Thursday, October 8, 2015

Wharton Backer Schledwitz Issues Election-Day Letter Conceding Strickland Victory

Posted By on Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 12:22 PM

Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor AC Wharton in chummier times. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Councilman Jim Strickland and Mayor AC Wharton in chummier times.

File this in the "holy crap" folder.

Prominent business leader, Karl Schledwitz, one of Mayor AC Wharton's major backers, has issued a long and rambling letter that basically declares Councilman Jim Strickland the winner of Thursday's Memphis mayoral election.

click to enlarge ...and on election day - JB
  • JB
  • ...and on election day

When asked about the letter by this reporter as he was about to cast his vote just before noon at Rozelle School Thursday morning, Wharton said he'd not heard of it, but that he "still remained optimistic."

Moments later, after going to his vehicle for several minutes and then exiting the car, Wharton was asked if he had spoken to Schledwitz. "Just briefly," he said, "but didn't get into any details."

About Schledwitz's contention that he would lose, the Mayor said, "That’s one person’s judgment. I have not seen the letter. We’re going to win this race, and that’s it."

The Mayor and his party then returned to their vehicle and departed.

Wharton's headquarters would subsequently, later in the afternoon,  issue this statement:

Mayor Wharton became aware of Mr. Karl Schledwitz’s letter regarding this election when the media approached him after he voted at noon today. Mr. Schledwitz has every right to his opinion, but it’s just that, his opinion and not Mayor Wharton’s or the supporters who believe in his vision for this great city.

Mayor Wharton continues to be optimistic about the voters re-electing him as Mayor for the next 4 years and realizes that this election is in the hands of the voters and the decision will be made today. The Mayor is running on his record and will campaign until the polls close at 7 p.m. tonight. 

For his part, Strickland was contacting arriving voters at Trinity United Methodist Church, just after noon, when was asked to comment on the letter. "I first heard of it about 11 or 12," he said. "And, even though it benefits me, I'm still disappointed. I just don’t think anybody should do that. Never. That’s who you’re supporting, so you need to stay with them."

Schledwitz shortly contacted this reporter by telephone to say that he had not intended for the letter to be released "so early in the day," but only later, to a network of friends, nearer to when the polls might be closing. He said, he "very much regretted" the fact that the text had gotten out earlier.

The letter, in its entirety, is below:

2015 Election Predictions and Analysis By Karl Schledwitz

I am dictating this memo on Monday, October 05, 2015 prior to the Thursday election with plans to circulate on Election Day.

A year ago I told several people that I did not see a path to victory for Jim Strickland or any white candidate for Memphis Mayor. I was wrong. I now predict that not only will Jim Strickland win, he will win by a comfortable margin. Please note that this is solely based on my political intuition and no recent polls and obviously without the benefit of knowing Election Day turnout.

I’ll explain. The last poll of the Wharton campaign was conducted during the first week of September, the same time frame that The Commercial Appeal conducted a poll. I believe the Strickland campaign had told people they did a poll the week before that and that their poll showed Jim up by 5 points. The Commercial Appeal poll showed Wharton up by 5 points, and the Wharton poll showed Wharton up by 2 points. Bottom line is 5 to 6 weeks ago this race was still undecided and very close.

There was however, a compelling statistic in Wharton's poll. It showed that only 36% of the people had firmly made up their mind on a candidate and that they would not change. Strickland 14%, Wharton 13%, Collins 4% and Williams 5%. This meant that 5 weeks from the election, 64% of the electorate had either not made up their mind and/or were soft on who they intended to vote for.

Wharton’s poll also showed that a little over 61% of the voting population was dissatisfied with the direction of the city. Although it was slightly higher among whites, there was a strong dissatisfaction across all economic stratospheres and all races and ages. Bottom line, although the poll numbers showed Wharton with a narrow lead inside the margin of error, 5 weeks out, it clearly showed that for him to win, he had to thread the needle and finish extremely strong. Now, think back about the last 5 weeks.

The Robert Lipscomb mess definitely tainted City Hall. Various high profile crime incidents and new crime statistics were equally devastating. Clearly the most devastating news was the Deidre Malone fiasco, which dominated the news for over a week during the heart of early voting, while swing voters and undecided voters were making their final decision. It could not have been worse. Even if all of this bad news had not happened over the past 5 weeks, Jim probably would have beaten the Mayor, but it would have been much closer.

Here’s why:

1. The anger at the political establishment across this country is deep and pervasive. The mood of the national electorate parallels that of Memphis and has created an environment that is making entrenched incumbents vulnerable(60% of Republican voters are backing outsiders Trump, Carson, or Fiorina, and even Bernie Sanders is doing well among Democrats).

2. There is a fatigue factor with Mayor Wharton. He has been in high-profile offices, County Mayor and City Mayor, now for 15 years. The message of "time for a change", coupled with his age, was an easy sell.

3. Mayors of cities with large minority populations across America are having trouble getting re-elected. Memphis is not alone with its deteriorating infrastructure, shrinking tax base, rising crime issues and education challenges. In fact, one could argue that Memphis, with the highest poverty rate in the country, has problems even more exasperated. Rightly or wrongly, Wharton gets most of the blame and Strickland, Collins, and Williams all effectively ganged up on Wharton. In return, Wharton and his administration, and later the campaign, did a poor job of communicating all of the good things going on and articulating a plan for getting things better. Bottom line is few city mayors today are enjoying high positive numbers.

4. There is also no doubt that Mayor Wharton’s popularity suffered from the tough decisions he led on pension reform and employee benefit reduction. All of this happened on his watch and his popularity literally dropped by more than 35 points After the pension reform decisions, Strickland, who supported the cuts, was able to avoid much of this criticism and, although he never backtracked from his position that it was the right thing to do, he was able to step back from the fight and allow the anger and focus to remain targeted on Wharton.

5. I think you also must tip your hat to the Jim Strickland campaign. They were very disciplined. Not only did they raise over $600,000 against an incumbent, they spent their money wisely. For example, the Mayor's campaign had a healthy number of people on the payroll and I imagine Jim's was mostly volunteers.

6. Jim's TV and messaging was also better. The Mayor, who may be the hardest-working candidate and elected official I have ever encountered, has a leaderless campaign team. Ruby runs as tight of controls as I have ever seen to make sure no money is wasted, but her style does not lend itself to collaboration or inspiration.

The Mayor will end up raising and spending about $950,000, 30% more than Jim, but Jim leveled the playing field by getting far more bang out of his bucks.

The Mayor's pollster and professional campaign manager warned everyone early on that the Mayor needed to get his campaign out early and address his image problems before his opponent did and try to better frame his opposition. This did not happen. All of the polling I saw showed that the City Council was the only body that may have been more unpopular than the Mayor. Yet, Strickland was able to run as the outsider and the Mayor never successfully boxed him in as the insider responsible for part of the city’s problems.

The Mayor's campaign started way too late, was not focused and the longer time went on the more vulnerable he got. Early in the campaign I thought it would take a white voter insurgency for Jim to win. Once again, I was wrong. It is hard to accurately read early voting because so many people are classified as other, but it appears that the white voter turnout was only marginally larger than the black vote. Typically, Election Day turnout mirrors early voting.

The last poll we had showed AC with 20% of the white vote and 20-some percent undecided. I will now not be surprised if the Mayor doesn’t get much more than 15%. The Deidre Malone fiasco clearly undermined his credibility and any momentum. Assuming that the black vote constitutes 60% of the total vote (estimated to be 63% of the registered vote) then the Mayor will need to get somewhere between 50 and 55% of the black vote to win. This is assuming that Jim is held to 10% or less of the black vote. I am now predicting that the Mayor will get less than 50% of the black vote and Jim will likely get over 10% of the black vote.

Assuming Jim wins, he clearly will owe a big thank you to the Republican Party. Unlike Democrats, Republicans stick together and it is clear they put significant money behind Jim. He was also able to pull off gathering the Republican support in a way that didn't alienate white and black Democrats. Not an easy thing to do.

As I write this I obviously hope I am wrong, but I am comforted to know that if I am not, we will have a capable person who has integrity and love for this city as our next Mayor. Regardless of who is elected Mayor, Wharton or Strickland, either will need a physically (sic) responsible, moderate City Council and I cannot emphasize enough that the 4 to 5 run-off elections that will be held in 3 weeks are almost as critical as the Mayor's race.

If you use the pension reform vote as a litmus test, it appears there is an opportunity to increase 7 yes votes to potentially 11. Conversely it is possible that it reverts to 6. Here is my math. Janis Fullilove and Joe Brown voted no and will continue to vote no. The other super 8 District will go between Mickell Lowery and Martavius Jones. Assuming Mickell Lowery wins, he will likely vote like his father. Jones is more of an unknown and this race may be a lot closer than people think.

In the Super District 9 races, it would be a shocker if Conrad and Hedgepeth didn't win easily. The other Super District will likely go to Phil Spinosa or possibly Kenneth Whalum, although I think Kenneth is more of an extreme longshot. Everyone can predict how the two of them will vote.

The battleground is the seven District races and if no one gets 50% these are the races subject to a run-off. Fortunately two of the yes votes, Ed Ford and Bill Morrison, are headed for easy re-election. The only other District race I see that possibly could end without a run-off is Frank Colvett, and that would be a yes vote replacing Bill Boyd’s no vote.

The other four council district races are almost certain to go into a run-off. One of them, District 5 — Strickland's former district — will likely have either Dan Springer or Worth Morgan in one of the run-off spots likely against Mary Wilder. Mary Wilder, with her strong union backing and Democratic leaning, could undo the yes vote that Jim Strickland had before. Morgan and Springer would continue to support fiscal responsibility.

District 3, Harold Collins old district, also will likely go into a run-off and Patrice Robinson is most likely to be one of the candidates in that run-off. If she is elected she would reverse Harold Collins’ no vote, her opponent likely would not.

The other open seat is Wanda Halbert's District 4. This too is likely to be a run-off, probably between Donnell Cobbins and Anita Swearengen. Cobbins would be a strong vote to maintain pension reform; Swearengin would not. The last race is District 7, the seat Berlin Boyd filled after Lee Harris left for the State Senate. Berlin likely will be in a run-off. If he is re-elected, he would be a positive vote replacing Lee Harris’s no vote, and his opponent likely would be otherwise.

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