Memphis: The City Awakens
The Strickland era in City Hall launches this month with a burst of optimism that makes it hard to remember how improbable it all seemed a year ago, when he announced his entry into the mayor’s race.
Back then, only a few bought into Councilman Jim Strickland’s confidence that he could defeat an incumbent who had received 65 percent of the vote in 2011. After all, Strickland’s game plan defied all conventional wisdom, which said he would have to outspend Mayor A C Wharton to win; that he could not rely heavily on Republican votes while getting at least 20 percent of African-American votes; and that there would never again be a white Memphis mayor.
There is no question that the Strickland victory was aided and abetted by a remarkable political collapse. Wharton’s campaign spent almost $1 million, yet received only 22 percent of the vote to Strickland’s 42 percent. In fact, by election day, momentum was running so strongly in Strickland’s favor that it was no longer obvious that his victory resulted from splintering the black vote. Some Wharton backers contend that Strickland could not have been reelected without Harold Collins (18 percent) and Mike Williams (16 percent) in the race, but in the final tally, Strickland and Wharton received a strikingly similar number of African-American votes.
Overlooked in the election analysis is the irony that it was orchestrated by two people — Strickland and his political strategist Steven Reid — who were key supporters for Wharton when he ran for city mayor in 2009. Strickland was co-chairman of the Wharton campaign and Reid conceived of Wharton’s winning “One Memphis” campaign theme.
Strickland’s expectations of working with Wharton as something akin to a floor leader at City Council meetings were not only unrealized, but it appeared over time that the mayor had little interest in working with any City Council members, whose meetings in turn became regular venues for attacks on the Wharton Administration. As for Reid, his sense of being dissed by Wharton campaign insiders had sent him in search of another mayoral candidate.
Early last year, Strickland presented his “path to victory” to two veterans of the political wars, who told him he had forgotten two things in his favor: One, Wharton campaigns were disorganized; and two, the difficulty of keeping the candidate on message. In turn, Strickland put together a campaign characterized by its discipline and his dogged adherence to his script.
Meanwhile, in Wharton’s campaign, local and national consultants were hired but were never put to their best use. Early polling, which should have been a wake-up call, failed to inject a sense of urgency into the campaign, which seemed more coconcerned with playing not to lose rather than playing to win.
The Wharton message changed almost daily, most often as a result of the campaign playing defense to Strickland’s themes of rising violent crime, poor City Hall financial management, and lack of accountability in city operations. In other words, as the campaign wore on, the Strickland campaign’s traction came from appeals to voters’ emotions while the Wharton campaign relied upon a veritable blizzard of data and statistics.
For example, although Operation Safe Community’s monthly reports showed crime was down, polling showed that only 14 percent of Memphians believed that, while 41 percent believed crime was steadily increasing throughout our city. While it’s tempting for a campaign to think that it can push out facts and figures to change people’s minds, Wharton’s lengthy explanations of programs and data, faced with strong public perceptions, were not only ineffectual but eventually made him look out-of-step with the public mood.
It was a dramatic reminder of why political consultants prefer campaigns that motivate rather than educate the public (think failed 2010 city-county consolidation campaign). The Wharton campaign never found its footing and its TV ads showed the price paid by Reid’s absence; news headlines of crime, contracts, and controversy defined the final six weeks of the mayor’s race. And to anyone with access to polling, it was clear that the election was over.
As a result, Wharton became only the second incumbent Memphis mayor to go down to defeat since the strong mayor form of government was instituted in 1968. It’s a lesson not lost on Strickland, whose objective now is to prove that his election was not an aberration and that he can attract the additional 8 percent of voters that would give him a clear majority in four years.