Weeks of intense speculation ended this week when Shelby County Public Defender A C Wharton decided to make a formal announcement of his long-rumored candidacy for county mayor Wednesday morning at The Peabody.
Wharton said this week he would emphasize his more than 20 years experience as a private attorney, Shelby County public defender, and board member for the Memphis Housing Authority, Methodist Healthcare, and various education commissions.
"It would be much more to my private benefit to go off and be a high-paid consultant," said Wharton, "but I sort of feel an obligation to put something back in."
News of Wharton's taking the plunge comes only days after he gave serious second thoughts to holding back from running, according to sources familiar with the campaign. The hard core of Wharton's support, however, included the likes of Bobby Lanier, the longtime administrative aide to both former county mayor Bill Morris and incumbent mayor Jim Rout, an early enthusiast for a Wharton candidacy after Rout declared some weeks back he would vacate the seat.
Lanier served ultimately as a decisive source of support and encouragement for the well-liked and highly regarded -- but traditionally cautious -- man known almost universally in political, legal, and governmental circles as A C. "I've talked to him, and he's running," pronounced Lanier firmly last week in the midst of reports about possible waffling on the public defender's part.
Wharton's entry would seem to virtually complete a Democratic field that already includes Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, state Senator Jim Kyle, and state Representative Carol Chumney. None of these have so far given any indication that they're thinking of withdrawing.
"I've been in county government for more than 20 years and I've learned a lot," Wharton said this week. "I'm in a position to see how we could do somethings better, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, education, and health care." He said he is making the announcement "sooner than I would desire" but was prompted by the fact that other candidates have already started raising money for the race.
Wharton said he had gone back and forth on the timing and nature of his announcement in recent weeks as the news was dominated by the terrorist attacks of September 11th, the current anthrax scare, and the economy. Pressure from within his own camp for him to go ahead and declare and put an end to speculation like that of last week undoubtedly played a role, too.
"Not a day has passed that I did not go through a careful weighing process," Wharton said.
The remaining mystery is the identity of the Republican contender. At least two public figures are still strongly considering making the race: District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, who has formed an exploratory committee, and lawyer and former Memphis city councilman John Bobango.
Both are thought of as strong potential contenders, but only one of them -- by what amounts to a common-sense prior agreement between the two moderate Republicans, who share a common base -- will end up running. Meanwhile, the two are enacting a complicated ritual whereby each says beatific things about the other while (perhaps) trying to out-maneuver him for party support.
Some of Wharton's Democratic opponents -- notably Byrd, who months ago began a well-heeled, highly organized and orchestrated campaign -- have made the most of Wharton's GOP connections, mainly people close to outgoing mayor Rout (a Republican who has distanced himself from his erstwhile supporters' pro-Wharton effort). Besides Lanier, other members of Rout's circle now prominent in Wharton's support are longtime county lobbyist Bobby Bowers, former Shelby County Commissioner Charles Perkins, and suburban developer Jackie Welch.
City council member Ta Juan Stout-Mitchell was among several African Americans at a Byrd fund-raiser the weekend before last who expressed unease at the degree of support for Wharton in the traditional Shelby County business/government establishment.
Even so, Wharton has had good support among key Democrats as well -- two examples being former party chairman David Cocke and state Senator Steve Cohen -- and has been reckoned by most observers as being the man to beat. Undeterred, Byrd has indicated he will continue to campaign vigorously and is apparently geared up for a lengthy one-on-one struggle.
Among other Democrats, Kyle has polls which show him in a strong, competitive situation in the party primary, while Chumney is beginning to intensify her efforts among party cadres and has several events planned for this week and next.
Mark Luttrell, the director of Shelby County's Division of Corrections, has, friends say, made a firm decision to seek the office of sheriff in next year's Republican primary.
After years of turmoil and scandal involving Sheriff's Department personnel and policies, Luttrell came to the fore as the result, more or less, of key Republicans' search for someone who was both a new face -- at least to the county's voters -- and yet had ample experience in law enforcement.
Other Republicans seeking the office are Chief Deputy Don Wright and two other Sheriff's Department administrators, Bobby Simmons and Mike Jewell.
Assistant Chief Randy Wade is so far the only major declared Democratic candidate and has mounted a strong campaign with support from elements of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's organization.
Henry Hooper, an insurance agent and former member of the Secret Service, has said he will run as an independent, and there are even rumors that former Criminal Court judge Joe Brown -- he of the nationally syndicated TV show -- is considering a race.
John Branston contributed an interview with A C Wharton and other material to this column.