Wednesday, May 15, 2002

AC Sizes It Up

In an exclusive Flyer interview, the Democrat looks ahead to the general election race.

Posted By on Wed, May 15, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Memphis Flyer: You won the Democratic primary by more than 80 percent of the vote, and many people think you can't lose the general election. It's an odd question, but how could you lose it?

AC Wharton: If some fluke -- you're right, it's an odd question, but if something were to occur that would give somebody the impression that "that guy is a bigot," something that would just be the antithesis of everything that I believe in and represent, that could do it. But I have aired my beliefs everywhere and on my Web site [www.acwhartonformayor.com]. It would take something just weird to accomplish that.

George Flinn, the Republican winner, used advertising to score effectively against his opponent, state Representative Larry Scroggs. Could he do the same against you?

True, Flinn went after Scroggs, no holds barred, but it wasn't the effectiveness or the strength of Flinn's attack so much as it was Scroggs' inability to repel Flinn's attack. If the immune system has been compromised, the slightest bug that comes along is going to stick and penetrate. But if you build up, as I have done over 20 years, a public record that has been scrutinized at every turn of the road, it's different. It wasn't so much a personal failing on the part of Scroggs as it was a structural fault. It's an amazingly difficult job to get your issues out there. Had Larry been able to project his issues so that they were bigger than what he'd done in the past, he would probably have been able to survive that. But it's extremely difficult. He came in, he was not the first choice of his party, and that had to pose just a tremendous handicap. They [the Republican hierarchy] had left the traditional ranks and gone outside to try to pull in a baseball executive [Allie Prescott]. So I do not conclude that it was the effectiveness of Flinn's attack but the ineffectiveness of Scroggs' response that made the difference.

As the perceived front-runner, might it be in your interest to challenge Flinn, a newcomer to politics, to debate?

That's a difficult question. I don't believe in blowing smoke, so I've been reflecting carefully on that but I've not reached an answer. It's going to take me a couple of weeks to shake things down. The conventional wisdom is that the perceived front-runner does not debate his opponent. But I think what stood me well in the primary was that the public was able to see that, "Whether I like him or not, the guy knows the issues; he has some proposed solutions; he's thought things through; he's staked his positions. While some people in the print media may have said he was indefinitive, he was definitively indefinitive." [Laughter]

That's the pro and con. The conventional wisdom is, don't let people see him. The reason that argument is not as strong as it would be otherwise is that, with his [Flinn's] money, folks are going to see him anyway. If I don't debate him, he will get seen the way he wants to be seen himself. He might stage a "debate" and do something the way Eddie Murphy did in that movie where he played all those roles. He might do something which has a character in it named "AC Wharton."

The line on you is that everybody likes you on a personal level. True?

Well, you don't think about it. If you start taking things like that seriously, you start taking things for granted. You're not as circumspect in your dealings as you ought to be. It's not an awareness that I wear on my shoulder. I don't wake up in the morning saying my likability rating is at 86. I'm going to try to pump it up to 88. I told somebody yesterday that my father spoke to everybody he met. And one time my cousin asked me, "Does your daddy know all these people he speaks to?" And I asked my daddy why he spoke to all those people. He said, "If I don't speak to them, I'll never get to know them." Now there's an amazing simplicity in that, but that's how I think about it. I start with the assumption that you're a good and honest person and you want me to treat you that way. If I don't, then you probably won't respond that way. If I greet you with cynicism and mistrust, you're probably going to be that way in your dealings with me. It's hard to talk about. I mean, I didn't take a Dale Carnegie course in likability.

In fact, during some heated exchanges with Carol Chumney during the primary campaign, you seemed to get your ire up. Have you two cleared things up?

I'm glad you asked about that. Carol called about 9:30 p.m. [on election night], and we had a long conversation, and toward the end of the conversation, I said, "Carol, there were times in the campaign when I was too thin-skinned. I should have expected that. This was a political race." And I think that struck a particular chord with her. When she came close to getting my ire up, it wasn't a personal ire. It was a case of, look, I know these issues. I've studied this. I know what the public wants and this is a kind of disservice to the public for us to take this valuable time to talk about some personality failing or whatever. It wasn't a case of I'm mad at her and will stay mad forever.

And the other thing that was so frustrating: Everybody in America has the right to run, but, with all due respect to Mr. [C.C.]Buchanan and some of the others, what did the public really get out of that? Yes, they have a right, but that valuable time, the 10 minutes or so that went to somebody who wanted to jump on me, could have been 10 minutes more for Carol to talk about urban sprawl and her plans. Or I could have taken it to talk about reforming the jail, which I could have talked about in great detail. So it could have appeared that I was irked, but it was more of an institutional thing.

But, back to the premise of your question, I hope nobody will take my preference for civility and sticking to the issues to mean that I'm going to be their doormat and I'll just lay down. Now, that's not going to be the case.

During the primary campaign, your "indefinitive" position on consolidation was attacked by Chumney, who was aggressively for consolidation. How will it go if Flinn attacks you from the other, anti-consolidation flank?

If you'll remember the Rotary Club debate -- what was his answer? "I agree with Mr. Wharton about that." I don't know how much more definitive or crystallized the opposition can become. Oddly enough, I don't think consolidation is going to be the burning issue. What is still not resolved is the school finance question, which impacts the county financial situation, which impacts the county's ability to build that school out in Arlington. There's still going to be some arena questions. Obviously, that's an issue that is uppermost in the minds of some voters. Obviously, some of the defeats [on election day] had something to do with it.

The education thing, the property-tax issue We are at the tops of comparable cities with property tax. As your commercial base leaves the county, a greater proportion of the property-tax burden is shifted to residences. We're talking about an increment of 81 cents if the school package goes through. We can't say let's just keep upping the property tax and driving the business out.

This is not just hypothetical. We're driving business away from Shelby County. If you look at a warehouse -- how the property is bought and sold and resold -- the one definitive component of the formula is the property tax. It determines whether there's going to be an adequate return for investors in a given building. It's getting so high here, it makes a difference in whether something gets built here or across the line in Mississippi. That's going to be one of the most threatening issues.

Have you heard from [erstwhile opponent] Harold Byrd?

No. I called him when he withdrew. I was assured he was aware of my call. And the individual who told me that felt that as the healing process continues, he thinks Harold and I will be talking. I'm anxious to talk to him, on his terms, or my terms, or whatever.

Do you expect any Republican crossover votes for you?

I won't quantify it, but I want it. I want it because I know the positions that Larry took in the race. Larry's positions were not ideological. The people who stood by him know him. If they know Larry, then, quite frankly, they know me: Be honest, not given to flights of grandeur. Know the business of county government. Let's run it sound and honestly. Let's trust the people. I have much more extensive, hands-on knowledge. Yes, I want Republican support, and independent support.

When you go back a few years, there was no such thing as a Republican mayor or a Democratic mayor. There was Mayor [Dick] Hackett, Mayor [Bill] Morris, and so forth. By the way, all of them supported me.

A lot of Republicans told me they voted for me in the Democratic primary, and they said to me, "You know, that wasn't as bad as I thought."

If you are elected, do you think the fact that there will be two black mayors in Shelby County will increase white flight?"

We'll always have flight. The question is, will it accelerate. And the answer is no, not necessarily. It's not so much a personal thing, but it's based on institutional failures -- failure to deal with schools, failure to keep a good medical corps in the city, failure to deal with crime -- things that we take for granted. When 20 cars have their windows smashed at the Music Fest, to me that's outrageous, and if it takes putting helicopters over the city, we're going to stop it. It's quality-of-life issues like that that become a burr in the saddle and tend to develop into bigger things. The fact of my identity won't be the determinative factor if I'm mayor. What will be is whether I'm able to really reflect the sensitivity to day-to-day concerns that caused people to leave.

It's so easy to get out of touch. What makes people leave is when their second lawn mower gets stolen from their back porch. They think, Some mean rotten person came to my house last night. And they think, What if I had been out of town and my family had been at risk? It's at that point that people get in touch with their realtor. You've got to be in touch with what's driving people. You can't be aloof from that. I spent so much time out there, letting people in this county know that I know precisely how they feel. I think people will say, "I'll give him six months. I was going to move out, but I'm going to wait and see."

Next Week: Dr. George Flinn, the radiologist/broadcast mogul who upset state Rep. Larry Scroggs in the GOP primary, talks candidly about his plan to unify the Republican Party and how he intends to carry the fight to Democrat Wharton.

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