Rather strangely, not one but two TV reporters — one of them in a one-on-one election night interview with mayoral winner Jim Strickland in the flush of his victory — made the point of declaring that Strickland goes into office “without a mandate.”
The strange part of that is that Councilman Strickland had a 20-point edge on incumbent Mayor A C Wharton. And, at 42 percent, Strickland’s share of the dissenting vote was clearly the predominating one when compared to those of Councilman Harold Collins (18 percent) and Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams (16 percent).
So there was — and is — clearly a mandate for change in the abstract (given the remarkably slim vote total of only 22 percent for the Mayor!), and Strickland can surely claim that.
But a mandate to do what? The key to that surely lies within the winner’s incessantly reiterated triad of bullet points. In every speech, public statement, interview, and ad Strickland essentially limited himself to promises of remedial action on public safety, blight, and accountability of public officials.
Wharton pitched to millennials and talked up bike lanes and futurist blueprints. Collins advocated a crash program on behalf of high-tech jobs. Even Williams evolved rapidly from his original incarnation as a one-issue candidate (restoration of lost employee benefits) and proposed strategies involving solar panels and transportation reform.
With the regularity of a metronome, Strickland stuck to his triad of safety, blight, and accountability. These are all valid problem areas — or would seem to have been so regarded by the voters, but they are all basically managerial, even housekeeping, matters.
This is not to say that Strickland didn’t espouse a few new wrinkles, mostly incremental in nature. He suggested using private funds to help reformed felons pay for expunging their records, liaising with Boys Clubs and Girls Clubs, and offering financial incentives (residential PILOTs, he called them) to help out with inner-city infill.
But no grand, sweeping vision, no recasting of the city’s basic identity or structure.
And there was one important component of his legislative persona that Strickland left unsaid — his longstanding history as a budget-cutter and apostle of fiscal austerity, as the Councilman who in 2010 generated this headline: “Strickland Proposes City Employee Pay Cut.”
These were inconvenient matters to remind voters of at a time of palpable public resentment of benefit cuts and reduced core services. To be fair, Strickland later re-thought the pay-cut idea, but — unlike Collins, who seems to have split that part of his core protest vote with Williams — he signed on to most of the other economies which Wharton would ultimately embrace (and pay the political price for).
There is a reason why Strickland, who some 20 years ago served a term as Shelby County Democratic chairman, had virtually wall-to-wall support this year from the city’s Republican voters and from other conservatives as well and why, for that matter, GOP rank-and-filers from the county’s suburban municipalities were always to be found at his fundraisers and rallies.
But safety-blight-accountability as a platform was sufficiently non-partisan to work as well with many of Strickland’s erstwhile Democratic mates, and the first two points of that triad had figured large in polls commissioned by chief Strickland strategist Steven Reid, resonating strongly even — or perhaps even especially — with inner-city blacks, whose encounters with violence and environmental squalor have been longstanding.
(To give David Upton his due, that veteran Democratic operative — neutral in this campaign — has always maintained that concern over the crime rate has been more significant and politically charged in the inner city than elsewhere.)
Though only a handful of African Americans had been among the white throngs at Strickland’s Poplar Plaza headquarters opening in July, and an early Commercial Appeal poll had the District 5 Councilman in single digits with blacks, Strickland was, in the late stages of the race, doing significant under-the-radar outreach, and he was privately claiming to have as much as 20 percent of the black vote.
It will be interesting to see how closely a demographic accounting of the final vote totals will come to bearing that out.)
During the campaign, Strickland pointedly refrained from endorsing the crime-fighting efforts of Police Director Toney Armstrong at a time when Wharton was hailing the chief and both Collins and Williams were speaking well of him.
A change in police administration therefore seems a high probability in the new mayoral regime, along with an aggressive return to Blue Crush or data-driven concentration of police efforts. Strickland has also promised to reactivate civilian auxiliary (PST) units to attend to traffic matters, dog retrievals, and suchlike, allowing police regulars to focus on violent crime. He had also said he will impose — and enforce — curfews when necessary.
His real challenge will be to find ways of off-setting the benefit reductions that have allegedly caused several hundred force reductions from the desired peak of 2500 officers.
The new mayor also hopes to get legislative approval of (and possible funding for) several of his blight proposals, including the aforesaid residential PILOTs. Having often decried what he described as over-billeting and cronyism in Wharton’s administration, Strickland will undoubtedly do some judicious pruning and consolidation of the city rolls.
Early in the coming week Strickland will name a transition team, which in turn will help him decide on his administrative core unit.
There are more I’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed, but, consistent with the bare bones of Strickland’s campaign appeal, the syllabary of the new mayor’s agenda will be a lean one, limited by the relative scarcity of available resources and focused on a few carefully chosen target areas.
The real change is the fact of Strickland himself, a bluff, hearty, but competent and calculating man whose mayoral ambitions had been of long standing but whose pathway to power and margin of victory both remain something of an astonishment — with the latter fact allowing him whatever mandate he can make of the means at hand.