VOL. 130 | NO. 156 | Wednesday, August 12, 2015
Campaign Strategies Shift As Mayoral Debates Begin
By Bill Dries
It’s been a scrap from the start.
But with the first televised debate in the 2015 race for Memphis Mayor Monday, Aug. 10, more citizens got a first-hand look at what the top contenders have agreed is a milestone political race.
City Council member Harold Collins began by calling it an “election of historic proportions.”
And he compared it to the 1991 race for mayor in which Willie Herenton beat Dick Hackett by 142 votes – the only time in the city’s mayor-council form of government that an incumbent mayor has lost a re-election bid.
Collins promised the election would resolve the questions and issues the city’s voters have about the city’s direction.
But between now and the Oct. 8 election day, the candidates will each, to some degree, hone and otherwise change strategies as a result of their uneasy coexistence.
Incumbent Mayor A C Wharton Jr. came into the television debate from a weekend where he became noticeably more aggressive. And two hours before Monday’s debate, Wharton’s campaign indicated he would go further.
That was about the same time that former city council member Edmund Ford Sr. went public with a Thursday, Aug. 6, letter to Collins. Ford began: “I see you and I’m not the only one. You and Jim Strickland are working together to get him (Strickland) elected mayor.”
Ford – whose son, current city council member Edmund Ford Jr. is a vocal backer of Wharton – added, “You don’t have a chance to win but you are setting Strickland up good. The only black folks with Strickland are the ones he’s paying for.”
Wharton went on the offensive Monday evening in an evolving strategy that is always risky for an incumbent: It involves acknowledging challengers and departing from the traditional advantages of an incumbent – holding the office, taking action as the officeholder and touting those actions.
Wharton accused Strickland of being for eliminating blight but opposing a registry of vacant property and being for more police officers but opposing increased police funding.
“I think candidate Strickland ought to be introduced to councilman Strickland because they are two different people,” Wharton said. “We’ve got two different people standing over here. He was Dr. No.”
Strickland drew a distinction between opposing a larger police budget and opposing more police officers. Strickland said he favored more cops but didn’t think Wharton’s budget proposal increased the ranks.
And he accused Wharton of deliberately cutting the police complement.
“He never denied that his budgets reduced the numbers of police officers,” Strickland said.
Strickland also said he voted against the registry because there already was one. And he used the opportunity to again bash Wharton for replacing chief administrative officer George Little with Jack Sammons and then retaining Little in another City Hall job at the same salary.
“I know he likes two registries. I know he likes two CAOs,” Strickland said. “He’s like Noah.”
After the first extended clash between Wharton and Strickland, Collins was asked how he was different from the other contenders.
“You just saw it right there,” he said. “These guys are acting like Tom and Jerry. … I apologize for them. This is the high road.”
But the “high road” isn’t a road free of criticism.
“If this mayor and this administration can’t do it for 13 years … what makes you think he can do it for another four years?” Collins said, referring to Wharton’s combined 13-year tenure as county and city mayor. “He’s had his chance.”
A week after opening his Whitehaven campaign headquarters in Collins’ council district, some in Wharton’s camp were concerned the mayor’s tone was too laid back, that he wasn’t taking the challenge from Collins and fellow council member Jim Strickland seriously enough.
That changed with the Saturday, Aug. 8, opening of Wharton’s second campaign headquarters, this one near Chickasaw Gardens, at 2881 Poplar Ave. In the past, Wharton has relied on supporters to criticize Strickland and Collins, saying he would not be “divisive.”
But Saturday that strategy faded fast. He was critical of both, without calling them by name for talking about “a future of doom and gloom.”
“We have some thermometer people running for office. All they do is they run around and tell you how hot it is or how cold it is,” Wharton said Saturday. “I want to be a thermostat person. You know what a thermostat does? When it gets too hot, the thermostat regulates the A.C. It makes it cooler. … You want someone who’s going to say, ‘It’s hot and I’m going to do something about it.’”
The opening event also featured fiery defenses of the Wharton record by current county commissioner Reginald Milton and former county commissioner Mike Carpenter.
Milton complained of “haters.” He argued that Wharton’s challengers want to replace him even though the mayor has guided Memphis through the recession and the hard decisions of righting the city’s financial condition.
“We don’t need a mayor,” he said. “We’ve got a mayor.”