As Shelby County mayor A C Wharton campaigns around Shelby County for the consolidation proposal he intends to place on the countywide general election ballot in 2010, he is doing de facto double duty for the 2011 city mayor's race he has already announced for.
At last week's first formal session of his consolidation "listening tour," held at the Homebuilders headquarters on Germantown Parkway, a woman in the audience demanded to know, "Is this a political move?" The county mayor and wannabe city mayor fended off the question with an adroit seque into a facts-and-figures disquisition on aspects of consolidation but was reminded of the woman’s concern afterward.
"Political? It's the very opposite of that!" Wharton argued by way of tut-tutting her question. He went on to point out the obvious. Objections raised to his espousal of consolidation this and next year could come back to haunt him during his race for city mayor the year afterward.
It was not meant to be that way, of course. As Wharton acknowledged in a lengthy interview with the Flyer last year, he had consulted in advance -- one might even say "collaborated" -- with his current opposite number, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, regarding Herenton’s desire to vacate his job at City Hall for a second tenure as superintendent of schools.
That plan was foiled when the city school board declined to consider Herenton as a suitable candidate, and abandoned with it was the special election that would have ensued, probably ensconcing Wharton himself in City Hall as mayor on the eve of a consolidation vote, rather than requiring him to run as a mere candidate afterward.
A C happens to be correct. His situation vis-a-vis a consolidation vote is, as he put it last week, "backwards" from the way most convenient for himself politically. And, though he is still credited by most observers with being a probable walk-in winner in the 2011 city mayor's race, there are increasing rumbles to the contrary.
Former City Council member Carol Chumney has made known her own candidacy for city mayor. Indeed, Chumney basically renewed her candidacy for 2011 on election night in 2007 when, in lieu of a concession, she leveled yet another blast at victorious incumbent Herenton.
Chumney has not as yet established a campaign organization, and it is generally conceded that, on the fund-raising scale, she will lag far behind Wharton, who has a massive war-chest already and is continuing to raise money. But the former council maverick's efforts appear progressively less delusional in light of what might turn out to be a proliferating mayoral field.
Current City Council chairman Myron Lowery, always at or near the top among city vote-getters, hasn't declared for mayor yet, but he has acknowledged that running is a strong possibility. Several of Lowery’s confidantes take it as a given that he's a candidate -- on the theory that waiting another eight years to make his bid for city leadership could take him past his prime.
There is also the possible candidacy of city court clerk Thomas Long, whose viability in a mayor’s race is unknown but whose name recognition, as yet another African-American official in a field including Wharton and Lowery, could be at least a minor demographic obstacle for the county mayor, who hopes to pull votes from both whites and blacks.
And there's yet another African-American office-holder, Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, a Democrat who insists he's serious about running for city mayor against Wharton in 2011. "He’s a good friend, but I’m going to send his ass home," joked Harvey after a commission committee session last week. Asked to repeat that remark for the video that accompanies this article, Harvey complied, though he bowdlerized the quote somewhat.
Harvey, of course, is less interested in defeating Wharton or any other potential candidate than in getting himself elected. But his jesting remark is an indication that all is not necessarily hunky-dory for the mayor on the county’s legislative body. Here and there one picks up signs of discontent that could inconvenience Wharton in 2011.
Another commissioner, Republican Mike Ritz, explored the matter in a conversation this week. "He [Wharton] has less in the way of a working relationship with the commission than any mayor in memory," declared Ritz, who, in both official and semi-official ways, has observed mayor-commission interactions for more than a generation.
As Ritz sees it: "Bill Morris could get people together and make them come up with solutions, regardless of political differences. He was hands-on. Jim Rout had been a commissioner himself, and, though he wasn't as apt as Morris was in shaping a consensus, he could put together a working coalition. But A C is different. He can make speeches, but he doesn't do any of the behind-the-scenes work, the one-on-one stuff that could get people to agree or come together on policy."
Wharton, whose campaign has a major "unity breakfast" scheduled for early next month, is still the odds-on favorite for the 2011 city mayor’s race, but it may not be quite the shoo-in that some people expect. There are enough counter-vailing forces out there to make things interesting.