A C Wharton Speaks: Smoothie or Snoozer? 

by DEREK HAIRE

When a popular mayor speaks to a group of highly engaged partisans in advance of an off-year election, one might expect a spontaneous political rally to be the inevitable result. However, Monday night's guest at the Memphis College Democrats' first spring meeting was Shelby County's famously low-key mayor A.C. Wharton, and his halcyon tone was more like that of an easygoing academic than a textbook politician. Speaking in lecture style at the University of Memphis Mitchell Auditorium before taking questions, the county mayor offered the student activists an object lesson in his characteristic brand of room-temperature politics.

While he may have won himself more yawns than applause, the mayor nevertheless proved to be more than ably prepared to discuss the wide range of astute questions he fielded from the students. Presented with a buffet of issues, Mayor Wharton staked out clear positions without stepping into too much controversy, nearly filibustering with personal and historical anecdotes.

Asked about gaps in county emergency services, he sidestepped the knotty topic of coverage boundaries and advocated a regime of county-wide dispatch. On the subject of legalizing marijuana, he contrasted himself with the late Republican mayor Wyeth Chandler, who, he reports, was a quiet supporter of decriminalization. On illegal immigration, he avoided talk of borders and fences and re-framed the debate entirely, deftly placing the focus on the demand side of the equation by exclusive use of the term "illegal labor."

Though longer on wind than fire, Mayor Wharton did unintentionally sprinkle a dash of gasoline on one smoldering rumor. Asked to make an endorsement in the city mayor's race, Wharton declined, opting to wait until the race had developed further before giving any candidate the nod.

Afterward, this caused some in attendance to wonder aloud if Wharton knows something the rest of us don't, namely that Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton may not seek re-election, a frequently recurring speculation both in local party circles and online. However, in fairness to both mayors, it is much more likely that Wharton's reluctance to make an endorsement in the city race was just another example of the careful way the county mayor budgets his substantial political capital.

Mayor Wharton also refused to make any predictions about his own longevity once his term-limited job comes to an end. Noting with a broad smile that he is "healthy and reasonably sane," he refused to rule anything out, saying, "it ain't over till it's over." He may have been joking, but serious students of politics should take note: in spite of a limited term, Wharton finds himself in a better position than many politicians in Shelby County because he is, as he says, healthy and reasonably sane.

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