Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Incumbent, challengers spar at women-centered session

Mayor A C Wharton pitches his platform while Dr. Sharon Webb and Council members
Jim Strickland and Harold Collins listen intently. (Photo: Wiley Henry)
      The mayoral forum hosted by a coalition of women Tuesday evening at First Congregational Church was an ideal setting for mayoral candidates to flex their muscles in advance of the Oct. 8 municipal election and to layout the framework for the job of mayor.
      Mayor A C Wharton Jr., Council members Harold Collins and Jim Strickland, and former Memphis City Schools board member Dr. Sharon Webb, took advantage of the opportunity to discuss their platform and relay to the audience why voters should send them to City Hall.
      The Memphis Area Women’s Council, the Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Shelby County LINKS, and First Congregational Church sponsored the forum.
      Issues particularly germane to women were topics – such as gender-based violence, crime and safety, access to good paying jobs, police brutality and an increase in both the minimum wage and the percentage of contracts awarded for women and minority-owned businesses.
      The panelists asked pointed questions during the 90-minute forum. The audience also submitted questions. Strickland and Collins, however, veered at times while responding to questions to hammer at Wharton’s record.
      When each candidate was asked what his or her administration would do to provide emergency shelter for transgender individuals, Wharton explained the difficulty of finding temporary shelter for women and women with children.
      “It’s difficult for a single woman to get shelter,” said Wharton, noting that his administration has already pulled together agencies that deal with homelessness. “We will continue to work to expand funding for the transgender, any population.”
      Collins saw a window of opportunity to lambast Wharton, asserting that he did not provide adequate housing for women when he served seven years as mayor of Shelby County and six years in his current role as Memphis mayor.
      “When we continue to say ‘I’m going to look for the answer. I’m going to find the right people’…after 13 years, we should have had something by now,” said Collins. “That to me is not effective leadership.”
      When the candidates were asked about bringing more women into their administration, Collins said, “Every woman that’s qualified, every woman that’s certified, will get an opportunity to serve in this administration.”
      Next up was Strickland. He said there was no reason why the city shouldn’t employ more female city directors. Of the 13, Janet Hooks, who heads the Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods, is the only female.
      “As mayor, my administration will reflect the city, the population of the city,” Strickland said.
      Wharton explained that it’s not a matter of getting jobs, but “making sure that women are in all critical positions.” He pointed to the WIN (Workforce Investment Network) program and various boards and commissions that women serve on as achievements.
      The question of domestic violence and improving safety for women prompted Strickland to bring up the Memphis Police Department’s more than 12,000 unprocessed rape kits that were uncovered in late 2013. The city council, he noted, provided $2 million to begin testing.
      Wharton didn’t refute the price tag, but instead pointed to the Family Safety Center as a place of refuge for women. He did say, matter-of-factly, that “there is no excuse for domestic violence and sexual assault. Zero!”       
      Collins in turn pointed out that the council was “the first to plant the seed” for the safety center. “We appropriated $750,000 to initiate the building of that program,” he said.
      Webb turned her attention to the audience, explaining that she knows firsthand about being a victim of domestic abuse. “Legislation doesn’t stop somebody from dying,” she said.
      As for improving the city’s transit system to access jobs, Wharton said he is seeking funding “right now” to reroute the entire transit system. “We don’t have to depend exclusively on MATA,” he said.
      “Memphis city government does not create jobs,” Strickland followed. “The city government provides services to create an atmosphere where jobs are created.”
      Collins said, “We know that the face of poverty in Memphis is a single woman. In Memphis, we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
      “The problem is a lot of women don’t know what’s available,” Webb said. “We need to revamp the transportation system and let it do what it needs to do.”
      Wharton took umbrage to Strickland’s assertion that the city wasn’t paying its bills and that the number of city contracts with female and minority-owned businesses have dwindled since he has been mayor.
      Strickland left halfway during the forum for another engagement. But Wharton didn’t let the councilman’s remarks go unchallenged.
      “I want to fact check Councilman Strickland,” he said. “Eighty-two percent of all invoices were paid in 30 days. When it comes to percentages, he’s just flat wrong, saying the numbers are down.”
      Collins said he would raise the percentage of city contracts to female and minority-owned businesses to 38 percent.
      The high crime rate and police brutality were sticking points for the candidates. Webb sees gang activity as a huge problem. She would talk to gang leaders to call a truce to stop the violence. She also said there should be mutual respect between the police and young black men.
      Wharton pointed to community policing as an effective deterrent. He also touted the Memphis Gun Down program to steer youth away from violence and a life of crime.
      Collins criticized Wharton for turning over the investigation of Darrius Stewart’s fatal shooting by a white police officer to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which records are sealed by law.
      “That’s why I called for the justice department and the FBI right away,” he said, “because our people need to know the information.”
      After the candidates made their closing remarks, Wharton said in a side interview that it is his job to correct Strickland, Collins and any other inaccuracies.
      “Judge us not by what we promise but by what we’ve done,” he said.
      Regina Walker, a spokesperson for the coalition, said the group would not endorse mayoral candidates collectively. “The organizations will make their own independent endorsements,” she said.

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