A first floor suite in the historic 14-story Shrine Building at the corner of Front Street and Monroe Avenue is ground zero for The Law Offices of Ricky E. Wilkins. The architecture is exquisite and furnished with the trappings of success. But Wilkins is willing to trade much of it for a fulltime seat in Congress.
"I'm a lifelong Memphian who was raised in South Memphis. I want to give back to the community any way I can," he said. "I've been practicing law for 23 years and volunteered my time, talent and resources because I care about the community. So running for Congress is a natural extension of giving back."
Wilkins is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen for the right to represent Tennessee's Ninth Congressional District, an area entirely contained in Shelby County and includes the city of Memphis and portions of Collierville and Germantown.
The district is 60 percent African American and 33.5 percent white. Wilkins is mindful that basing his campaign solely on race likely would be counterproductive and lessen his chances of unseating Cohen in the Democratic Primary on Aug. 7.
"I'm planning on running this campaign based on my qualifications and the issues. The fact that I'm African American has nothing to do with it," said Wilkins, alluding to the hotly contested congressional races that pitted Cohen against Democratic challengers Nikki Tinker in 2008, Dr. Willie W. Herenton in 2010 and Tomeka Hart in 2012.
Undaunted by the incumbency on Cohen's side, Wilkins intends to run a grassroots campaign that highlights who he is, what he has been doing and what he plans to do for the Ninth Congressional District.
"Nobody thinks it can be done," said Wilkins. "We intend to prove them wrong."
Wilkins' supporters include Randy Wade, Cohen's former friend and one-time district director of his Memphis office. Wade parted with Cohen last year after the congressman filed an ethics complaint linked to Wade's support of a state representative's re-election bid.
Wilkins pulled a petition for Congress on Jan. 3rd, bringing onboard Wade at the onset of the campaign.
"Mr. Wade is an active and enthusiastic supporter of mine in my quest for Congress," said Wilkins. "I appreciate Mr. Wade's support and his continued efforts to help me identify other supporters in the community."
Wilkins said those who have confidence in him are stepping up to help.
"I'm encouraged by that and intend to bring on new supporters," he said, "people who have not been a part of the political process."
Two other Democrats besides Wilkins and Cohen have pulled petitions to run in the Democratic primary and two Republicans have placed their names in contention for the Republican primary. Only one candidate has filed so far.
The qualifying deadline for both Democratic and Republican primaries is April 3rd at noon.
Fighting the tough fight...
Wilkins said a change in leadership is needed to solve the district's problems.
"The economic conditions in this community must not be ignored," he said. "It must be a front-burner issue, and I intend to spend an appreciative amount of time working hard."
After graduating from Carver High School in 1983, Howard University in 1987, and Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1990, Wilkins said the South Memphis community where he grew up is still blighted and neglected.
"I'm embarrassed. And my heart hurts every time I drive through the community," he said. "Thirty years later, the community in some areas looks like a war zone."
As congressman, Wilkins said he'd bring new ideas, new approaches, and new alliances to improve the district. "Those who have served I respect and appreciate, but we're taking this to another level," he said.
The level Wilkins is referring to comprises his campaign platform, which includes growing small businesses, providing economic opportunities, improving education, fixing the crime problem, making provisions for veterans, and uplifting people in the district.
"Education is the great social equalizer," he said. "Everything that I am goes back to the educators who believed in me, guided me, and set me on the right path. I'll make sure they (the school system) get the support of the congressional office."
If elected, Wilkins said he'd bring federal dollars to the district and work cohesively across the aisle with others in Congress with opposing views. He used as an example the federal dollars the Memphis Housing Authority obtained to dismantle public housing during his 20-year stint as chairman of the board of commissioners.
"I understand the need to work across the aisle," said Wilkins, pointing also to his experience as a trial lawyer. "I'll make sure Memphis gets its fair share of federal dollars. And I'm going to be very successful in doing that."
Political pundits and observers have noted in past congressional races that a hefty war chest would be needed to get one's message across or make a sizable impact in the race. In the 2008 race, Cohen raised $1.2 million according to opensecrets.org. In 2010, he raised $1.1 million; and in 2012, more than $800,000.
During those races, the money raised by Cohen's opponents paled in comparison. Wilkins, however, said raising funds wouldn't be a problem and that people would be curious to see his financial disclosure form.
"We're reaching out to our supporters, not just locally, but outside of Memphis as well," said Wilkins.
Cohen, is a career politician, said Wilkins, stressing that he on the other hand is looking for an opportunity to serve the people and not a job.
He also pointed out other differences between he and Cohen.
"Steve Cohen has never been married, never had kids that I know of, and never has been responsible for employees and helping them pay their mortgage."
Wilkins was married 18 years and has two daughters.
The Ninth Congressional District needs leadership that motivates and inspires people to reach their fullest potential, which subsequently uplifts the entire community, said Wilkins, vowing to be that leader.
Running for Congress is a sacrifice, he said, and, no doubt an uphill battle in this instance.
"I'm a guy that grew up around welfare and food stamps to a teenage mother who dropped out in the 10th grade. So fighting an uphill battle is not new to me," he said. "It's a part of my DNA. I've been taught that if you work hard and have faith in God, there's no mountain you can't climb."
A man stands up and speaks to what he believes and goes forward regardless of what people think, said Wilkins.
"You have to be strong enough to stand up to the opposition."
About Ricky E. Wilkins...
Ricky E. Wilkins is a native Memphian who graduated from Carver High School in 1983. He went on to graduate from Howard University in 1987 and Vanderbilt University School of Law in 1990.
After law school, he was the first African-American attorney to make partner at Burch, Porter & Johnson. He left in 2003 to start his own law firm, The Law Offices of Ricky E. Wilkins.
Wilkins served 20 years as chairman of the Memphis Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. He is a past president of the Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, past president of the Memphis Bar Association, and past president of Tennessee Board of Law Examiners.
He is a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Vanderbilt Alumni Association, the NAACP, and a member of New Life Missionary Baptist Church.