The Unifier 

Amid reminders that he can play hardball, A C Wharton becomes Memphis’ new main man.

click to enlarge Wharton delivers his inaugural address in the Hall of Mayors. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Wharton delivers his inaugural address in the Hall of Mayors.

Less than an hour before he was to take the oath as Memphis mayor in City Hall, and mere minutes after he had participated in the swearing-in ceremony for his temporary successor as county mayor, Joyce Avery, A C Wharton was standing near the dock of the auditorium in the county building, exchanging pleasantries with well-wishers.

One such was a TV cameraman, who told Wharton that his family, like the mayor-elect's, had come from the area around Lebanon, in Middle Tennessee. What was the family name? Wharton asked. When he was told, his eyes widened in recognition. "Oh yes," the soon-to-be mayor of Memphis replied. Each land-owning family in Wilson County had employed both black and white sharecroppers, he explained, and his forebears, the Whartons, had shared space on the Smith farm with the cameraman's.

Wharton said all this not in any bittersweet or up-from-nothing way, neither Grapes of Wrath nor Horatio Alger, but in the same heady spirit of belonging to a single common humanity that had characterized his soaring "One Memphis" rhetoric in the late mayoral campaign.

That was one A C Wharton. Another had been on display on the previous Friday night at a downtown fund-raiser for state representative G.A. Hardaway, at which Wharton and TV jurist "Judge" Joe Brown (a former Criminal Court judge for real) had been guests of honor.

On that occasion, Wharton had begun his brief remarks self-effacingly ("I am not the mayor, but I'm the man of the minute. This is just the intermission") but quickly escalated into some hardball advice for Hardaway, based on his own 60 percent landslide victory over 24 opponents the week before. "I've taught him how to stomp people. It ain't enough just to win, G.A. You've got to stomp people."

And he concluded his remarks with a clear warning to would-be opponents in 2011, the date of the next regularly scheduled general countywide election: "If you let the so-called experts tell you they know this city and who the voters are, they don't know jack. We know, and the numbers show it. We know, and let me tell you right now, anybody who contests or tells you they know better where the hearts and minds of Memphians are, they do so at their own peril. If they didn't learn this time, they'll learn next time."

Asked about that on Monday morning, as he stood in the well of the county building, minutes before trekking across the plaza to his new workplace at City Hall, Wharton nodded his head vigorously to underscore that conquistadore sentiment:

"Yeah, I mean, it's clear. It's not me saying it. It's the people saying it. I just had one vote just like everybody else. If you go all the way back to the 2002 race, 'He doesn't have fire in his belly. He, uh, can't get the black vote.' And, for the life of me, I don't know whence they keep coming up with this idea that I can't get black votes. You know, 'I know more than the Public Defender.' For some reason, they keep saying that, and I don't know what they want me to do."

The reference to his longtime pre-mayoral role as Shelby County Public Defender, charged with upholding the legal prospects of the least of these, his brethren (along with such big-time public offenders as former state senator John Ford), was a segue of sorts back to A C the Unifier. And this was the A C Wharton who would once again be on public display when, shortly after noon in the Hall of Mayors, he took the oath from former Circuit Court judge and state Supreme Court justice George Brown, who had once preceded Wharton as director of Legal Services in Shelby County.

In his inaugural remarks, Wharton re-asserted that he regarded himself as having received a mandate to govern, and, after listing some particulars that needed doing, then said, "But one of the clearest and most universally shared mandates and directives I have heard and received from people across this community is the desire for me to help bring an end to the rancor and divisiveness that has too often defined our politics and clogged the engine of our forward progress."

The new mayor returned to his campaign theme: "I've said it before, and I will share it again: One Memphis! ... One Memphis means you working with government and government listening to, being responsive to, and working with you."

And Wharton concluded on a note that evoked both the spirit of cooperation and the musical history of the city he now is charged with guiding: "Today, I call on every Memphian to commit to work with us as we seek to create a melody from Memphis which strikes chords of collaboration, whose tone is civility, and whose message is filled with the hope, possibility, and the highest of aspirations."

• Meanwhile, the administration of Shelby County may continue in some sense to be guided by Wharton's precepts.

Fealty to the policies of her predecessor was pledged by Joyce Avery, who took the oath as acting mayor of Shelby County and thereby stepped up, for a 45-day period mandated by the county charter, from her previous role as chair of the Shelby County Commission.

With Wharton and other local dignitaries standing in a phalanx of support behind her, Avery had said, "It is not the place of an acting mayor to offer grand new plans, propose expensive projects, change things that have worked for years, or get out in front of the TV camera. My role is to offer continuity between Mayor Wharton's administration and the administration of the next mayor.

"Shelby County faces challenges from bond debt to violent crime. We are on the right track, however. Our debt is coming down, and law enforcement is vigorously attacking crime. I want to make sure that we strictly adhere to the debt plan that was established during Mayor Wharton's tenure so we can continue to reduce our debt and ensure our children are not bridled with the burden of past spending."

Nothing there was suggestive of Wharton the would-be unifier, who has singled out consolidation as perhaps his primary goal. Rather, Avery focused on the example of Wharton the taskmaster and budget-cruncher — a role questioned in some quarters by those who saw the now departed county mayor as a jealous guardian of his own prerogatives and those of his staffers, inclined to generosity (an over-generosity, said his critics) in his own immediate work sphere.

The components-to-be of that sphere in the new environs of City Hall were still being assembled as the new Memphis mayor began his tenure. With the exception of city attorney Herman Morris, major appointees had not been named, and many a ranking county employee was left to wonder what the future held. A particular mystery was the identity of Wharton's CAO, a position still being held for the moment by Jack Sammons, a holdover from the two-and-a-half month regime of Mayor Pro Tem (now, once again, Councilman) Myron Lowery.

But there was no question as to who would be in charge, and those who doubted it would be well advised to heed that warning issued last Friday night by Wharton to potential opponents. Not to do so would be, as he put it then, "at their own peril."

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