By ADRIAN SAINZ
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Memphis voters chose A C Wharton as the commanding winner over nine rivals Thursday to continue as mayor for the next four years, signaling confidence in an incumbent whose short stint on the job had already won him popular support for his fight against urban blight, budget cuts and devastating spring floods.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting preliminary totals, Wharton received 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. The others split the rest with James Harvey Sr., a commissioner from Shelby County surrounding Memphis, lagging well behind at 2 percent just ahead of the others, the preliminary count showed.
Wharton, a silver-haired former lawyer and prosecutor, was the candidate to beat entering the race. 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.
Wharton, Ford and Harvey are black, important in a city where 63 percent of the approximately 646,000 residents are African-American, according to the 2010 Census. New Census date 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.
After taking up the post, Wharton gained in popularity by mediating crises 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 as high as $60 million.
Wharton had been criticized, particularly by Harvey, 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 flood in the spring, Wharton maintained calm as he coordinated with county emergency management officials and made several public pleas for citizens 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 nearby 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
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)