- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Sign-waving supporters of A C Wharton Jr. stood on a busy street corner, urging motorists to re-elect the black veteran mayor of Memphis who has long sought to steer the gritty city through troubled times. But one driver of a pickup truck stopped at the light let out an expletive, still upset with pay and health insurance cuts to police and firefighters on Wharton’s watch.

Such is the life of a three-term mayor seeking another two-year term in this Mississippi River city beset by poverty, crime, blight and budget woes. Now the veteran mayor is facing one of his stiffest re-election challenges yet as a City Council member, Jim Strickland, is bidding to become the first white mayor of the majority black city since 1991.

Next week’s election pits Wharton, a former public defender, against others including Strickland, a lawyer who voted on the council for many of the measures Wharton is now sharply criticized for. The winner Thursday can claim victory with 40 percent of the vote or less, because there is no runoff.

In the city where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by a white man in April 1968, race is a consideration for many voters. Should Wharton lose frustrated or disinterested black voters, he could be vulnerable on Thursday.

Further complicating the election for Wharton, two other black candidates in the race could siphon votes away from him. That could make white voters who have supported Wharton in the past more critical to his cause. The other candidates are Mike Williams, head of the Memphis police union, and another City Council member, Harold Collins.

“Are (white voters) going to leave him when they have a viable white alternative?” said Marcus Pohlmann, a political science professor at Rhodes College and longtime observer of Memphis politics. “That, I think, is the wild card question for this election.”

Various factors are working against Wharton.

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 this week that the number of violent crimes, including homicides and rapes, increased by 4.6 percent in 2014 over the year before.

And recent high-profile incidents, including the fatal shootings of two girls on the same day, the shooting death of a black teen by a white officer, and the fatal shooting of Officer Sean Bolton may have shaken the public’s confidence in police and Wharton’s leadership.

Financial problems, the seeds of which were sown long before Wharton took office, have hit the city hard. The city’s tax base has shrunk due to population loss caused by residents who moved 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 the city’s subsidies from its health insurance and raise premiums for city employees - including police and fire. Savings went into the city’s troubled pension program, which currently 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.” Their ill will still persists.

But Wharton has plenty to boast about.

Memphis’ once moribund downtown area, the South Main district and the Overton Square area, are undergoing redevelopment and have begun to thrive. Wharton has lured large companies such as Mitsubishi Electric, Nike, Electrolux and others to build facilities and bring thousands of jobs to the area. And Bass Pro Shops has moved into the long-dormant Pyramid, the iconic building near Memphis’ downtown, drawing thousands of tourists and outdoor enthusiasts to the city.

Wharton also has taken on blight, and youth and gang crime, making some inroads but still facing a difficult battle. However, despite the high crime numbers in 2014, this year has seen some improvement. The city on his watch also has received substantial federal funds for affordable housing and neighborhood development.

“This is time for experience,” Wharton said. “We have gone through some tough times. We still have some tough times ahead. I’m realistic and I know the challenges we face. I’m up to it.”

Strickland has run on a platform of change. He proposes getting tougher on crime, with stiffer sentences for violent offenders. He wants to enforce a curfew for juveniles and involve more nonprofits in creating youth academic and employment opportunities. Strickland also wants to prioritize blight reduction and litter cleanup.

“We’ve done a really good job of campaigning all over this city that we’re the change that people want,” Strickland said. “There are clear differences on priorities and policy positions.”

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