VOL. 130 | NO. 10 | Thursday, January 15, 2015
Strickland In Mayor's Race, Wharton Responds
By Bill Dries
After months of speculation, Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland confirmed Thursday, Jan. 15, he is in the 2015 race for Memphis mayor.
“Memphis is at a critical juncture. Violent crime is up and jobs are down. Blight is up and basic city services are down. City government debt is up while our tax base is shrinking,” Strickland said at a somber Downtown press conference without the normal trappings of a political campaign entry. “By any objective measure the Wharton administration is failing.”
Strickland is among a majority on the council who has been sharply critical of Wharton’s leadership as mayor for several years.
He said Thursday that dissatisfaction extends to Memphians in general he has talked with.
Hours later, Wharton responded and drew a sharp distinction between himself and Strickland.
“The essence is a matter of choice between people who see a city of gloom and doom and someone who sees a city of promise and hope. It is so easy to go around and pick out all the negatives," Wharton said. "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. Where he sees gloom and doom, I see hope."
Wharton was also critical of Strickland's record on the council particularly on the administration's blight programs.
"I’m the guy that saw blight, abandoned houses – sued Wells Fargo," Wharton said referring to a lawsuit that was settled with Wells Fargo putting millions of dollars into anti-blight efforts. "And when I went to the city council to get a vacant property registry, guess who led the opposition to that? Whose side was he on?”
Strickland said his sharp criticism of the city's direction is acknowledging the city's reality.
“It is with a sense of duty, not despair that I talk about our problems,” he said Thursday. “We must realistically face our challenges and our No. 1 long-term challenge for Memphis is population.”
He cited U.S. Census figures showing a loss of 50,000 people in the city’s population in one decade.
“But because annexation covered it up, we have not fully felt the negative effects of that yet. The state annexation laws have changed,” Strickland added, referring to the state’s moratorium approved last year on any new annexations. “As a result, future population loss at the same place as it occurred in the past will devastate this city.”
Strickland also pledged to reduce crime with “zero tolerance for violent crime” and “aggressive and smart policing” as well as “100 percent commitment” to the Blue CRUSH approach of moving police to statistical crime hot spots in the city.
Strickland was elected to the Memphis City Council in 2007 after one unsuccessful bid for the council before that. He was part of the largest turnover of council seats in the 47-year history of the mayor-council form of government in Memphis and was re-elected in 2011 in the largest return of incumbents in the council’s history.
He had taken Wharton’s political measure before either he or Wharton held elected office.
In 2002, it had been 20 years since Wharton ran for and lost a race for Shelby County district attorney general.
In the 2002 race for Shelby County mayor, Strickland was among those backing former state representative and Bank of Bartlett president Harold Byrd for the Democratic nomination.
Strickland is a former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party.
The race shifted dramatically when incumbent Republican Mayor Jim Rout decided not to seek re-election. That’s when Wharton came off the sidelines and got into the Democratic primary race that until then Byrd was heavily favored to win.
In response, Byrd’s campaign, including Strickland, prepared for a primary scrap and had a thick binder notebook of background research on Wharton they were prepared to use.
Much of the material was critical of Wharton for being more talk than action in his public career to that point.
The research in the notebook never got much use, however, because Byrd pulled out of the primary. It was Strickland who delivered word and notice at the filing deadline that Byrd was withdrawing.
Wharton won the primary and the general election and served as county mayor until 2009 when he resigned following his election as Memphis mayor in that year’s special election following the resignation of Willie Herenton.
Strickland’s remarks Thursday indicated he believes Wharton is more vulnerable 12 years later.
“As mayor, I will be in a better position to eliminate the reckless borrowing and spending that are the hallmarks of the current administration,” he said. “As your mayor, I’m going to tell you in plain language what I intend to do and actually do it. 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.”
Wharton held his first re-election fundraiser in November, and confirmed that he will seek re-election despite the vocal criticism from several quarters.
Wharton also said he will run on his record and especially what he termed the “tough decisions” he has made since being elected mayor in 2009.
“I’m going to run on his record too,” Strickland said when asked about going against Wharton on the ballot.
The Shelby County Election Commission doesn’t begin issuing qualifying petitions for candidates in the Memphis elections until April.
But Strickland’s decision on the mayor’s race is already having a ripple effect with contenders emerging for his District 5 city council seat.
Architect and planner Charles “Chooch” Pickard rolled out a campaign last month for the council seat if Strickland decided to run for mayor and give up the council seat.
And Dan Springer, a former aide to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, is also seeking the council seat.