The thing about Jim Strickland is his laugh — an exaggerated, easily triggered, high-energy, and totally spontaneous cackle that makes him the ideal audience for anybody, confidante or interloper. For obvious reasons, this trait is especially desirable for someone in politics, and Jim Strickland is certainly a politician, good enough at his craft to have won two terms on the Memphis City Council, and, most recently, to have overcome various demographic odds in defeating Mayor, A C Wharton, an incumbent not too long ago considered unbeatable.
That victory was back on October 8th, and roughly a month later, I joined the mayor-elect at high noon of a Saturday at the Barksdale Restaurant on Cooper in Midtown. The restaurant, just south of the bustling Overton Square intersection whose commercial renovation Councilman Strickland had a major hand in, is one of those comfy, neighborhood-style eateries that features home cooking on a blue-plate menu.
I have just sat down to join Strickland at a table in the middle of the room, and the waitress, unobtrusive but at the ready, has her pad out.
“I’d like to order. I’m starving,” Strickland says.
This brings a smile from the waitress. “We can’t starve the mayor,” she says.
“There’s not much danger of that,” say I, the wise guy, with a glance at Strickland’s waistline, which visibly expanded during his long campaign and now pillows a bit over his belt.
The waitress smiles again. “I’m not touching that,” she says, as Strickland, whose sense of humor (luckily for all of us, I think) extends to himself, howls in appreciation. Ah yes, The Laugh.
It being the time of day that it is, we have a choice between brunch and lunch, and Strickland, who seems to have skipped breakfast, goes for the former, ordering scrambled eggs, biscuits, and ham. I order something similar, substituting a ribeye steak for the ham.
One of the things we have in common and have talked about much over the years (apropos that early quip) is the Atkins Diet, a no-to-low-carb regimen that we’ve both gone on and off with for years. Right now, for this Dinner-With-Andre occasion, we’re both off.
My Dinner with Andre : The concept of that 1981 film is that two aesthetes dine out at a swank New York restaurant and explore the meaning of life by catching up on each other’s experience. The flow of information is basically one-way, as the Andre of the piece bestows upon his listener, Wally, a series of mind-expanding descriptions of his recent circumstances — each one an adventure or psychic experiment so exotic and unique as to be an exploration of life, ex nihilo and anew.
I was asked to recreate the process for this magazine with our new mayor-elect; Strickland agreed, and the Barksdale was his choice of venue. There didn’t seem to be much possibility of connecting with anything as bizarre and redefining as Andre’s experiences were for Wally, but hey, who knew what might happen? After all, not very many people have beaten an incumbent mayor in Memphis (the last time that happened was in 1991) so we gave it our best shot.
After we’d settled in and given our order, we found ourselves talking about the previous weekend’s football game at the Liberty Bowl between Navy and the University of Memphis, the alma mater for both of us. Strickland had been there; I hadn’t. Going into the game, the U of M was undefeated at 8-0, in possession of a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate, Paxton Lynch, and seemingly on its way to one of the big bowls on New Year’s Day.
So maybe we had been close to the bizarre range of experience, after all. Alas, it didn’t last. Navy won and popped the bubble. As Strickland confessed, sadly and simply, “Navy’s good. I think they have a better team.”
For a second or two, we let the disappointment wash over us. Being bested and returned to the ranks of the also-rans turned out to be one of the leitmotifs of this conversation, along with its converse, winning out. Strangely, there turned out to be enormous similarities between the two states.
Momentarily, I reflected on a YouTube video that had just been posted — re-posted, actually — and that I had eagerly looked up online once somebody had told me about it. It was the visual record of an earnest ping-pong game being played between Strickland and Harold Collins, both serving City Councilmen at the time and both, as it happens, opponents in the recent mayoral race just ended.
Once I had it on my computer screen, I realized that oh, yes, of course, it was a video that I myself had shot on a social evening back in 2009, had posted, and then forgotten about. There was my voice, along with Councilman Ed Ford’s, on the video kibitzing on the game, which went to deuce before Strickland broke the tie with a final slam or two. I heard myself saying, “Okay, this is for the chairmanship!” So much for foreshadowing.
Back at the Barksdale, I remember that Strickland came here from Louisville, home base of a longstanding basketball rival to our basketball Tigers. Is there a smidgen of conflict in his loyalties, I wondered out loud. There is, but of an unexpected kind, as it turns out.
He proceeds to relate to me the odyssey of his early life: “I was born at South Bend, then we moved to Detroit, Cincinnati, and Louisville, and then here.” Cincinnati is the first city he has a recollection of, but Louisville, which his family left when he was 12, is well remembered. As for that chink in his loyalties: “I grew up a Kentucky fan,” he says, mustering another version of The Laugh in clear recognition that the curse-word “Calipari” — name of an infamous Memphis deserter — hovers unspoken but fully perceived between us.
“Kentucky won the [national] championship in ’78,” Strickland proudly informs me. “Kyle Macy, Rick Roby, and those guys.” Macy, a point guard and three-time All-American, had a free-throw style based on bouncing the ball three times at the line before turning it loose, and Strickland, who plays tennis as often as he can, adopted the pattern for his serve, ritually bouncing the ball on the court three times before serving.
In Memphis, he did his high schooling at CBHS and went on to what was then Memphis State University, which offered him a “full-ride” scholarship. “I don’t remember there being a big choice,” he remembers.
He graduated in 1986. As it happens, he was there with a cast of characters, rivals, and colleagues that teemed with future leaders of Memphis politics and government.
(A partial list of these civic-spirited Tigers from the mid-’80s: David Kustoff, Maura Black Sullivan, David Upton, Jay Bailey, Harold Collins, John Freeman, Nathan Greene, Tre Hargett, Mark Schuermann, Carol Chumney, and Mike Carpenter.)
Strickland stood out from the pack and got himself elected student body president. Perhaps he began to sniff his future in the fact. Or maybe, his reasoning was more mundane. As he says, “I wanted to stay here. I was tired of moving.”
In any case, his scores on the LSAT test were good enough to get him scholarship offers to such blue-chip law schools as William and Mary, Georgetown, and Virginia — all recognized gateways to success in the political and legal nexus of the D.C. area.
But he had another free ride at the U of M, and he stayed put, ultimately becoming a big fish (literally big, at 6-foot-5) in the smaller pond.
We talk a little bit about an arresting fact I’d recently tumbled onto — that Harvard University, the ne plus ultra of power institutions, had an endowment in the neighborhood of $400 billion, while that of the University of Alabama, whose finances are regularly stoked by its perennially over-achieving football program, is only somewhere around $1 billion. The University of Memphis has an endowment in the range of $200 million.
By this time we’ve been served, and we munch away, undisturbed by the 15 to 20 other customers sitting at other tables, having their own conversations, eating their own meals. I begin to see this as peculiar, although I am aware that the Barksdale is something of a regular haunt for Strickland, as it is for Steven Reid, the soft-spoken and brilliant strategist for his late campaign, who has his own breakfast bright and early every day at the same restaurant: two hard-boiled eggs, wheat toast, and unsweet tea, as both Strickland and the waitress have informed me.
Maybe Mayor-elect Jim Strickland is such a fixture here that his presence is taken for granted. In any case, Strickland’s reaction to the absence of interlopers so far is perfectly ambivalent. He appears to be at peace with being left alone, but every time the restaurant’s door opens to let in a new customer, he seemingly cannot help looking up expectantly.
We talk about politicians and the different ways in which they react to people, contrasting two opposite types: the preternaturally gregarious Bill Clinton, who clearly thrives on multiple interactions, as many as possible, whether several thousand-fold or one at a time; and Al Gore, Clinton’s painfully introverted vice president, who seemingly had to force himself through the handshaking rituals necessary to his political career.
I ask Strickland: Which one is he most like?
“I’m somewhere in between,” he says. “Today I’m not going to go around introducing myself to every table. They don’t want to be interrupted. I have a bad memory for names. ‘Remember me?’ somebody will say. Sometimes I say no. There’s a fine line. I describe myself as friendly but not super outgoing.”
He adds a caveat. “I will say that, for this campaign, we outworked everybody. We were all over the place. At the Orange Mound Parade, I bet I shook a thousand hands. That was a real handsome indication that I was going well, when 50 people at once wanted to shake my hand.”
At just this moment, as if in response to some invisible cue, a white-haired man in work clothes, who has been sitting chatting with a woman companion at a table some 15 feet away, rises from his chair and strides over. He holds out his hand to Strickland.
“I voted for you,” he says, in the unaffected manner of somebody simply stating a fact. Strickland smiles, shakes the man’s hand, and thanks him. The man then goes back to his table. But his coming over seems to have broken the ice. From this point on, visits to our table become more frequent.
Strickland seems to have a balanced view of his place in the consciousness of his fellow Memphians.
“When we did polling a year ago,” he says, “something like 70 percent of the people we asked knew who I was, and, of those 70, 10 to 20 percent said they didn’t know enough about me. The $600,000 I raised for the race went toward overcoming that.”
Strickland is proud of his campaigning zeal, which he believes was unmatched by any of his competitors. Statistical analysis of the election returns seems to bear out his claim that, matched against three black opponents, he got as much as 25 percent of the black vote. Meanwhile, white-majority Republican precincts were virtually wall-to-wall in his favor. Not bad for a former county Democratic Party chairman.
Overall, Strickland got 42 percent of the vote, a full 20 points higher than Wharton, his closest competitor. There are several reasons that could account for his success in so dramatically disposing of a once-popular incumbent. Notable among them was the simplicity of his ever-repeated campaign themes — public safety, blight, and accountability — ideas that he insists amount to a collective vision and not mere housekeeping details.
Contrast them, however, with the grandiloquence of his predecessors’ slogans: “A Destinaton City” (Willie Herenton); “One Memphis” (Wharton).
And there is the matter of simple hard work. Anyone who knows Strickland knows that he has been running for mayor for years, campaigning for budgetary discipline from his council seat and making himself a household name at speaking events in sprawling Cordova, a recently annexed land mass where alienation from the central city government is almost viral.
Now that he’s reached his goal, Strickland seems to be trying to figure out how to slow down a bit. “I haven’t figured out a regimen. I do know I’m not going to go to events every single night.” Indeed, during our brunch I remind him of one such affair going on that very night — a weenie roast involving several of his most fervid supporters as principals. He says he’ll try to make it, but — fixated on keeping company with his wife and two children as they watch that night’s Tiger football game versus Houston (which turns out to be a second straight heartbreak) — he doesn’t end up doing so.
“I’ve gotten two good pieces of advice,” Strickland says. “One is, don’t go to dinner meetings unless you’re the speaker.” The other, which came from Nashville’s new Mayor Megan Barry, also elected in 2015, was to try to get home by 7 every night. “She told me, if you have to go to an event after work, don’t sit down. Just say your hello’s and move on.”
Strickland, who’s just turned 50, acknowledges that, after being almost non-accessible for years, and after having concluded a grueling campaign which often left him with a mysterious pain and weakness in his arms late at night, he’ll have to find a way to cut back.
“This being so extraordinarily accessible compared to other people can wear you out. Especially now,” he says. “If I try to keep up with all the people who want responses to their calls and emails and letters, I won’t be able to do the job.”
But, even as he’s stating these conclusions, the traffic to our table has picked up. And the fact seems to energize Strickland, a la Bill Clinton. When two men come by and go through a merry shuck-and-jive about wanting to help him measure the drapes for his new office, he howls along with them.
Insight: This is a man who laughs a lot because he wants to laugh, he has to laugh in the same way that most people have to breathe. Not only that, he is aware that his laugh is a tool of his trade and a not inconsiderable one. People recognize him from a distance from his laugh, he knows, just as they can easily pick him out of crowds from the fact that he’s almost a head taller than everybody else.
“Being tall is a big benefit, there’s no doubt about that. I noticed that at the Cooper-Young Festival.”
Almost in spite of himself, Strickland is getting a buzz from the increased volume of people coming by the table to say hello or wish him congratulations. He does a sweep with his arm indicating the room. “This is where I did that commercial,” he says, meaning the one of his four TV commercials that showed him addressing his bullet points to an apparently spellbound seated audience. I mention the artistry of one shot, which showed a young woman seemingly enraptured while Strickland was speaking.
“Why are you so surprised young females would dote on me?” Strickland says, the laugh literally cascading out of him.
Between now and his taking the oath of office on January 1st, Strickland is spending much of his time putting together a staff to work in his administration. He seems open to the notion of including people who supported other candidates in the election.
“It doesn’t bother me one bit — and never did,” he says, “if somebody wanted to support A C.”
There were, however, two exceptions to the rule — both of whom, at Strickland’s request, will go nameless here. One was a Wharton functionary who, Strickland says, went out of his way to attack him in excessively negative tweets. The other established not one but two PACs (political action committees) devoted to nonstop excoriations of the mayor-elect’s persona.
As we finish up with our meal and I am settling up the bill, I see Strickland surrounded by several diners suddenly on their feet. One of them volunteers “to be your peon if you’ll hire me.” Strickland does the laugh, and it occurs to me that this worthy has a better chance of being employed in the administration than the two gentlemen just mentioned.
Another man is clearly importuning the mayor-elect, and he, too, is finally chuckled off. What did he want? I ask Strickland as we got out the door. “He wanted me to establish a WWE [World Wrestling Entertainment] theme park, and what I said was, let me take care of some other things first.” Again, the laugh.
That Strickland, for all his advance trepidation and, in some ways, despite himself, enjoys public attention is a good sign. But when I next see him, the following morning, a Sunday, he’s at a St. Vincent de Paul mission, wearing an apron and serving breakfast to homeless men and women, something he does once a month, not just during political campaigns. This is as far from My Dinner With Andre as it’s possible to get.
Many of the needy people standing or seated about him seem not to know who he is, or even care, as long as he brings him their trayfuls. But the Strickland himself likewise seems to be oblivious of that fact. This, too, is surely a good sign.