- Associated Press - Sunday, December 13, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - A C Wharton Jr.’s tenure as mayor of Memphis roughly coincided with Barack Obama’s time in the White House.

Wharton has shared trailblazing similarities with Obama. Both men were law professors - Wharton became the University of Mississippi’s first black law professor in 1974. Wharton was also Shelby County’s first elected black mayor, winning two terms before becoming mayor of the city of Memphis.

But they may have more in common. In an interview, Wharton - who lost his re-election bid to City Council member Jim Strickland in October - said he and Obama both have dealt with economic difficulties, such as high unemployment, in addition to challenges related to health care and public safety issues like gun violence.

“I would say that both the president and myself have had a mixed bag,” Wharton said Monday. “I do believe, however, that the positive things outweigh greatly the things that were not so positive.”

Some parallels between Wharton and Obama make sense, said Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College and longtime observer of Memphis politics.

“I think both accomplished more than the public really realizes that they did, and that’s partly on them for not better describing it and playing it up,” Pohlmann said. “I don’t know that either one of them are really comfortable politicians in the same way Bill Clinton was, someone that really just enjoys the political handshaking and the game of politics. As a result, when things went sour … I don’t know that they had built up the political image and capital that was necessary to weather those events.”

Wharton, 71, won a special election for city mayor in 2009 before winning a full four-year term in 2011. Strickland’s win makes him Memphis’ first white mayor since 1991. He takes over Jan. 1.

As city mayor, Wharton battled problems that had affected Memphis since before he took office - crime, poverty and a shaky financial climate.

Wharton helped revitalize Memphis’ once moribund downtown area, the historic South Main district and the popular Overton Square entertainment area. He lured large companies such as Mitsubishi Electric, Nike, Electrolux and others to build facilities and bring thousands of jobs to the area.

Wharton also worked to raise the national profile of Memphis as city, pointing to grants from the federal government and national philanthropies for funds directed at affordable housing, workforce innovation and the testing of backlogged rape kits.

“He projected a positive image of the city,” Pohlmann said. “He is a very diplomatic individual, and I think he was probably well received in national bodies.”

Still, several factors worked against him. Public safety concerns emerged after a large group of teenagers attacked customers at a supermarket and knocked an employee unconscious in a parking lot melee caught on video last year. The FBI reported that the number of violent crimes, including homicides and rapes, increased by 4.6 percent in 2014 over the year before.

Memphis’ tax base shrunk due to population loss caused by residents moving away. Budget shortfalls led to pay cuts for police and fire in 2011, resulting in protests before the reductions were reversed two years later.

In 2014, the City Council voted to remove city subsidies from its health insurance and raise premiums for city employees, including police and fire workers. Savings went into the city’s troubled pension program, which has an unfunded liability of about $530 million. The health insurance cuts led hundreds of police officers to call in sick as part of a so-called “Blue Flu,” and ill will persisted.

Wharton laments that he could not do more to reduce poverty in Memphis, where about 30 percent of residents lived below the poverty line in 2014, according to the Census’ American Community Survey. The national poverty rate is about 15 percent.

“We have to do more to make our citizens, our residents, more employable,” Wharton said, citing better training and improving education as two ways to go about reducing poverty.

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