(Three months ago the
Flyers Rebekah Gleaves profiled Shelby Countys public defender, A C Wharton; at almost the same time, county mayor Jim Rout was making the decision not to run for reelection that would thrust Wharton front and center in the local political universe. Drawing on material accumulated during her research for that earlier, non-political article, Gleaves takes a look back at her subject with his political future in mind.
Though he's keeping quiet about A C Wharton
entering the county mayor's race now, city mayorW.W. Herenton
-- a longtime friend of Wharton's -- and several other Wharton friends and colleagues were not so hushed about his abilities a few months ago.
In July of this year the Flyer
interviewed the mayor and a number of others as research for a feature on Wharton. (See The Memphis Flyer
, issue #649, July 26th - August 1st, 2001.)
When asked if he thought Wharton would make an effective mayor for the city of Memphis, current city mayor W.W. Herenton was generous with his praise: "If AC were to seek the office of mayor and get elected, I think the citizens would have an excellent mayor in him."
However, since Wharton's bid for county mayor, Herenton has remained noticeably silent, saying that during his own campaigns the sitting county mayors always refrained from speaking on the candidates.
Another longtime friend of Wharton's, television judge Joe Brown
, was equally supportive: "AC's the type of person who can cut across lines in Memphis with a dignified manner. If he ran for mayor, I might even be persuaded to support him." Brown has previously voiced his own intentions to run for the city mayor position someday. Brown did not respond to calls this week from the Flyer
For years, Wharton has been whispered about as a possible candidate for several offices and has long been believed to be able to garner support from both Memphis' black and white communities. It seems his reason for staying away from politics for nearly 20 years was personal.
"I haven't really wanted him to run for anything else, to be candid," said Wharton's wife and law partner, Ruby Wharton
. "Our last child was born the day before the election in 1982. I asked AC to wait until the youngest child was out of high school, or at least 16, before running again because politics is just so demanding. He respected my wishes and he has not run for anything else. Sometimes I blame myself for him not getting involved in another race. But who knows what he wants to do or what he may do someday?"
Wharton's strength and weakness in this mayor's race seem to be one in the same, namely being black. As the only black candidate vying for a win in the Democratic primary, he has the potential to lock the so-called black vote in an election that traditionally divides along racial lines. Likewise, as a very well respected and accomplished attorney who is widely regarded as hard-working and fair, Wharton's candidacy transcends any racial positions his competitors might wish to box him into. However, this same mass appeal could serve to weaken Wharton in both camps. Black and white Democrats may view him as being too cozy with white Republicans.
These are suggestions Wharton is familiar with and has been prepared for. In July, Wharton noted that such things have been said about him and that these assumptions were false: "There's a difference between taking a position because that's what I think white people would like for me to do. I don't do that. Or taking a position because that's what I think black people would like, I don't do that either. If I happen to take a position because I think it's a good, sound position and black folks and white folks like it, I'm not going to run from it. I'm not going to guide my life or my thoughts and parse my words so that I can appeal to white folks. By the same token, I'm not going to guide my life or parse my words for black people."
It seems this attitude has worked well in the past for Wharton. Ask his colleagues about him and you get universally positive comments about him both personally and professionally.
"He has a 'grace under fire' temperament," explained Ken Roach
, an assistant district attorney who has worked in that office since 1974. "I've never seen him lose it. A lot of times in the heat of battle, it can be hard to keep your cool."
This is a thought also echoed by Herenton. "AC is a wonderful guy, a distinguished citizen of this city, a good friend, and an intelligent person who advises me on many issues as the mayor," said Mayor Herenton. "Some people view me as a low-key guy that, when my buttons are pushed, shows a different side. Sometimes I get testy. But AC never does. He always keeps his cool."
The way Wharton tells it, none of this is accidental. He consciously opts to maintain his composure and guard his mood and tongue. One of the ways he says he does so is by carefully selecting how and with whom he spends his free time. "If I'm around people who are positive, I'm positive," said Wharton. "And I discreetly select the people I'm around to get the most out of every minute." He continues, saying, "When you find your deficiencies, and we all have deficiencies, you have to overcome them. I overcome mine with drive. That extra push can make all the difference."
But his wife paints a slightly different picture.
"AC is serious about everything he does, but he never takes himself too seriously," says Ruby Wharton. "I suppose that is the factor that helps him deal with the things he has to deal with everyday. He's always able to see the light side of things."
Much of this attitude manifests itself in Wharton's workplace, or workplaces. As the public defender, a very successful criminal defense attorney, board member for both Methodist-LeBonheur Hospital and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and, until recently, a law professor at Ole Miss, much of Wharton's time is spent working. He has himself said that he would rather be known for what he does than who he is.
"I work too much," said Wharton. "I think I have a balanced life, though. I just believe in going and going and going. It's nothing for me to go to work at 8 Saturday morning and then at 4 Saturday evening go to the golf course with my son. I do work hard, but when I play, I play hard. Life is good."
This is a fact about Wharton that those who know him readily volunteer. But they don't stop at noting his long hours. Rather, they tend to focus on the quality of his work.
"You never defend complicated cases by hiding the ball," said Jim Raines
, an attorney with Glankler Brown who has known Wharton for about 20 years. "In the dealings I've had with AC, he's been very up-front. He is not going to manufacture facts or manufacture any defense that is not credible. He is perceived by prosecuting attorneys as a truth-sayer, which is really important in our business. I have the utmost confidence in AC -- in his knowledge and ability to understand the circumstances and arrive at an appropriate course of action. He always was a good trial lawyer, a fair and tough adversary. He's good with and jury and has a good temperament. Judges listen to him and he's persuasive."
Not surprisingly, Wharton's wife agrees that her husband works a lot: "He's probably one of the hardest working men I know. It's not easy being married to someone like that."
Despite the glowing praise he has received as both the public defender and in his own criminal defense practice, local political speculators have questioned whether AC will be able to perform the duties of county mayor as effectively. Particularly in a time of great activity in Shelby County, some have questioned Wharton's soft-spoken, often non-offensive manner and whether or not he will be able to aggressively pursue promoting the county and getting county residents involved.
"I don't know one end of a basketball court from the other. I guess they're both the same," said Wharton. "I don't know anything about baseball and I can't tell you much about the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, but I enjoy it. I enjoy being able to go to all of these things if I want to. I think giving more attention to the amenities will do more to bring all levels of people up. I think we need to do more to cross-fertilize to make sure everyone gets a taste of that. We think that people buy into our values, but they do not if they've never really tasted our values."