MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Voters overwhelmingly re-elected Memphis mayor A C Wharton over nine rivals Thursday, giving the Democrat a hefty mandate to continue another four years after a short stint leading his impoverished Southern city through tough, gritty times.
With 100 percent of the precincts reporting, Wharton won with a commanding 65 percent of the votes cast to 28 percent for his nearest rival, Edmund Ford Sr., the brother of former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. All others split the rest with James Harvey Sr., a commissioner from Shelby County surrounding Memphis, who lagged in third with nearly 3 percent in a race marked by light voter turnout, the count showed.
Wharton, a silver-haired lawyer and former college professor, was the candidate to beat entering Thursday’s balloting, in which partisan politics played no significant role. He had won a special election in 2009 to replace the city’s first elected black mayor, Willie Herenton, after Herenton resigned in his fifth term and 18 years in the job.
The typically low-key Wharton was exuberant in victory, waving his hands and yelling his campaign slogan in his speech: “we are a city in motion.” Supporters clapped and cheered him on as he stood in front of a large poster that included a picture of President Barack Obama and alluded to hard times of budget cuts and high unemployment.
“We are one city,” said Wharton, 67. “I see the pain, I see the suffering. But there is room enough for all of us in this city.”
Wharton, Ford and Harvey are black, important in a majority Democratic city where 63 percent of the approximately 646,000 residents are African-American, according to the 2010 Census. New Census data released last week showed Memphis, a city known for blues music and the Beale Street tourist drag, is the poorest big city in the nation.
During his first term, Wharton gained in popularity by mediating a crisis stemming from a long-running school funding battle. But budget woes persist as the city has grappled with attempts to ease a deficit that had risen to $60 million, leading to pay cuts for firefighters and police officers. Gang crime and infant mortality also are issues he has had to confront.
Wharton had been criticized by Harvey and others for backing large tax breaks for big companies that were considering building plants in Memphis. Wharton says tax breaks were important in attracting companies that are bringing thousands of jobs to the Memphis area.
Wharton also faces what could be a difficult transition to a unified school system after voters approved consolidation of the city and county school districts.
Voters who backed Wharton said they welcomed his calm, reassuring manner on the job.
During the historic Memphis flooding on the nearby Mississippi River last spring, Wharton largely seemed unflappable as he coordinated with county emergency management official and calmly pleaded to the public to take the flood and evacuation orders seriously.
Supporters also spoke of his breadth of job experiences.
He previously had served for about seven years as mayor of Shelby County. He also was the first African-American law professor at the University of Mississippi, a position he held for 25 years. And he also once served as Shelby County’s chief public defender.
At Central Christian Church on Thursday, one of the city’s busiest polling places, two dozen voters said they chose Wharton while none said they voted for the other candidates.
“He is doing a real good job,” Mike Harris, a 36-year-old restaurant manager, said of Wharton. “I look at what he inherited. We had problems when he got here. He’s handled it very well.”
Carl Sebelius, 70, said he has known Wharton for years and has confidence in him.
“I don’t see any need to change at this stage of the game,” he said.