Monday’s announcement that Jack Sammons was Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s choice to take over as the City’s CAO is only surprising in that it took so long to happen.
The mayor’s administration has been mired in criticism from city employees, and citizens who don’t feel they’re getting much in the way of anything (tax savings or increased services) from the years of pain that have been endured and will most likely continue to be endured regardless of who wins in October.
But the Mayor, who won in a landslide just 3 and a half years ago, should be feeling the heat.
The political capital his 2011 win garnered isn’t gone, just long forgotten. And after years of promises, and little in the way of delivery…there’ growing discontent in the city about the way the cards have fallen, and just what the Mayor’s vision is for the city.
Make no mistake about it…Mayor Wharton is good at stitching a yarn together, or making pretty words sound good about what a vision might look like. But when it comes to putting that vision into action in a way that the people can see…he’s left much to be desired.
And, with a heated election just seven months away, and a more heated budget battle with at least two City Councilmen looking at his job, putting an ineffective communicator out there, with little political credibility isn’t going to help the Mayor keep his spot on the seventh floor of 125 N. Main.
Enter Jack Sammons…
As a player in the City game since the late 80’s, Sammons knows what’s expected, and most think he knows how to deliver. His two month stint as the CAO under interim-Mayor Myron Lowery is held up as an example of what a longer term stint might bring.
There are some real hurdles to overcome, like his gig with the Airport Commission. But the Mayor seems to think the State Legislature will pass a law that he wants that would fix it, even though there’s no real reason to believe that.
As for Sammons, no one questions his profile. His time in the City Council and on other boards have given Memphians a kind of comfort with him. For the most part, we know what Jack will deliver…and AC knows this.
Its the kind of political calculation that one might expect from an election year. In the CA article, outgoing CAO George Little laid the play bare saying:
“I’ll tell you what I don’t bring to this job, and I don’t mind saying it. I’m a longtime civil servant. … Where I can’t serve the mayor is in terms of political strategy.”
There it is folks…political strategy. I’ll get into that in just a second.
By the way, Little isn’t going away, just to another in a long line of mystery funded executive positions that didn’t exist four years ago.
Let’s hear it for efficiency!
Political strategy is something AC desperately needs if he’s going to hang on to the top spot in the City. Every passing week brings another candidate, tasting blood in the water, looking to exploit the Mayor’s perceived weakness.
But the Mayor, over the past couple of weeks, has stepped his game up, making sure the media is there for every baby kissing, kid camping, and potential economic development deal he can muster. There’s no question a Jack Sammons at the helm of the CAO’s spot will only accelerate that.
And there’s the election strategy. A Jack Sammons at the helm of the city sends a signal to the City’s business community…who have been in AC’s camp since 2011, that all will be ok, we’re working on it, and don’t jump ship just yet.
This is a big blow to the Strickland campaign, who no doubt sought to at least divide the business folks out of AC’s camp, and unify voters in the Poplar corridor. Sammons’ entry to the AC administration puts a damper on that effort. I’m not saying Strickland’s sunk…just that the bar got raised a little bit.
As for the rest of the crowd, they’re left fighting over the voters that aren’t as sexy to the media…you know, regular people. I’m not saying Strickland and AC won’t reach out to them too, but with those two at the top of the ticket, you know the local media was salivating over a Poplar corridor showdown. Now, that could play second fiddle…and with some of the things the Mayor has up his sleeve right now, he could use those to grab just enough to win a plurality in October with Sammons’ help.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not counting out the top tier of the front-runners, but if they don’t have a bad case of heartburn right now, they’re fooling themselves.
Shake-up or Shakedown
But the real political question to me is this:
Is this shakeup the move of a leader who recognizes he’s got a problem and is trying to fix it, or is this a shakedown of the city’s business community/Poplar corridor voters, basically saying, stick with me or else?
Anyone who’s watched Season 4 of The Wire knows the basic playbook this campaign was going to take. But this is a curve ball for those folks looking to keep some plot purity.
And while the State Legislature may stand in the way, that may still not be a loss for Mayor Wharton. There are political fortunes to be made using the ‘foreign other’ (Legislators standing in the way) as a blunt instrument to rally the troops.
Regardless of whether or not Sammons actually takes the CAO job with the city, he’s put himself out there, ready to use his considerable political skills for the Mayor, and that’s more than just a moral victory for Mayor Wharton.