POLITICS: Coming to Shove 

Other scenarios took second place to the mounting Hamlet-like dilemma of A C Wharton.

BY JACKSON BAKER | JULY 10, 2007

As was noted here last week, momentum for a mayoral candidacy by Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton — and pressure on that famously reluctant (or coy) official — has seriously intensified as the clock kept on ticking inexorably toward next week's filing deadline.

Things were patently coming to a head with the public emergence of a "Draft A C" movement led by, among others, the Revs. La Simba Gray and Bill Adkins. Despite Mayor Willie Herenton's attempted dismissal of the effort and of the two African-American ministers as relatively unimportant figures motivated by "personal" or even mercenary reasons, the fact is that both had once been key members of Herenton’s political team.

Adkins especially was a major force in the epochal first race by Herenton in 1991, relentlessly proselyting for the then "consensus" black candidate on his daily radio show.

These days, neither Adkins nor Gray is regarded as necessarily "first tier" among African-American leaders, though Gray made a serious effort to become so last year in his sponsorship of forums designed to produce a single black candidate around whom other blacks might cohere.

No such figure materialized in a race ultimately won by then state senator Steve Cohen. But if Wharton, who agreed to meet with his newly energized suitors, ended up saying yes to their entreaties, there would be no need to look further to find consensus, and the resultant combination of indigenous African-American forces with a business community already avid for A C to run, was bound to be a first-tier effort for everybody concerned.

Push was definitely coming to shove.

In famous lines by T.S. Eliot, the poet’s probable stand-in J. Alfred Prufrock opined, "I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be." Well, A C was meant to be. And it has to be remembered that in the play Eliot was referencing, Hamlet does finally act.

— Meanwhile, other mayoral candidates were increasingly making themselves available — some coming out of the woodwork to do so. Several hopefuls were scheduled to appear at a Tuesday night meeting of the Southeast Memphis Betterment Association at Asbury Methodist Church, including newcomer Randy Cagle and, er, oldcomer Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges.

Among the promised attendees generally acknowledged to be “serious”challengers were council member Carol Chumney, former MLGW head Herman Morris, and former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham.

Scheduled to make what would seem to be his first public appearance as a candidate for mayor was former FedEx executive Jim Perkins, who is the Unknown Quantity of the mayoral race so far. Perkins reportedly has a million dollars of his own money to spend on the race, and that fact along has been enough to encourage speculation that he might figure significantly in the outcome.

Coincidentally, Tuesday happened also to be the deadline for candidates' filing disclosures for the second quarter of the year, just ended. Preliminary indications have been that candidate Morris will show cash on hand in the six figures, with Chumney lagging behind, and Willingham pulling up the rear.

In previous races for both city and county mayor, Willingham has ended up spending relatively freely from his own pocketbook, however, and may do so again.

Meanwhile, he is doing what he can do engender what, in our time, is rather quaintly called "free media" (i.e., news coverage).

At a recent meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club at The Pickering Center in Germantown used the club’s traditional "introduce-yourself" round asked of all guests by delivering what amounted to a campaign address that was standard Willingham.

Contained within it was a litany of the maverick former commissioner's sworn foes — including old ones like establishment Republicans David Kustoff, Kemp Conrad, John Ryder, Maida Pearson, and Alan Crone, all former party chairmen who announced their support of his then potential 2006 commission opponent, Mike Carpenter, early enough to help persuade Willingham out of a reelection race and into one for county mayor.

But there were some new names, too — prominent among them Bruce Saltsman, former Governor Don Sundquist‘s transportation commissioner, whom Willingham, without further explanation, held liable for the “shenanigans”of the now suspect FedEx Forum deal. And the former commissioners intimated he knew of dark deeds committed by some well-known developers.

But all of this, while entertaining in a potential Grindhouse sort of way, would definitely play second or even third feature to the potential re-staging, right here in River City, of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

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