Politics » Politics Feature

The Draft Board Issues a Summons as A C Prepares to Enlist



It came off more or less as planned - the "Draft A C" press-conference-cum-rally held Wednesday morning in a vacated storefront at the Southeast Memphis "Lamar Crossing" shopping center - in the heart of a working-class, largely African-American territory that was Willie Herenton turf all the way the last time a city election was held.

That was 2003, when the incumbent Memphis mayor's all-but-nominal opponent was John Willingham, a Cassandra-like figure, then a county commissioner, whose accurate sense of the questionable FedEx Forum deal and other possible boondoggles never quite translated into votes for himself.

Willingham, now out of office, is trying again and attracting even less attention. Other candidates have been hoping to unseat the four-term mayor - among them maverick city council member Carol Chumney, who led some early polls and has a grass-roots constituency if not much money; Herman Morris, the likeable if somewhat introverted former MLGW head, whose campaign war-chest is much more impressive but who has already had to spend too much of it just in an effort to get better known; and former FedEx executive Jim Perkins, a man of ample private means who finally got his toe in the water at a Southeast Memphis mayoral forum Tuesday night but has not yet made much of a splash.

"They're all fine folks," acknowledged restaurateur Tommy Boggs, who sat at the head table of Wednesday's draft-Wharton affair, but he, like the others up there - political consultant Ron Redwing, citizen activist Lois Stockton, former Shelby County mayor Bill Morris, and ministers La Simba Gray and Bill Adkins - opined that only A C Wharton could unite the city in a time of serious public disaffection with local government and with the man, Willie Herenton, whose looming presence has basically defined the last era of Memphis political history.

As is well known, various polls of late have indicated that the incumbent's hold on voter confidence has slipped considerably, among blacks as well as whites. The last eight years have seen a gradual downhill slide for Herenton, said Adkins. "It wasn't just one thing," shrugged the man who played a major role in the dramatic 1991 campaign that made Herenton the city's first elected black mayor and began a dramatic shift to African-American dominance of a relatively balanced version of city government.

But now, Adkins said, something had to give, and if Wharton needed some public nudging to launch his own campaign for city mayor, they were all there to provide it.

"We're taking a risk so he can take a risk," said Morris, and Gray, clearly offended at Herenton's suggestion that he and Adkins might be looking for personal gain in launching the draft-Wharton movement, announced that neither he nor the others could be bought. On the contrary, he was ready to put his money where his mouth was, rising to sign a thousand-dollar check for the still unlaunched campaign and encouraging others to follow his lead.

All the indications were that the object of all this encouragement didn't need much more coaxing. Two of his main aides, Jerry Fanion and John Freeman, were on hand for the affair, and when asked if Wharton's failure to publicly discourage the movement in advance suggested his tacit approval of it, Adkins shrugged again, repeating, "This is a draft."

If so, the once-reluctant county mayor seemed about ready to enlist. He would shortly issue a public statement acknowledging that he had heard the public outcry (his draft notice, as it were) and pledging that he would give it his full and dutiful attention.

There was only one mild blip on the draft movement's screen Wednesday morning. A latecomer to the press conference, brandishing a reporter's pad, said he had always voted for Wharton but had seen little in the two-term county mayor's public performance other than the same old propitiation of the same old establishment and insisted on knowing, "What has he done for the average person?"

There was an awkward pause and then, before he and the others rose, signaling that this late-blooming skepticism was as good a reason as any to end the press conference, Morris said, "He's been honest!"

No doubt. But an even more responsive answer might have been that the smooth and likeable county mayor was above all things reassuring. And a sense of assurance, the principals at Wednesday's affair all said in so many words, was the one thing most conspicuously lacking just now in the public weal.

Only Memphians with long memories - and that would certainly include all of those at the racially diverse head table of Wednesday's press conference - might have reflected on the irony that when Wharton, then the county's Public Defender, was evaluated at a variety of forums, along with Herenton and several more activist types, as a possible "consensus" black candidate for mayor in 1991, he was way back in the pack, never a contender.

That was as good a sign as any that times as well as priorities have changed - and changed dramatically -- in the meantime.

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