, I see hope.”

Strickland’s announcement, which laid out in stark terms the stakes in the 2015 Memphis mayoral race, was followed by confirmation from fellow City Council member Harold Collins on Wednesday, April 8, that he’d be entering the race.

“I saw the need for new leadership, a different approach to how city resources would be allocated,” he told 100 supporters at a Southland Mall event. “We saw the need to invest in Memphis more because many of our policies and projects were not intended to help our most vulnerable people but only for a few people.”

Strickland, Collins and others are challenging Wharton’s basic philosophy of approaching Memphis’ problems.

Ford, Williams Also Plan Mayoral Campaigns

Also among the declared in the race for Memphis mayor is Shelby County Commission chairman Justin Ford, the second generation of the city’s best-known political family, which over the last three decades has had an interest in the race.

He is the third member of the Ford family to run for mayor. 

His uncle, then-state Sen. John Ford, ran in 1983 at the height of the Ford political machine’s influence and finished second to incumbent Dick Hackett.

Justin’s father, former county commissioner Joe Ford, ran in 1999 and finished second to incumbent Willie Herenton. 

Also in the 2015 race is Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams. Williams’ run is fueled by the summer’s City Hall protests among city employees over cuts to their health insurance and pension benefits.

But in his bid for mayor, Williams is attempting to push his platform further. Many of the firefighters and police officers who were a major part of the protests don’t live in Memphis and can’t vote in city elections. 

Detric Golden, a former University of Memphis basketball player, has been running for Memphis mayor longer than anyone else in the race. Golden has been handing out cards touting his mayoral bid since just after the 2011 election. 

He is neighborhood director at the Greenlaw Community Center, run by Memphis Athletic Ministries.

Golden’s bid for mayor is based on that work, which he says he would spread across the city if he were elected.

“As your mayor, I’m going to tell you in plain language what I intend to do and actually do it,” Strickland said. “It won’t be in sound bites and it won’t be in feel-good programs. Providing the basic functions of government shouldn’t require a press conference.”

Collins, meanwhile, knocked Wharton’s penchant for appointing committees.

“We will not be negative,” he said. “But we will tell the truth.”

From ‘One Memphis’ to Tough Choices

Wharton was elected mayor in a 2009 special election following the resignation of Willie Herenton. His campaign during that race and the regularly scheduled 2011 election centered on a theme of “One Memphis” – a call for unity in the wake of Herenton’s increasingly polarizing image toward the end of his 17-year mayoral tenure.

Wharton says he won’t be using the “One Memphis” slogan in 2015. He will instead run on his record and what he calls “tough choices” outlined at a November fundraiser during which Wharton made his case in a more aggressive way.

“That is what hurts us in politics today,” Wharton said after the fundraiser. “Everybody wants to stand up and say, ‘How is this going to go over?’ And if it doesn’t look like it’s going to go over well, they back down.”

More than a defense of his record, though, Wharton is defending a 2009 campaign promise to change the nature and tone of Memphis politics that goes to the core of how city leaders approach persistent and multigenerational problems such as poverty and crime.

During his seven years as Shelby County mayor, Wharton, a former Shelby County public defender, came to define violent crime in particular as a public health issue, not solely a law enforcement issue.

Strickland is part of a voting majority on the council who came into office in 2008 repeatedly saying Memphis police needed more “boots on the street” to fight crime.

One of Wharton’s anticrime strategies, however, is perhaps the best illustration of his long-term approach to problems in general.

In January, Wharton assembled the Adverse Childhood Experiences Center Task Force to hear the latest progress on the impact of adverse childhood experiences on crime trends.

The premise is that incidents such as violence in the home or exposure to violent behavior or bullying can explain criminal behavior and a downward spiral in someone’s life. The task force, which was created in 2014 and includes 40 local leaders, is exploring how to reverse that cycle for some and prevent it for others.

Wharton is open about how long the work might take.

“Everybody can come and tell you what they saw, but nobody has ever undertaken an effort to say, ‘Let’s really dig down and find out why,’” Wharton said of the effort. “We do a lot of stuff after, but too many times life has been set on fatal path by that time.”

Strickland, Collins Share Some Views

Both Strickland and Collins were elected to the council in 2007 and re-elected four years later.

They share the view among a majority of council members that they have been forced to take a more active role to fill what they see as a leadership vacuum created by Wharton and his administration.

Strickland and Wharton were on different sides in the 2002 race for Shelby County mayor, a race in which the political ground shifted beneath contender Harold Byrd, whom Strickland supported.

When incumbent mayor Jim Rout called off his re-election bid, Byrd’s campaign for the Democratic mayoral nomination was already well underway, including Byrd’s face on the side of numerous city buses.

But with Rout out of the Republican primary, Wharton got into the Democratic primary contest, much to the chagrin of Byrd and his supporters. Byrd later withdrew from the primary.

Collins is best known for his work on the redevelopment of Whitehaven, particularly the stretch of Elvis Presley Boulevard that amounts to the community’s main street.

Collins cobbled together $43 million in state and federal funding for streetscape improvements to improve intersections, put power lines underground, and standardize the hodgepodge of street-side curb cuts and business exteriors, all of which have been piecemealed since the boulevard’s days as a country highway.

He’s waved his Kroger card in front of the Whitehaven Kroger as the supermarket’s Delta Division kicked off a $5 million renovation in May 2013.

And while Elvis Presley Enterprises has been making its point about the street’s condition behind the scenes at City Hall, Collins became the public voice of that push as Graceland moves ahead with plans for the $90 million, 450-room Guest House at Graceland.

In the process, Collins has linked the expansion of Graceland to the fortunes of surrounding residents.

“It bothers me that we have to wait seven years to get something done in our community,” he said at a March town hall meeting.

Collins resigned his job coordinating mentoring programs and other outreach efforts in the district attorney general’s office to run for mayor, so he understands Wharton’s approach to the issues of violent crime. And Collins is among those on the council who argue more police officers and more Blue CRUSH spray-paint stencil work on boarded-up drug houses aren’t the whole answer to crime.

But Collins, like Strickland, argues the city is standing still on issues like economic development incentives.

“We’re dying,” he told those at an early gathering last October as he announced his exploratory bid for mayor. “We’ve got to have something else to sustain us.”

Collins is particularly critical of Wharton and his administration for being more talk than action on working to retain college-educated Memphians.

“When you expect young people to have an opportunity, they don’t see anything changing from their government or their city,” he said at the October event at Evergreen Grill. “There’s no space for them.”

Wharton’s Tenure Marked by Big Projects

Wharton enjoys the traditional advantages of an incumbent mayor – an impressive slate of project openings, including the April 29 opening of Bass Pro Shops at The Pyramid. And he is relying heavily on that adaptation to make his point about the longer-term approach he advocates across the board.

“Bass Pro may be one of the best ways to demonstrate that,” Wharton said. “It has been a long time, but look at what we are going to have as a result of that.

“It is very difficult for us to sometimes get folks to have the patience that they need. But once they see, it really soaks in.”

The megastore’s opening nears, however, with questions about the redevelopment of the neighboring Pinch area. Bass Pro has not planned a connection to The Pyramid from Front Street, despite earlier plans in which such a connection was considered vital.

The February groundbreaking on Crosstown Concourse, the $200 million redevelopment of the old Sears Crosstown building, was the rare event on Wharton’s calendar that has been mostly free of controversy.

Meanwhile the Fairgrounds redevelopment plan is still awaiting an Urban Land Institute panel that Wharton touted in February as a fresh look at the controversial pursuit.

And then there’s the just-debuted renovation of AutoZone Park. It came in a $25 million deal in which the city bought the ballpark and the St. Louis Cardinals bought the Memphis Redbirds.

The council ultimately approved the deal after the Redbirds Foundation and the Cardinals got involved in organizing rallies and communicating directly with council members.

Behind the scenes, those in both groups expressed dissatisfaction that the Wharton administration had lacked a sense of urgency.

AutoZone retained its naming rights to the ballpark in a key part of the deal. When Strickland held a private $1,500-a-head fundraiser in March, AutoZone CEO Bill Rhodes was among the co-hosts.

Sammons Could Shake Up City Hall

Wharton may have tempered any advantage from such city projects with moments of vulnerability. One example was his inner circle shake-up, including the appointment of a new chief administrative officer, the mayor’s second-in-command within city government.

The return of former council member Jack Sammons, who served as CAO under interim mayor Myron Lowery and through the first five months of Wharton’s tenure, comes with Wharton’s admission that his administration hasn’t been able to follow through on its goals.

Sammons nearly became a casualty of the system he now has to mend: Wharton wanted to leave him in place as chairman of the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority but state law prevented holding the positions simultaneously. After unsuccessfully trying to get the law amended, Sammons resigned his airport seat to take the CAO job.

He returns to City Hall after a five-year absence in which he acknowledges much has changed including how the administration operates and the mayor’s relationship with the council.

“A lot has improved,” Sammons told the council. “And a lot needs to be addressed.”

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