The county mayor made the statements after appearing at a press conference at Frayser Park on behalf of National Infant Mortality Awareness Month.
Responding to a question about whether he had threatened to back out of the Channel 5 debate because of the involvement of Robert “Prince Mongo,” Wharton denied that was the reason for his reported recalcitrance.
“It was not about Prince Mongo. It’s just that we were told there would be one set of rules, and we were told the next morning there would be another set of rules. I didn’t single out anybody. I never, never, never, never referred to Mr. Hodges at all.”
Elaborating on his discontent, Wharton said of the Channel 5 debate format, “We were not consulted. If I wanted to come on their TV station, I would respect them. I’d say, ‘What are your rules?’ And we’d work out some rules. I’m not going to let any TV station come to me and say, ‘You come at my time and follow my rules and shut up.’ I’m not going to do that. That is just absolutely out of the norm.”
Wharton said, “They walked up to me and handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘You shall be here on August 27th.’ It just turned out that we were able to rearrange some things.”
Then, he said, the station arbitrarily changed its own rules. Asked which ones, he went on: “I’m a lawyer, and when you set the rules to a game, you follow them: ‘You must have filed, you must have an office, you must have campaigned.’ All those things. It’s not any particular rules. It’s just that the rule of law is the rule of law. That’s offensive to me. Two pages of rules, and then throw them all out the window.”
The county mayor and presumed frontrunner in the Memphis mayor’s race, set for October 15th, said. “There will be no future debates unless we’re involved — consulted and given an opportunity to have some input into the rules. That’s the way it’s done.”
The time involved in preparing and appearing in a debate was also an issue, Wharton said. “If I accepted every invitation, I wouldn’t have time to campaign. I wouldn’t have time to run the office.” Noting that he had just announced the receipt of several federal and state grants to fund county projects, he said, “I think I can better serve the people of Shelby County by doing that instead of jibber-jabbering in some loose form called a debate.”
Contacted about Wharton’s allegations, WMC-TV assistant news director Tammy Phillips, who oversaw the debate details, denied Wharton’s account of how their communications had gone, and she said there were no breaches of the rules for participation. The relevant paragraph reads as follows:
All candidates who have filed to run for Memphis Mayor with the Shelby County Election Commission and can demonstrate evidence of a campaign will be invited. (“Evidence of a Campaign” is defined as follows: the candidate has made a public announcement of his or her intention to run; the candidate has campaign headquarters; and the candidate has made public campaign appearances.)
Phillips said the only relevant change on the morrow of the debate was the admission of Hodges into the proceedings. She had indicated previously that Hodges and his attorney Leslie Ballin had threatened to hold up the debate via an injunction if the well-known street character and perennial candidate was not included, maintaining that Hodges met all the relevant criteria, including two “campaign” appearances on local radio.
It was after Wharton was informed on Thursday morning, August 27, that Hodges would be participating in the coming evening’s debate, said Phillips, that she received a hand-delivered communication from the county mayor threatening to withdraw.
The first two paragraphs of that letter read as follows:
As you are aware, I recently received a hand-delivered invitation from Joe Birch to participate in tonight’s mayoral debate to be televised at 7 p.m. on your station. I accepted this invitation based on the good-faith assurance from Mr. Birch that this debate would include only ‘serous candidates.’
I learned of the final list of the participating candidates scheduled for tonight’s debate while watching WMC-TV’s newscast this morning. Please be advised that I am considering withdrawal from this debate....
Ultimately Wharton unbent from his discontent and participated in the debate, although several media reports noted his detour upon entering Opera Memphis, where the debate was held, to avoid encountering Hodges, who was in the lobby.