Mayor Wharton at Lafayette's
A day after one more mayoral candidate – County Commission chairman Justin Ford – joined a growing pack of hopefuls determined to unset Mayor A C Wharton, the Mayor was able to demonstrate one of the advantages that accrue to a seasoned incumbent like himself.
Wharton was the guest speaker at Tuesday’s weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Memphis — held not at the club’s usual venue, the University Club on Central, but at the recently revivified Lafayette’s Music Room at Overton Square. Before the assembled media and a blue-ribbon audience that included numerous attendees besides the Rotarians themselves, the mayor was able to simultaneously discuss city business and stage what amounted to a gala campaign appearance, as well.
As a bonus, Wharton got an introduction that amounted to an unstinted endorsement from Bob Loeb, the impresario of Loeb Properties, which has redeveloped Overton Square with no small financial help from city government. Councilman Jim Strickland, one of the other candidates in the mayor’s race, can claim credit for sponsoring the redevelopment and can take the Mayor to task for dragging his feet on parts of it (as Strickland did on making his candidacy announcement two weeks ago), but he won’t be able to beat this kind of testimony from the horse’s mouth:
Bob Loeb…I was just speaking with Mayor Wharton before we got started, and he reminded me of one of our early conversations. He told me that when he was Public Defender, he got a call out of the blue from a guy named Bill Loeb whom he did not know. And my father. A C says it’s the first person who ever suggested he be mayor of Memphis.
And some of you know my Dad wasn’t much of a political person, so that is quite a shot in the dark that Dad would reach out to A C and that A C would lead Memphis to become just such a different city than it was. I’d just like to hearken us back to 2009, before A C took office, and compare where we are now with where we were then. There were really two things about that time that opened my eyes to the potential we had in Memphis.
One of them was when A C was elected Mayor of Memphis, and the other was the opening of the Greenline, the instant success that it was. And the instant success that Mayor Wharton was. I compare those two events because they both were items that brought us together as a city. And let’s face it: We needed to come together as a city. We’d been fighting internally for a long time. And A C united us in common cause.
And in short order we started having announcements from Mitsubishi and Electrolux to Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Charities looking at Memphis and helping us with education initiatives, building industry and jobs, crime prevention.
And now you look at the pace of the announcements from Sears Crosstown to Number One Beale, just event after event of what’s in the pipeline in Memphis. It is really exciting; so please join me in welcoming our Mayor, A C Wharton, who has made Memphis a City of Choice.
Following that extended apotheosis, the aforesaid A C came to the Lafayette’s stage and took a standing position next to a chair, Clint Eastwood-style
“I’m not going to sit down,” the Mayor explained, “but, just if there are a lot of questions….” the Mayor said, letting the incomplete sentence expire amid a modest chuckle he shared with the audience.
(In fact, once he was done speaking and made himself available for a Q-and-A, there was but one question, about riverfront development, from WMC-TV anchor Joe Birch. The Mayor would deal with that via a roundabout series of remarks that he acknowledged were “vague,” boasting of his ability to “obfuscate.”)
Seemingly free-associating in his general remarks, but making sure to state – and develop – some carefully prepared bullet points, Wharton began by stating frankly, “I’ve got to pat myself on the back.”
That remark was apropos his push to develop bike lanes in the city. He spoke of having answered the plea of “college children” to “design a city with our eyes…with the future in mind.”
The Mayor next talked of having journeyed to New York to “sit down with the rating agencies” and be told that the city’s financial prospectus didn’t “look good,” with high costs for pensions and OPEBs (other post-employment benefits) and the famous $57 million debt to Memphis City Schools (later Shelby County Schools) that awaited him when he took office.
Starting down his checklist, the Mayor claimed progress in reforming the pension system with a hybrid plan that hit the middle between defined benefits and defined employee contributions, while raising the pension fund to $2.5 billion and keeping the city’s unfunded liability at a static level of $551 million.
On health care, he cited an inherited level of $32 million a year in employee health benefits, and – short-handing what had been a long and bitter debate in City Hall – said, “We had to come up with a way of getting that under control” and had therefore “taken significant steps.”
Regarding the $57 million school debt, the Mayor appeared to conflate actions that had taken several years, contending that he had gone to the Council and said, “Look, let’s get that section [a court-mandated maintenance-of-effort obligation to the schools] back in the budget,” and, acting with “a sense of urgency, getting “that $57 million behind us.”
Meanwhile, the city’s reserves, which had dropped to $49 million, had climbed back to $82 million. And the mayor expressed optimism that, “when we go back to New York, we hope to improve on our AA rating.”
Dealing with the city’s financial predicament had been “pure hell,” both for him and for the Council, Wharton said. “We’re all scarred, but our city is better off as a result.”
After that came a rundown on “things developing all over this city” – complete, near to complete, or about to begin. The list included Number One Beale; a new LaQuinta downtown; the prospect of “Baptist [Hospital] coming back into the city; the “phenomenal” Bass Pro Pyramid, due to debut in May; and the Harrahan Bridge, Central Station, and St. Francis Levee projects. Wharton gave somewhat more qualified forecasts about redevelopments at the declined malls of Raleigh Springs and Southbrook.
On crime, the Mayor acknowledged, “We have to do more." But, while giving a nod to “Blue Crush” police policies, he cautioned against “get-tough” rhetoric from other candidates. “’Lock ‘em up’ will not do it for us. We do a good job of locking ‘em up….That does not stop crime.”
Apropos the controversial TDZ proposal for the Fairgrounds, the Mayor promised he would “soon launch a public input process, not led by the city, before one dollar is spent, before any earth is turned.” He promised that the city administration would “go back and re-test all the premises” With a nod toward TDZ critic Taylor Berger, who had spoken and written against the project, Wharton said, “I. looked very carefully at Mr. Berger’s letter…. We appreciate those questions.”
The Mayor closed with a piece of boilerplate about the people who will “say bad” during the forthcoming mayoral campaign. “I don’t go around looking for enemies,” he said. “Each and every one of us has a better person inside just waiting to be born.” He proclaimed it as his task, going forward, to “facilitate” the emergence of that better person, and “do the same with the city.”
There were holes in what the Mayor said at Lafayette’s, and, most assuredly, they will be filled with would-be correctives from his rivals in the mayor’s race. But the event at Lafayette’s was a tour de force all the same.