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.” 

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