Analysis: As wildly competitive Memphis mayoral election nears, here’s how it unfolded

In what appears to be the final television ad in support of his re-election effort, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton begins by looking straight into the camera — and mincing no words.

“When you make tough decisions,” Wharton said, “you can’t make everyone happy.”

In that last phrase, we find a five-word summation of the state of the most competitive Memphis mayoral election in a generation. And Wharton, a man who has won four large-scale elections in the past 13 years with big margins, is in a fight for his electoral life in advance of Thursday’s election day.

His opponents — City Council members Jim Strickland and Harold Collinsand police union president Mike Williams, among others — will dispute the “tough decisions” phrase, of course. Sometimes those decisions are flat wrong and sometimes they’re executed poorly, they say.

On those criticisms, they’ve built a campaign.

Memphis voters haven’t turned out an incumbent in 24 years, when Dick Hackett’s 1991 bid for a third term fell to the narrow — and historic — victory by Willie Herenton, the city’s first elected African-American mayor. Before that, it was another 24 years prior — Henry Loeb over incumbent William Ingram in 1967.

Even midway through Wharton’s first full tenure — he was first elected in a 2009 special election, then elected to his first full term in 2011 — it wasn’t so certain that he would have such a fight on his hands now. Just look at Wharton’s electoral history: In winning county mayor in 2002 and 2006 and winning the city job in 2009 and 2011, he hasn’t collected any less than 60 percent of the vote.

Yet this time, his opponents found their footing in no small part due to the city’s financial shape and the 2014 city employee benefit changes proposed by Wharton and ratified, with some modification, by the City Council. Collins was a skeptic of the cuts from the get-go, and Williams represented the police union as a firebrand.

Strickland was the City Council’s chairman in 2014 and largely voted on Wharton’s side on the cuts. But he continued a drumbeat claiming Wharton’s ineffectiveness on all fronts, and formally entered the race in January. “By any objective measure, the Wharton administration is failing,” he said at the time, and has repeated since, citing a rise in violent crime, among other items.

Williams formally declared in February. Collins entered in April, leaving his job in the district attorney’s office to do so. “We have a leader who thinks corporations’ projects are greater than neighborhoods’,” Collins said then, an allusion to a campaign built around neighborhood needs and focused toward attracting jobs that would retain the city’s youth.

Strickland campaigned heavily on being tough on crime. Wharton pushed back mostly on Strickland’s juvenile crime plan, which the mayor claims would put more juveniles into detention. It has been perhaps the most pointed issue differential of the campaign.

Williams, aided by a dedicated social media following, would seek to restore employee benefits and wants to put a freeze on corporate tax breaks.

Unions have been split on who they back; the powerful fire fighters union backs Collins while the AFL-CIO Labor Council and the police union endorsed Williams. Wharton received the endorsement of the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Jobs PAC. Though he is a Democrat, Strickland received a “recommendation” — not an outright endorsement — from the Shelby County Republican Party. The county Democrats did not issue endorsements.

Strickland is widely viewed as Wharton’s toughest threat. A Commercial Appeal poll in early September showed Wharton with a narrow 30-to-25 percentage point lead over Strickland, with Collins and Williams at 12 points each. But that poll came before Collins did the bulk of his advertising.

And in particularly bad news for Wharton, it showed that 55 percent of voters planned to vote for someone other than him. When asked if the city was on the right or wrong track, 52 percent said it was on the wrong track.

Usually in an election this tight, there’s some big controversy or scandal that has put the mayor in the cross hairs. But not so here, said University of Memphis assistant professor of political science Michael Sances. He thinks Wharton is in danger of “death by a thousand cuts.”

Most recently, Wharton drew criticism for the contract — since canceled — that his campaign manager, Deidre Malone, received from Taser International to publicize police body cameras. And Memphis still has high unemployment and crime rates, Sances said.

“Any one of these issues by itself might not be a problem electorally, but collectively they are causing a close race,” he said.

Yet Wharton has celebrated successes, such as the most recent federal grant to revamp Foote Homes.

“You have a lot of promises up here, but let’s talk about experience,” Wharton said in an August debate. He has criticized challengers for being “gloom and doom.”

In a relative rarity for a local election involving an incumbent, big money has also been directed to Strickland. Counting money he had collected in the name of his City Council campaign, Strickland raised north of $600,000 — well above his early stated goal of $500,000.

It helped spark an arms race of sorts, and Wharton’s finance team has far from backed down. Counting his mid-2014 balance, too, Wharton raised nearly $1 million in support of his re-election effort and held a fundraiser as late as Friday.

In recent days, evidence has surfaced that at least two mysterious third-party groups have made entrées into the race, attempting to sway voters for or against Wharton.

The election has no runoff — whoever has the most votes Thursday night wins.

If the 71-year-old Wharton wins, it’ll mark the start to his final four-year stint. A two-term limit for the mayor and City Council members enacted at the end of last decade took effect with the 2011 election, meaning Wharton could not seek re-election in 2019.

And in a city that’s 63 percent African-American, there’s another dynamic: If Strickland wins, he’ll be the city’s first white mayor since Hackett (1982-1991).

Staff reporter Ryan Poe contributed to this analysis.