Saturday, October 17, 2015

Can Mayor-elect Jim Strickland bridge a splintered Memphis community?

Mayor-elect Jim Strickland thanks his supporters, including a bevy of African-
Americans who stumped with him on the campaign trail. (Photo by Wiley Henry)
       “It’s over!” said former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, a resounding declaration that his longtime friend, Councilman Jim Strickland, had already scored a major victory before it was known that he’d trounced the incumbent mayor of Memphis in the Oct. 8 mayoral election.   
Chism had predicted Strickland would defeat Mayor A C Wharton Jr. at 8:30 p.m., an hour and a half before Strickland stood gaily amid a throng of supporters at Memphis Botanic Gardens to announce that he’d indeed won the race.
The former commissioner had foreseen a new chief executive moving into City Hall based on “the amount of support that A C has lost in the black community…and based on black folks wanting a change…and not who the candidate was.”
“With that in mind, it was easy to predict who would win,” said Chism, former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party.
“When we started, we felt like we had the message that would resonate all throughout this city – which was focused on driving down crime and change. And that’s what the people wanted, whether North Memphis, East Memphis or South Memphis,” said Strickland following his victory speech.
Strickland is the first white mayor of Memphis since Dr. Willie W. Herenton beat incumbent Dick Hackett by a mere 142 votes in that historic election in 1991. Herenton would go on to serve five terms before the charter was amended to two consecutive four-year terms for Memphis mayor.
Strickland made history as well. He beat Wharton 2-to-1 in a race that pitted him against a slate of African-American candidates that included Strickland’s council mate Harold Collins and  Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association.
“This is historic,” said Ken Moody, a former Memphis State University basketball standout, city division director under Herenton, and Strickland’s co-campaign manager. “In the words of Dr. King: ‘We are on the move!’”
With all 119 precincts reporting, Strickland amassed 41,810 votes (42 percent) to Wharton’s 22,184 votes (22 percent). Collins garnered 18,481 votes (18 percent) for a third place finish and Williams trailed with 16,174 votes (16 percent). Six other mayoral candidates received 1 percent or less.
Wharton was first elected mayor in a special election in October 2009 to replace Herenton, who vacated the seat after winning his fifth term in office. There were 25 candidates in the race and 61 percent of the electorate sent Wharton to City Hall. He was reelected in 2011 with 65 percent of the vote.
Early returns on Thursday were hampered by glitches in the voting equipment. But after the votes were finally tallied later in the evening, Wharton conceded the race to Strickland after 10 p.m. It was a heart-breaking defeat for Wharton, but he remained composed.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be just fine,” he told his supporters at the Holiday Inn Memphis-University of Memphis.
Wharton’s last day in office is Dec. 31. Strickland will be sworn in as the new mayor of Memphis on Jan. 1, 2016. During the transition period, he’ll start filling key positions in his administration and preparing his new team to govern after he takes the oath of office.
Strickland said his first order of business is to “go after the best possible” chief administrative officer, finance director, human resource director, and police director. “Those are the four most important positions,” he said.
Crime abatement remains a high priority on Strickland’s list of things to do. “Starting Jan. 1,” he said, “I will personally focus on driving down crime every single day and just serving the public. That’s all the public wants.”
African Americans want even more from the mayor-elect. His victory is a mandate to right what they believe is wrong with Memphis and to set the city and their community on a trajectory toward growth and prosperity.
Wharton, on the other hand, failed to persuade the electorate – both black and white – that he has the wherewithal to take the city forward. So based on water cooler conversations in the African American community, a vote for Strickland was more or less a vote against Wharton.
“No matter who won, it was going to be a difficult challenge,” said Strickland. “With 30 percent poverty…with the crime the way it is, with the blight the way it is…it’s going to be hard… but I’m excited about the opportunity to gather a team of quality people to change Memphis.”
“He’ll do what is right for the city of Memphis and the total population. His heart is in the right place,” said Chism, who has known the mayor-elect for more than 20 years.
Because there were snafus that Wharton could not fix or contain within his administration, Chism said he didn’t think people would tolerate from Strickland what they’d tolerated from Wharton.
The mayor-elect understands the delicate position that he’s now confronted with and understands there has to be some bridge building to pull together the diverse communities in Memphis.
“Change is coming to Memphis,” Strickland promised and noted that his work is just beginning to address the serious ills affecting Memphis. “We will build a new administration from the top down to reflect the diversity and richness of this city…
“It doesn’t matter where you were born or what you look like. It doesn’t matter who you are or who you know. It doesn’t matter if you live in Orange Mound or Midtown, South Side or Southwind, I will be everybody’s mayor.”
“His heart is in the right place,” said Kay Smith, the mother of Strickland’s wife, Melyne. “And if anybody can turn it around, he can.”
 Before it was announced that Strickland had won, Smith said she’d prayed for his wisdom, character and integrity to remain the same if he should become mayor.
“I want him to remain who he is,” she said. “I don’t want him to change. He’s a Christian and he was brought up that way.” 

‘Grandma’s Big Vote’ is a clarion call to encourage voting

       Mary Alice Gandy managed to survive the hardships of Jim Crow, but those difficult days paled in comparison to the joy she must have felt after her grandson drove her to the Shelby County Election Commission to early vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election.
The media swarmed over Mrs. Gandy during that watershed moment. It was her first and only vote for a candidate vying for any elected office, locally or nationally. She was 106 years old then and eager to cast her vote for the soon-to-be first elected African-American president. 
“She always wanted to vote. But because of Jim Crow, she got turned away. She lost her hope; she gave up until she saw advertisements on TV that a black candidate was running for president,” said William A. Gandy Jr., who also registered his grandmother to vote after she tried unsuccessfully in 1960s Mississippi.
Voting brought immense joy to Mrs. Gandy, her grandson said, and an invitation from the Democratic Party to attend the presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. But Gandy was convinced that his grandmother was too ill to make the arduous trip. Instead, the two watched the spectacle unfold on TV.
“It brought joy and tears to her eyes,” he said.
The herculean effort on Mrs. Gandy’s part to get out and vote, even in her feeble condition, motivated her grandson to self-publish a children’s book in 2011 titled “Grandma’s Big Vote.” Mrs. Gandy, however, died in 2009 at the age of 108, but not before fulfilling a once-denied, long-awaited, civic responsibility.
“If my grandmother could vote at that age, it means anybody can vote,” said Gandy, driving home the central point of the book. “It’s a civic duty that we should not ignore – especially minorities.”
That year Obama received a groundswell of support from minorities, many of them casting votes for the first time. The surge put Obama over the top compared to the number of minorities supporting Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee.
According to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, 95 percent of African Americans voted for Obama. Hispanic: 67 percent. Asian: 62 percent. Mrs. Gandy, however, was among those 65 and older voting for Obama. But not many people, her grandson surmised, expected a centenarian to vote.
“It’s a proven fact that democracy works better if people would go out and exercise their right to vote. The world would be different if they did,” he said. “Everybody should exercise their constitutional rights to vote.”
“Grandma’s Big Vote” is an important civic undertaking for Gandy in light of the hullabaloo over the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 2013. Voters are now required to show a photo ID as a condition for voting in a federal, state, or local election.
“The courts weakened the Voting Rights Act,” said Gandy, who hopes to change the mindset of people who don’t vote or who are reluctant to take part in the political process. “But I want people to know that they shouldn’t have a problem in voting.”
“The goal is to encourage kids at a young age and adults alike, when they become 18, to register to vote,” added Nathaniel Ray Nolan, a barbeque maven and national marketing director for “Grandma’s Big Vote.” 
Just as importantly, Gandy just wants people to know about his grandmother, the crux of “Grandma’s Big Vote,” which took him about six months to complete. Brian Truesby, a Memphis College of Art graduate, illustrated the book.
Gandy conceived the book in a dream, then put pen to paper. “I woke up at 4 in the morning and started writing the book,” said Gandy, who wrote an accompaniment called “Be The Vote,” a song that can be downloaded for 99 cents on iTunes.
A church musician, Gandy added his voice and soothing music to the 3:47 minute clarion call to attract voters. The lyrics underscore his plea:
“Your mother can be the vote/Anybody can be the vote/Let’s turn out and make a change.”
Gandy is now planning to introduce “Grandma’s Big Vote” to the educators for school-age children in Shelby County Schools. The book, he said, has already been introduced into the school system in Columbus.
With writer-director Larry NuTall, Gandy wrote a play called “Grandma's Big Vote: The Play,” which was performed at the Salvation Army Kroc Center. Actress Mary Woods played the leading role of the aging Mrs. Gandy. The play was filmed and shown – in addition to a voters registration drive – at the Malco Paradisco in 2013.
Gandy expects the movie version to debut next year in February during Black History Month. He already has a title for it – “A Lifetime to Hope.” “It’s going to be about my grandmother’s life and love interest…that she tried to vote but [they] ran her away from the courthouse. The Jim Crow laws in Mississippi.”
Mrs. Gandy, a sharecropper’s widow and descendant of slaves, was born in 1906 on the “Mullin Pratt Plantation” near Columbus, Miss., said Gandy, a self-employed barber. “My grandmother was the matriarch of the family. She was a seamstress and inspired people in the family to be entrepreneurs.”
The narrative that Gandy is drawing from includes other family members as well, such as his father, who died a year before Mrs. Gandy, his mother. Gandy’s mother is still living. He also has seven siblings.
“They totally support me 100 percent,” he said.
It has been seven years since Mrs. Gandy’s maiden vote. Gandy, however, is still trudging along, trying to encourage the electorate to do what his grandmother had waited most of her life to do – and that was VOTE!
“Grandma’s Big Vote” is sold at The Booksellers at Laurelwood. For more information about “Grandma’s Big Vote,” contact William Gandy Jr. at 901-483-9056 or go to