Collins on the move at Women's Forum
The real take-away from Tuesday’s forum sponsored by women’s groups for mayoral candidates is that the candidacy of Harold Collins cannot be counted out.
A strong showing by the City Councilman from Whitehaven at the forum, held at First Congregational Church, surely bolstered his prospects to remain competitive with incumbent Mayor A C Wharton and Collins’ City Council colleague Jim Strickland, who have widely been considered the co-leaders of the Mayor’s race on the strength of their strong fund-raising and well-developed base of supporters.
Along with Collins and former School Board member Sharon Webb, Wharton and Strickland were on hand for Tuesday’s forum, which was sponsored by theMemphis Area Women’s Council, the Coa-lition of 100 Black Women, Shelby County LINKS and First Congregational Church.
All four candidates had their moments. Wharton, who was under challenge for much of the evening, was kept busy defending his record against the “promises” of his opponents. Strickland and Collins highlighted what they considered weaknesses in that record, and Webb noted that she was the only female candidate for Mayor.
Early on, Strickland was the aggressor. As has been his wont, the District 5 Councilman presented himself as the putative “strong leader” who would attend to the problems of crime, blight, and administrative accountability — all problem areas where, he suggested, Wharton has been ineffective. He cited his own efforts, and the Council’s, to provide $2 million in funding for overdue rape-kit testing when, he said, the Mayor had failed to do so.
Strickland said the city administration had also lagged in providing temporary housing for victims of domestic violence and got some strong applause when he said he would intercede with state government for legislation to make repeat abusers subject to felony charges.
Wharton would respond with a reminder to the audience that he personally, as a lawyer, had written early legislation strengthening the penalties for domestic abuse. He and Strickland engaged in something of a back-and-forth on several issues, with the Councilman accusing the Mayor of short-changing women and minorities in significant work opportunities and city contracts, and Wharton attempting to “fact-check” Strickland’s charges with anecdotal examples and citing of specific incentives and trend lines which, he said, demonstrated the opposite.
As he has on other occasions, Strickland alluded to the fact that Wharton had publicly expressed disappointment with the performance of former city CAO George Little but had not only kept the CAO on board but found a high-paying job for him elsewhere in the administration.
After Strickland left early, in order to fulfill a speaking engagement with the East Shelby Republican Club, the burden of attack passed to Collins, who was not lacking, either in zeal or in eloquence.
Most tellingly, Collins reproached Wharton for under-achievements with respect to some of the large-scale projects, like Bass Pro and Electrolux, that have been regarded as pluses for the administration. Alleging that a relatively few number of employees had been added to the city’s workforce, and at disappointingly low wage rates, Collins said that they city’s youth continued to look somewhere besides Memphis for job opportunities.
“Our children are not coming to Memphis to work for 9 or 10 dollars [an hour],” Collins said. Wharton would reply, “Everybody talks in precepts. Others talk about what they're going to do. We talk about what we have done. If you’re out of work, a 9-dollar job is better than zero.”
Thereafter, the Mayor and Collins kept up a running verbal duel on how best to ensure that young people would see Memphis as a desirable place to commit to. “We need to make sure our children understand they are our prized possessions, the salt of the earth, a royal priesthood,” Collins said.
As he has on other occasions, Wharton cited such amenities as the city’s parks and its new network of bike lanes as features that make Memphis “an attractive place…for millennials” to live and work. “We do a better job of keeping people who come in from other places. Hundreds are coming here.”
Collins responded with his own catalogue of the city’s “amenities and advantages,” but, he said, “Our kids still do not want to be here. It’s image and what we do with our resources. Bass Pro, Electolux, few jobs, not much money: Something’s not right about that. We need to let the Chamber of Commerce know that our city is not a low-wage community.” Clearly referring to himself, he said, “This Mayor will change the paradigm.”
There were other issues, other debates, other matters of contention at the Tuesday forum. In what was one of her few appearances before a large group, Webb performed agreeably, partially laying to rest people’s memories of that moment in a 2009 mayoral forum when she drew a blank and had to answer, “I don’t know” to a basic question. And she was effective in citing her efforts on the Memphis City Schools board to secure school contracts for women and minorities.
But the reality is that Webb is not likely to arouse a level of support sufficient to make her a real factor in the Mayor’s race. For that matter, Mike Williams, whose reform candidacy has been longstanding if so far ill-funded, missed a chance to raise his profile with an appearance at the Tuesday forum.
Harold Collins, on the other hand, made the most of his appearance Tuesday, especially after Strickland’s early departure gave him the opportunity for a de facto one-on-one debate with Mayor Wharton.
Collins not only held his own in that debate, he had a chance to enumerate his successes in bringing useful development projects to his Whitehaven/South Memphis district and established himself as a legitimate spokesman for the city’s economically struggling population.
And, while demonstrating his ability to pitch themes to the population at large, he thereby strengthened his potential claim on the votes of the city’s majority-black population at a time when so much of the contest so far has been between the Mayor and Strickland for the loyalties of the city’s business community and the denizens of the Poplar Corridor.
As the fates would have it on Tuesday, Collins even had the last word. Having adroitly chided the Mayor for no coming up with definitive answers after 13 years in office (7 as County Mayor, 6 as Memphis Mayor), he concluded, “You know, and I know it’s time for a change.”