A Two-Man Mayor’s Race? 

Mayor Wharton and challenger Jim Strickland have had signature moments of late.

Wharton pressing the flesh at Democratic unity breakfast

Jackson Baker

Wharton pressing the flesh at Democratic unity breakfast

As this week's second-quarter deadline for financial disclosures approached, it was a near certainty that Mayor A C Wharton and City Councilman Jim Strickland would lead the rest of the field in funds received by a large margin. The Memphis mayoral contest could not yet be considered a two-man race, but both candidates had defining moments that set them apart.

The horrific events in Charleston, South Carolina, two weeks ago, still resonated and cried out for a dramatic response — in Memphis, no less than elsewhere in an outraged nation. To give him credit, Wharton had provided one last week when he proposed to end a long-simmering controversy and demanded the removal from what is now Health Sciences Park a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest mounted on his warhorse, as well as the graves of the general and his wife.

The statue, which had stood in that prime downtown acreage for a century, would be remanded to the custody of the presumably still-extant Forrest Monument Association, which had originally placed it there, and the remains of the Forrests could be returned to Elmwood Cemetery, the vintage resting place from which they had long ago been disinterred and transplanted to the Union Avenue site.

It would not do, said Wharton, for African-American children to picnic in the shadow of a man who had been accused of numerous offenses on the wrong side of history, including pre-Civil War slave trading, an alleged massacre of black Union troops during the war, and the post-war founding of the Ku Klux Klan. 

At the moment of the mayor's announcement, he appeared resolute and forceful and, most important, sincere. He had caught the spirit of the moment, it seemed, and there seemed to be little downside. Public reaction to the name changes of Forrest Park and two other Confederate-themed parks in 2013 had ranged from enthusiasm to acceptance, with resistance largely confined to memorial societies — such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, an organization that many thought had precipitated that crisis and broken a tenuous truce with an indiscreetly bold (and unauthorized) granite sign proclaiming the name "FORREST PARK."

The mood of two years ago was nothing compared to the universal revulsion, in Memphis as everywhere else, that came in the aftermath of the horrendous murders of nine African-American members of a bible-study class by a deluded fanatic who wrapped himself in Confederate imagery. The feeling was summed up in a single word: enough!

That African Americans, in particular, could be expected to back the mayor's action was a given — though it would surely be wrong to suggest that dividends at the polls on October 8th constituted a significant motive. In any case, Councilman Strickland, widely considered Wharton's main opponent, wasted no time in conferring his approval of the mayor's proposal. "I'm for it!" he said decisively, just before making something of a watershed speech last Thursday at Overton Square's Zebra Lounge at a meet-and-greet that targeted black voters.

click to enlarge Jim Strickland at Zebra Lounge - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Jim Strickland at Zebra Lounge

Could Strickland, well-financed and known to be strong along the Poplar Corridor and in recently annexed suburbs like Cordova, garner enough African-American votes in a majority black city to be elected? Jerry Hall, the veteran black operative who introduced Strickland at Zebra Lounge, raised the question rhetorically and then answered it: "Hell, yes!" Memphis needed to move beyond issues of race, said Hall. "We need a new direction in City Hall."

In his speech, Strickland laid out his most detailed recipe yet for that new direction. "We have a tsunami of a challenge on the horizon," the challenger said, and he gave it a name: population loss. Strickland promised to reverse an exodus that had accounted for a net loss of 12,000 residents in the first decade of this century, despite annexations. He would be a "strong mayor who will run an efficient and effective city government."

Strickland proposed a three-pronged strategy for establishing and maintaining a safe, clean, and desirable place for people and businesses: 1) drastic reduction of violent crime through resurrection of Blue Crush policing of trouble spots and "zero tolerance"; 2) elimination of blight and repair of infrastructure; and 3) strictly holding officials accountable.

If all that sounded a bit abstract, Strickland floated some new specifics: a privately supported fund that would help allay the costs of expunging criminal records of citizens resuming productive lives; a residential "PILOT" program granting tax breaks for people undertaking urban infill; and publication of city administrators' performance records.

A bit technocratic, perhaps, but it expanded on Strickland's reputation as a budgetary maven and gave him a larger theme of general competence to juxtapose against Wharton's undoubted flair in using his mayoral bully pulpit.

There was still time for other candidates — notably Councilman Harold Collins, County Commission chair Justin Ford, and Memphis Police Association head Mike Williams — to make a move, but with every passing week, the bar gets moved a little higher.


• Meanwhile, the sheer drama of successive news-waves — abetted by a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions — kept shifting public attention. The sense of a racial crossroads lingered, but a court decision in King v. Burwell eliminated a threat to the Affordable Care Act and highlighted local and statewide efforts to revive Governor Bill Haslam's so-far-stymied Insure Tennessee plan. These included a showcase press conference in Raleigh featuring state Democratic Party chair Mary Mancini with legislative Democrats and local health-care advocates.

And the LGBT community had its rainbow moment, basking in a second SCOTUS decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and given further mainstream momentum via the endorsement of President Obama, who, having articulated the nation's outrage and sorrow over the horror in Charleston, was having a major moment himself.

Governor Haslam came to town on two occasions: on Friday to grace the opening of a new Nike distribution center, and on Monday to announce a half-million-dollar grant for tech training and to help Youth Villages celebrate successes in its work with former foster youth.

During both visits, the governor made it clear that he intended to push ahead with Insure Tennessee (though not with an immediate special legislative session) and that the state would comply with the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage. His reluctance on the second score, however, was underscored on Monday with a statement supporting "protection" of pastors who opt out of performing same-sex ceremonies for religious reasons.

Haslam endorsed the idea of removing a bust of General Forrest from the state capitol and said he saw no impediment to Wharton's plans for Health Sciences Park. Others noted, however, that state law seemed to contain obstacles to the removal of the graves without the express permission of the Forrest family, and state legislation passed in 2013 on behalf of war memorials may complicate any attempt to remove the general's statue.

"We've got lawyers working on it," Wharton said on Saturday when asked about such obstacles during a drop-in at a Democratic Party breakfast at the IBEW building on Madison.

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