Politics » Politics Feature

The Wharton Hypothesis

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Let's face it: All of us in the news business got taken by surprise -- none more than me, I'll confess. But, after we’d had a chance to reflect on the meaning of Mayor Willie Herenton's astonishing decision to resign on July 31, all of it began to make a satisfactory ex post facto sense.

So maybe the wanna-be-superintendent-again theory seems shaky (even though the mayor's people were pushing it, and there's no doubting he has ideas for shaking up the school system). And maybe the idea of Herenton' running for Congress -- another possibility floated by Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, his longtime confidant -- seems a bit of stretch. That doesn't necessarily mean that an imminent legal issue is the only alternative explanation.

For several months, from the very onset of last year's city mayor's race onward, there was beaucoup speculation in political and even lay circles about the prospect of some kind of hand-off from Herenton to his friend and counterpart, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. Most of us took that sort of talk seriously, but most of us, too, were probably looking down the line, to 2009 or 2010, when Herenton would be at -- or just past -- mid-term and Wharton would be finishing up his business and his agenda in the county.

But why not now? Especially since the special election to replace Herenton is apparently set for November, coinciding with the presidential election, it won't cost the taxpayers any more money. (More grief is another issue.) Both mayors have talked openly and avidly this year about the urgency of consolidation, and the decline of housing values -- with its concomitant gutting of property tax receipts -- will intensify cost-conscious arguments for joining the two governments.

So November is as handy a hand-off time as any other, if something like that is in the offing. As for the various conspiracy theories of some logistical shuffling that would cause a de facto consolidation of city and county, that mechanism wouldn’t seem to be readily apparent. (Which is not to say it isn’t being thought about.)

But A C as a candidate in the special election? Given the fact that the other prospects mentioned so far -- former City Council member Carol Chumney and former MLGW head Herman Morris -- are retreads, there is no reason to suppose that the same local movers and shakers who did their best to bring about a Wharton candidacy last year wouldn't try again this year. The county mayor can evangelize for consolidation inside one government tent as well as in another, and even Willie Herenton acknowledges that A C Wharton is a better potential salesman for the idea than he is.

Maybe, in short, that's what all this is about -- and not a summons from the prosecutor or a yen for swapping one set of governmental silks for another.

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