VOL. 132 | NO. 60 | Friday, March 24, 2017
Political Past, Present Meet as Wharton’s Portrait Joins Hall of Mayors
By Bill Dries
When A C Wharton Jr. was Memphis mayor, his relationship with the Memphis City Council wasn’t always good. And it would usually get worse whenever he’d call a press conference in the Hall of Mayors on a Tuesday the council was meeting. Some council members thought it was to draw attention from them.
A portrait of former Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. now hangs in City Hall’s Hall of Mayors. Wharton is the first person to have served as both Shelby County mayor and Memphis mayor and the first to have his portrait in both City Hall and the county building.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
So almost 1 1/2 years out of office, Wharton’s portrait in the Hall of Mayors was unveiled this week – on a Tuesday on which the council was meeting.
Council members were in the crowd of about 200 in the gap between committee meetings upstairs at City Hall and the afternoon session in council chambers across the lobby from the hall where portraits of several dozen Memphis mayors hang on all four walls.
“We have a whole list of malcontents and enemies,” noted retired Circuit Court and Tennessee Supreme Court Judge George Brown as he looked over the crowd Tuesday, March 21. “That just goes with the territory.”
There were more people in the room who have worked for mayors and the city across the decades. That included former city councilman Bill Boyd, who as an assistant to city commissioner Hunter Lane coordinated the move of city offices from the Shelby County Courthouse into the then-new City Hall in 1966.
Former Memphis Mayor Dick Hackett, whose portrait hangs two spaces left of Wharton’s, talked with current Mayor Jim Strickland. When told that the council would be meeting shortly, Hackett seemed surprised. “Oh, that’s right,” he said.
Former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris and current county Mayor Mark Luttrell were also present. Morris was among those in the room who had run unsuccessfully for Memphis mayor – in his case, in the 1967 elections that marked the start of the mayor-council form of government. Eleven years later, he would become Shelby County mayor.
In 1980, two years into Morris’ tenure as county mayor, he appointed Wharton to be Shelby County public defender.
“I still believe that he did not really want that job,” Morris said of the appointed position Wharton held until he ran for Shelby County mayor in 2002.
“He didn’t want to work for someone else,” Morris said, “and truthfully, he didn’t.”
Morris was among those who tried to convince Wharton to run for county mayor sooner than his successful 2002 bid. The campaign came 20 years after Wharton had lost an election for district attorney general.
“I have to say every mayor … has had their own set of circumstances and problems,” Morris told Wharton Tuesday. “You had your own. You were the man of the hour. While politics might not work out all the time, you did something that was more important than winning elections. You maintained your integrity.”
Wharton thanked his family for their support of the 13-year political journey they endured along with him.
“What I did and what I got hit with was my choice,” Wharton said, contrasting that with the political and personal hits candidates’ families take no matter how much of an attempt there is to declare them off limits.
“I don’t want folks to herald my time in public office based on what they see in a portrait,” Wharton said. “I would much prefer people to remember me … not for what’s hanging on the wall or what’s over the fireplace … but how does our community look.”
The crowd was dotted with several other political leaders who over several decades have tried unsuccessfully for the office of mayor and the portrait on the wall that comes after, including Bill Gibbons, who is now head of the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission after a career that included being elected to the district attorney general’s office and terms on both the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission.
Attorney and former Memphis City Council member, U.S. Attorney and Tennessee Attorney General Mike Cody also was among those who have run.
And there were more who may have thought about it but never made the leap. Some were still thinking about it and the political calculations of other factors.
Attorney Ricky E. Wilkins called attention to the side-by-side portraits of Wharton and former Mayor Willie Herenton – Herenton the city’s first elected black mayor and Wharton the second after being elected the first black Shelby County mayor.
Herenton, who was highly critical of Wharton after Wharton lost his 2015 re-election bid to Strickland, was not at the ceremony.
It was a reminder that not all of the political differences were in the past. And Wilkins’ remarks were a reminder that not all of the political ambitions were in the past either.
Despite the differences and the absence, Wilkins described Herenton and Wharton as “two giants” as he talked about the importance of black political leadership.
“I cannot not say that we have miles to go before we sleep,” Wilkins said, referring to the city’s record homicide count in 2016, the first year of Strickland’s administration.
“You walk around the city of Memphis – the body count demands and commands that the people come together on one accord,” he added. “Whatever divisions that we may have had politically and otherwise, we need to figure out a way to get over and beyond because our children are literally dying on a daily basis. I want to say to everybody: It’s on our watch.”
“I want to speak to this mayor and his wife and to all people of goodwill,” Wilkins said of Wharton. “Nothing is more important than us locking arms together, putting all of these degrees we have gotten that God has given us, and taking our place and leading our people out of the wilderness.”
Including Strickland, 46 people have served as Memphis mayor – either through election or on an interim basis – since Marcus Winchester was elected the city’s first mayor in 1827. That total does not include two Union commanders in the aftermath of the Civil War or five presidents of the taxing district when Memphis lost its charter in the wake of the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic.
Herenton is the longest-serving and longest continually serving mayor.
Edwin Hickman was elected mayor the most times – winning the office seven times starting in 1842 when the mayor’s term of office was two years.
Only one mayor has been ousted from office. The irony is it was E.H. Crump, who dominated local politics for close to a half-century starting with his six years as mayor. He was ousted for refusing to enforce prohibition and was re-elected during the ouster proceedings, resigning before new ouster proceedings could begin.
By all accounts, it was an experience that informed the rest of his long political reign in other offices and at times when he held no elected office.
Following his exit from the mayor’s office in 1915, Crump was the constant political companion of all who occupied the office until his death in 1954.
And that is why not all of the mayors have their portraits in City Hall.
Hackett played a role in the 1980s in bringing the portrait of Mayor Frank Monteverde to the walls of City Hall after it was found in the courthouse basement nearly 70 years after his 1918-1919 tenure.
Monteverde was one the first mayoral contenders Crump allied himself with who had other thoughts once in office – in this case, raising the city’s property tax rate from the $1.58 it had been when Crump resigned in 1915 to $2.20.
Crump couldn’t force Monteverde to resign, as he later would do with other mayors who parted ways with him. So Crump tried unsuccessfully to change the city to a city manager form of government. Monteverde decided not to seek re-election in 1919 after one two-year term in office.