MEMPHIS, Tenn.—Voters in the majority-black city of Memphis have tapped a city councilman to become their first white mayor in nearly a quarter-century, rebuffing a three-term incumbent whose campaign sagged under rising crime, poverty and the troubled finances of this gritty Mississippi River community.
A C Wharton Jr. conceded Memphis’ mayoral election late Thursday to white councilman Jim Strickland. Wharton’s concession came even before complete results for the nonpartisan election were posted. Unofficial yet incomplete totals overnight showing Strickland well ahead.
This city hasn’t had a white mayor since 1991 and Strickland ran on a platform offering change, pledging reforms and other immediate measures to tackle problems he said needed urgent attention.
“The people of Memphis spoke to the common hope in all of us, that Memphis can be better and that we must address the great challenges we face with a sense of urgency,” Strickland told supporters at a victory rally.
First elected mayor in 2009, Wharton had sought another chance to govern for another two-year term. He pointed to the creation of thousands of jobs and increased economic development on his watch as signs that the city was ready to bounce back.
“Our city is poised to just really, really, really take off on a sustainable trajectory,” Wharton told supporters in his concession speech. “For us to get to that foundation, blood had to be shed. I’ve shed my blood to go through some tough battlefields.”
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. Along with Wharton, other top African-American candidates included City Council member Harold Collins and Memphis police union chief Mike Williams.
A lawyer and City Council member since 2007, Strickland had pledged to be tough on crime by pushing for stiffer sentences for violent offenders. Strickland said he wanted to enforce a curfew for juveniles and involve more nonprofits in creating youth academic and employment opportunities. He also vowed to prioritize blight reduction and litter cleanup.
Wharton, a former public defender and Shelby County mayor, had 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.
But several factors worked against the incumbent. 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.
Financial problems, the seeds of which were sown long before Wharton took office, have hit the city hard. Memphis’ tax base has 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 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,” and ill will persisted.