Will Wharton avoid similar re-election issues that led to Washington mayor's loss?

I'll not name the Memphis political insider who linked to this Washington Post article on Facebook with the leadline, "Other black mayors grapple with forces that led to Fenty's downfall." The article focuses on how and why Washington mayor Adrian Fenty went from popular, tough reform-focused African-American mayor to losing primarily because of his unpopularity with black voters. It also mentions Newark mayor Cory Booker and Detroit mayor Dave Bing and the similar challenges they face. A quote from Cornell Belcher, a black pollster who was an advisor to President Obama's campaign in 2008 (and did some work for Nikki Tinker's campaign), gets at the article's core thesis:

"Ethnic politics is still very much alive and well in big-city politics. Can you bridge the ethnic politics, or at least not trigger them in a negative way? Yes. But you have to be strategically cognitive of it. You can't pretend that race doesn't matter, because we are somehow post-racial."
I bring this up because it was hard not to miss the Facebook post's implied "hmmm" aimed at Memphis, which will decide next year whether to re-elect A C Wharton as mayor. That's one of the challenges that landed in Wharton's lap when he was the overwhelming choice in last year's special election to complete the unfinished term of former mayor Willie Herenton -- he only gets two years to prove he is worthy of another four years. Given his popularity and fundraising prowess, it's hard to see anyone giving Wharton much of a challenge, although delusions of election grandeur are deeply embedded in Memphis politicians of all races, genders and parties.

The general gist of the Post article and of an interview that ran this morning on NPR was that black mayors risk alienating the black voter base when they embrace reforms so popular with white (and black) urban policy experts. You could feel that tension recently when Wharton explained to a mostly-white crowd of bicycle-transportation activists that he has been chewed out by people irritated at his decision to staff City Hall with someone focused on bike and pedestrian issues. The city is of course spending a lot of money on other so-called "stuff white people like" -- a skatepark in Tobey Park, the almost-completed Wolf River Greenway in east East Memphis -- and the challenge for Wharton is explaining to anyone questioning the project is explaining how those are amenities for everyone and that, yes, retaining affluent white families will be key to sustaining the tax base needed to help less fortunate individuals and families.

Anyway, another link to The Post article is here, and click here for NPR's conversation this morning. One final quote from The Post article:

The new generation is what Bruce Katz, director of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, describes as "uber-pragmatists"-forging alliances with corporate interests and prosperous suburbs, encouraging gentrification, hiring outsiders to fill key jobs, inviting in private foundations that see the inner cities as testing grounds for their ideas.

Philip Thompson, a professor of urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls them "technocrats," who view most problems in terms of management and resources, rather than culture or politics. 

3 Comments

Zack, I think you answered your own question. Who out there could beat him? Herenton is done, James Harvey couldn't beat Wharton right now, and I don't see anyone else who could take him.

Hey, Steve. I hear you but since when has reality ever stopped Memphis politicians from thinking they can win an election? You could do a dissertation on delusional political egotism just looking at Memphis politics 2007-2010.

You know A C is going to get challenged, from various directions. I'm expecting someone to pop up saying A C should have purged 95-percent of all city workers, someone else to pop up saying A C hasn't rolled over enough for city workers and, yes, it is possible someone will run saying too much attention is being paid to bikes and trails and fishing stores.

Skateboarding was a "white sport" in the 80's. Not now- boards are cheap and youth of all backgrounds are skating in the burbs as well as in the urban core. Grand opening day for the skate park will be a great day to see the diversity of the skateboarding community on display.

Hopefully the biking demographic becomes more diverse now that a greenline is well within reach of so many different neighborhoods. We'll see.

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