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Signs of Change

The polls say it's Wharton for Memphis mayor. What will the voters say?



Where's A C? By last week it was a ritual phrase in the campaign — persistently intoned by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton's opponents at a variety of scheduled forums and debates to size up the candidates for Memphis mayor.

Many of these affairs were well-attended — like the one sponsored by several organizations and held in the Raleigh-Frayser area, or another one held in Cordova under the auspices of the Cordova Leadership Council. Others were held before smaller, specialized audiences, like last week's "green" debate at the University of Memphis.

Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery was a regular at these events, as were former City Council member Carol Chumney, current councilwoman Wanda Halbert, and municipal bonds lawyer Charles Carpenter. Kenneth T. Whalum Jr., a school board member and pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church, was generally available, too, and a rotating cast of others would check in: former county commissioner and perennial candidate John Willingham, parks services employee Detric Stigall, or W.W.E. eminence Jerry Lawler.

There are 25 names on the ballot overall. Some of them are well known, like E.C. Jones, the former councilman whose decision to file seemed to be a spontaneous emotional reaction to the sentencing of his son Chris in a murder case, or Silky Sullivan, the Beale Street restaurateur, or Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges, the eternal self-professed space alien whose act, like his eccentric wardrobe, has a moldy look to it.

There are other names that tug at most people's peripheral memory, like perennials Johnny Hatcher and Mary Taylor-Shelby Wright (notorious most recently for throwing water on her own lawyer in a courtroom) and David Vinciarelli, still hopeful of getting a leg-up in some election or another. There also are unknowns whose names conjured up parlor games, like Leo Awgowhat (Knock knock/Who's there?/Awgo/Awgo who?) or the alliterative Vuong Vaughn Vo.

And there is at least one case — that of school board member and former Charter Commission member Sharon Webb — of someone's losing a hold on identity in the very act of running. Webb's dazy know-nothingism outpointed even Mongo's show-off rap for irrelevance in the first showcase event of the special-election season, a late-August debate on WMC-TV Action News 5.

That first TV debate also was the event that foreshadowed Wharton's intention to remain as elusive as possible, holding his participation in group situations to the barest minimum while stage-managing occasions that presented him on his own terms.

Take his "Sustainable Shelby" program, rolled out last month in a public ceremony with the same kind of fanfare that had greeted such other grand thematic approaches to problems as his Smart Growth initiative of the mid-2000s and Operation Safe Community, which addressed crime.

All well and good, but Sustainable Shelby dealt with environmental questions in the macro manner. And, while nobody doubted that Wharton knew his stuff on this issue as on most else that he might be asked about, he was not on the scene last week at the University of Memphis for a forum on green issues and therefore could not (or would not) mix it up — either with his opponents or, potentially, with questioners in his audience.

Beyond the matter of subjecting himself to barbs thrown by rivals desperate to trip him up, Wharton also declined thereby to deal with the specifics presented by other candidates. That night there was, as always in forums of that sort, a certain amount of blather and sleight of hand, in which the candidates dressed up their existing hobby horses in green embroidery so as to pass muster as genuine environmentalism. (Carpenter's all-purpose "comprehensive plan" was so bedecked, as was Whalum's idea of dispersing city-government offices into neighborhoods.)

Candidate Carol Chumney takes the podium at the University of Memphis "green" forum. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Candidate Carol Chumney takes the podium at the University of Memphis "green" forum.

But there were also intriguing suggestions: Lowery's for a monorail system circling the city; Halbert's for a return to cooking in school cafeterias (instead of thawing and reheating pre-packaged products); Chumney's touting of gardens in vacated areas; Whalum's call for the Memphis Area Transit Authority to develop a bike-rental arm; and Carpenter's call for a thorough revamping of MATA's antiquated routes.

And it would have been interesting — and perhaps revealing — to see how Wharton (whose knowledge of the general subject area no one doubts) might improvise and ad-lib along with the others.

Long, tall, focused, and whip-smart — adjectives that could also have once described former mayor Herenton, on whose coattails he would come into prominence — Carpenter will likely not make it this time around, but don't discount him for 2010, when there's a race for county mayor, or in 2011, when there's another one for city mayor.

As he has so often noted on the stump, Carpenter is a home-grown product, having ascended from humble beginnings in the downtown area to get himself through Howard University and Notre Dame Law School. As he so often has said, he came back home to find nobody wanted him, so he hung out his own shingle. He already was on the rise, but his coming aboard candidate Herenton's campaign as its manager in 1991 allowed him, after the upset win of the first elected black mayor in Memphis, to apply his talents to large-scale urban projects, and his general law practice rapidly escalated into one specializing in municipal financing — a latter-day example of which involved bringing the FedExForum project to fruition.

John Willingham checks on vandalized campaign signs on the corner of Colonial and Park. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • John Willingham checks on vandalized campaign signs on the corner of Colonial and Park.

His close association with Herenton is definitely of the for-better-or-for-worse variety. Carpenter has disclaimed any involvement in policy-making, and he notes that Wharton ran almost as many of Herenton's election campaigns as he did. He wants, he has persistently said, to transition city government "from a political culture to a business culture" and has meanwhile concentrated his efforts on the larger Whitehaven area.

Carpenter's public positions sometimes bespoke not only his inner-city roots but his past relationship with Herenton, as if unwittingly. Take his rejection of city/county consolidation, delivered to several hundred attendees at the Breath of Life Christian Center in Raleigh on September 21st: "I think this is one of the biggest back-room deals in Memphis history," he declared. After summarizing the current plan as one in which the suburbs would retain their independent schools and their municipal governments, while Memphis would dissolve its separate governing institutions, Carpenter declared, "Let's look at the timing of all of this. Former mayor Willie Herenton has been talking about consolidation for a decade. Nothing happens. He's out of office for 60 days, and there's a plan!"

Back again for a second try at city mayor (she has also run once for the county's top job) is Carol Chumney, Herenton's runner-up in 2007. A veteran, as she invariably points out, of 17 years in public service (13 as a state representative from Midtown, four as council member), Chumney has succeeded to some degree in linking her public image to what she perceives as the public's desire for reform.

That goes even for her appearance. Gone is the sensible-shoes look of 2007, her first try at city mayor. Some 30 pounds lighter and considerably more fashionable in appearance, she is the would-be leading lady of change in 2009. But she has been hampered.

Beyond the fact of her difficulty in raising money, Chumney possesses two additional handicaps that did not exist for her in 2007, when, in what amounted to a tripartite race with Herenton and former MLGW head Herman Morris, she finished a strong second with 35 percent of the vote, versus 42 percent for Herenton.

Two years ago, Chumney's name was a household word. As an active member of the council, she had stood out for her iconoclasm in all matters and was among the first to challenge the infamous — and soon discontinued — 12-year-and-out city pension arrangement. Her talent was in finding the flaws in the usual. And, though she challenged her fellow council members as often as she did the administration, she had Herenton, whose reputation was in steep decline, to kick around, and he made an admirable foil.

There was something retro and unconvincing about her pledge in this year's mayor's race to "fight for you." The slogan was appropriate for a legislator, especially one who made a point of not going along to get along. But it had an unduly reactive sound in the mouth of a potential chief executive, whose charge was to lead — not to kick against the pricks, as it were, but to coax them to come along.

Carol Chumney waves to passing cars at the corner of Park and Mt. Moriah. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Carol Chumney waves to passing cars at the corner of Park and Mt. Moriah.

Wanda Halbert, a first-term council member who served two terms on the city school board, was a surprise entry for mayor, and she has been woefully underfinanced, but she has been a dutiful candidate, schlepping into as many open arenas and public forums as possible and declaiming there an often detailed and quasi-revolutionary attitude toward government.

Almost as persistently as Carpenter, she has noted what she considers an injustice in the system — a preference, as she sees it, for bestowing benefits on corporations and management firms rather than on neighborhoods and the people who live in them. She is like Carpenter, too, in calling for what they both call "tax equity," a revision of the relationship between city and county in which, they both say, inner-city residents end up paying for their richer neighbors of the county suburbs via a dual system of taxation.

The Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. has been nothing if not entertaining. And his repetition of simple ideas in concrete terms is refreshing: Restore Libertyland. Fire the "400 appointees" of the former mayor. Disperse city offices into the neighborhoods. Lease office space in the Pyramid to newly licensed doctors and lawyers on the proviso that, within a set period of time, they, too, would hang their shingles in neighborhoods. But, for all of the 83,939 votes he had won in his at-large school board race, there was little sign that he had tapped into a citywide groundswell.

"K.T. is running for City Council in 2011. You can count on it," said one of his rivals late in the game.

Perhaps that was too limiting. The charismatic pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church could remain a vocal maverick on the school board, and it was easy to imagine him mounting up for a serious challenge to whoever would be the incumbent in 2011 — especially someone like Wharton, whom he could clearly brand an establishmentarian.

I still wonder what might have happened if Jerry Lawler had done some serious campaigning. Like Chumney, whose first and most serious splash in a mayoral contest is evidently not to be repeated this time around, Lawler's first foray, in 1999, might have been his high-water mark.

Granted, he only got 12 percent of the vote that year, but that, too, was a multi-candidate race, with some serious big-name candidates in it, in addition to the then still popular and high-flying incumbent Herenton. And he had been restricted by a week-long schedule of wrestling obligations from doing much in the way of campaigning.

This year, as he repeatedly said, his duties with the W.W.E. were restricted to one night a week (Monday) on which he would fly to a different American city, where he was responsible for some televised wrestling commentary. Period. End of story. The rest of the time he could devote himself to campaigning — though it would not be of the conventional sort. After all, he was "no politician." (A disclaimer adopted also by Carpenter.)

Even so, Lawler should have given himself more of a chance to make more elaborate sense of some of the issues: The Pyramid. Going green. Urban blight and sprawl. As it was, he spoke in bromides: Allow people to keep more of their money. Cut waste. Bring government to the people. All well and good, and some, or all of it, was echoed by others.

Ray White campaigns for A C Wharton at the early voting station inside the Church of Christ on Colonial near Dee. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Ray White campaigns for A C Wharton at the early voting station inside the Church of Christ on Colonial near Dee.

Late in the campaign — just this week, in fact — Lawler hitched himself to an unlikely star, an education initiative chaired by an ensemble including Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich, two figures unlikely to resonate anywhere, much less in a race for Memphis mayor. However remote, however strangely authored, it was a bona fide issue.

But essentially, all we had to go on was a man likable and well-intentioned, intelligent, committed to Memphis, and certainly able to do more than walk, chew gum, and sign autographs. But all of that, and a good deal else, was spoken to by the apparent man of the hour, A C Wharton, who, politician or no politician, was riding high in the polls and was experienced besides.

A C Wharton is speaking in sound bites — in inaugural-sounding snippets in TV ads which feature that famous uplifting persona of his: "one Memphis." Provide our police with the best technology possible. A smiling, confident presence — one whose air of calm and reassurance may be what the city yearns for after its 18 years of experience with a sometimes inspiring, often abrasive Alpha male.

Here's an odd and almost forgotten fact: When black Memphians went looking for an exemplar to become the city's first African-African chief executive in 1991, the year Herenton was finally selected, Wharton, then serving as Shelby County public defender, was an also-ran among the contenders, generally considered to be less viable than such other hopefuls as Otis Higgs, a judge and veteran of mayoral races, and Shep Wilbun, then a member of the City Council and one of the organizers of the consensus movement.

He has worn well, however, and served well on behalf of such others as Herenton, two of whose mayoral campaigns he managed, and statewide candidates like Congressman Jim Cooper, a candidate for U.S. senator in 1994.

He already was considered a likely city leader when he was tapped by various establishmentarians to run for county mayor in 2002, after two-term Republican Jim Rout, seeing evidence of strengthened Democratic demographics, decided to step down. A C, as almost everybody called him, was black but had crossover written all over him. His very blandness became a virtue. Yet, when needed, he could snap to and answer a challenge — as when he warned Governor Phil Bredesen last spring not to interdict any federal stimulus money headed for Memphis, then charm Bredesen into not minding, with a joke about how the news reports must have confused one mayor whose name ended with "-ton" with another.

And Wharton has persistently fielded doubts about his overall achievements as county mayor by pointing out the obvious — that the powers of that job are as circumscribed as those of the one he now seeks are expansive.

All his major opponents have criticized Wharton, with some justice, as having dodged the debates. "Disrespectful" is the common term of reproach. But the polls — his own, those of opponents, and those taken by third-party sources — have been consistent. He doesn't just lead the field. He has virtually lapped the others, who trail him by anywhere from 25 to 40 points, and he is candid enough to publicly entertain hopes of winning an outright majority (though a plurality is all he'll need).

All this must be more than frustrating for the other mayor in the race — Lowery, whose 60-plus days in office as the city's acting chief executive have been marked by a take-charge attitude and by specific achievements: an edict allowing beer sales (and consequent revenues) during University of Memphis games at the Liberty Bowl; his announcement last week of red-light cameras at key intersections, a means whereby policing powers could be conserved while advancing detection of traffic offenses; a whirlwind of actions taken in the name of transparency, culminating only this week with the release of documents demonstrating that predecessor Herenton and the ex-mayor's CEO, Keith McGee, had claimed what seemed to be extravagant compensation for unspent vacation time.

Lowery's one stumble, his frustrated attempt to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson within minutes of being sworn in as mayor pro tem, had the virtue of making Lowery look bold, like someone willing to take chances, even if it meant running afoul of a council majority. Even if, as Lowery's detractors contend, Jefferson, a diabetic who has been on sick leave for the last several weeks, is essentially a scapegoat for the sins, real and imagined, of the Herenton administration, Lowery succeeded almost instantly in becoming the anti-Willie of this year's mayor's race. That was especially the case when the outgoing mayor spent many of his last days in office singling out Lowery as an antagonist who had to be stopped at all costs.

A councilman since his first election in 1991, the same year Herenton became mayor, Lowery has positioned himself over the years as a swing man on the council and, despite a certain brusqueness, something of a conciliator.

Arguably, he has been the most effective of all participants in the public forums, trotting out his motto, "What the others are promising, I have already done," and citing chapter and verse when asked about the issues.

Surely he knows the odds against his succeeding this time around are great. But, though he maintained after a downtown fund-raiser last week that he had "no plans" for either 2010 or 2011, it is hard to see how he could avoid trying again to get his hands on the reins.

That is, if the amiable and able A C Wharton wins as expected and gives Lowery or anybody else a ghost of a chance to do so.

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