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Voters Respond To Call For ‘One Memphis’

Posted on October 15th, 2009 in News

Commercial Appeal, Zach McMillin, 10/15/09 – The question came from A C Wharton’s opponents, with increasing frequency and volume: Why would he run in the City of Memphis’s special election when there remained one year on his second and final term as mayor of Shelby County?

It was aimed at the voters as much as Wharton, delivered with skepticism that suggested maybe Wharton should have done more as county mayor, that insinuated Wharton could not be trusted to bring needed change.

As early as 7:50 p.m. Thursday, when Wharton campaign manager Julian Bolton delivered early-voting results to Wharton’s crowd at Minglewood Hall, it was clear voters would be giving Wharton the ultimate rejoinder: More than 63 percent of the early vote was Wharton’s and the celebration could begin.

His opponents were right about those polls being inaccurate, after all – even the most optimistic of them failed to properly gauge the breadth and depth of Wharton’s support.

After 17½ years of Willie Herenton, voters responded to Wharton’s relentless theme of unity – "One Memphis" – giving him an overwhelming majority despite the presence of 24 other candidates, many of them with claims on previous electoral success.

"The bottom line is what is happening tonight is what I felt all along, if you have a positive message the people will be drawn to that – a positive message backed up by positive experience," Wharton said from his law office, a few minutes before joining the party.

Wharton turned 65 in August but remains relatively fresh as a candidate. Thursday’s 42-point victory was another in a string of landslides, building off a 63-point victory in the 2002 Democratic primary over Chumney, a 35-point victory in the 2002 county mayor’s race against George Flinn and a 50-point validation in 2006 against John Willingham.

While other candidates frequently complained that media coverage unfairly made the campaign seem like an inevitable runaway, Wharton commanded a campaign organization that outspent all others combined ($333,000 and counting) and seemed to have exponentially more of everything – volunteers, signs, photo-ops, commercials, optimism.

And even as candidates did what candidates must do when they know they are behind – attack the frontrunner’s record – Wharton mostly remained calm, finding a few rare moments to land his own political punches. Most of those landed on former city councilwoman and state legislator Carol Chumney, who got less than 10 percent of the vote two years after getting 35 percent in a failed bid to unseat Herenton.

She blamed a "glass ceiling" conspiring against female candidates, and indeed she also finished behind Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery, who will go back to City Council after nearly three months of running the city.

After seven years battling to tame the crushing debt in Shelby County, Wharton now inherits a city where poverty and unemployment are increasing and more educated young people and middle-class families are leaving than staying.

"I perform the best when the odds are the mightiest," Wharton said. "People want that kind of fighter. They don’t want a lot of loud noise, divisive rhetoric, bravado. They want a steeled determination, persistence and the ability to pull every soldier together."

Wharton’s Web site reflects that governing style, with a platform listing 34 items and often offering solutions built around knitting together people or ideas. Those candidates who tried to persuade voters that Wharton’s long association with Herenton should be held against him may in fact have helped Wharton – by reminding them that Wharton exhibits a temperament and governing style that is far different.

Wharton said many times during the campaign that he felt no need to prove he could be tough or, as he put it, "mean." In the first televised debate, asked if he was too nice, too much the "tapioca" candidate, Wharton said: "If that means someone who seeks to find common ground as opposed to confrontation, I will proudly agree to that."