Thursday, January 22, 2004

Get the Mayor

Herenton is not as popular or as unpopular as you might think.

Posted By on Thu, Jan 22, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Make no mistake. The name of the game now is "Get the Mayor." As in, get him out of office. Things are that bad between the mayor and the City Council and a growing legion of Herenton opponents.

City councilman Jack Sammons and his pals at The Commercial Appeal have called for a "Watergate-style investigation" of the mayor's role in the selection of lawyers and underwriters for a $1.5 billion TVA bond deal with MLGW. They have likened the mayor to Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. And they probably thought twice about Saddam Hussein.

Both the councilman and the newspaper are far too experienced and cautious to go Watergate based on an anonymous e-mail, as was reported last week. Anti-Herenton lawyers, bond firms, and MLGW officers have been loading them up with "evidence," you can bet on it. The next step will be a demand for a federal investigation, assuming that prosecutors (who have been putting the screws to defendants in two other political corruption cases for more than a year) are not already in the early stages of one.

Just four months ago, it seemed that Willie Herenton could be mayor of Memphis for as long as he wanted to be. The city's first elected black mayor. The city's first mayor to serve four consecutive terms. Mayor for life -- and now mayor for the moment. What happened? Some historical perspective helps explain.

First, Mayor Herenton is neither as popular nor as unpopular as is widely believed. In 1991, he upset incumbent Dick Hackett by 142 votes in an election in which 247,973 people voted, or 65 percent of the electorate. Last October, Herenton beat John Willingham three-to-one, but only 104,688 people voted, a 23.7 percent turnout.

That's a lot of apathy. The signs began popping up four years earlier. In the 1999 election, Herenton's opponents on the ballot got 54 percent to his 46 percent. But there were so many of them that Herenton won easily. Under pre-1991 rules, he would have been in a runoff.

The 1991 election amounted to a crusade, with then-Congressman Harold Ford Sr. playing a key role and other black politicians, ministers, and voters almost unanimously behind Herenton. Last month, a majority-black City Council rejected four Herenton nominees for director jobs.

But Herenton is not as unpopular as this controversy suggests. Politics is always an either-or choice. There is no evidence that Sammons, Rickey Peete, Tom Marshall, or Carol Chumney could beat Herenton one-on-one. Sammons, Willingham, and Joe Ford are among the elected officials who have learned the hard way that their appeal is limited. Only Harold Ford Jr. or A C Wharton have the stature to challenge Herenton.

The weekly drumbeat of anti-Herenton letters to the CA reflects a suburban demographic which new editor Chris Peck is targeting. What a coincidence. When these missives go beyond the standard "Memphis is going to hell under Herenton" message, the "facts" cited are often wrong. On Tuesday, for example, a Memphis police officer from Bartlett wrote about "increasing crime." In fact, between 1996 and 2003, rapes declined 27 percent, robberies 29 percent, business robberies 9 percent, aggravated assaults 15 percent, and homicides 24 percent. Our source? The Memphis Police Department and, speaking at a breakfast gathering last week, District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

In 1996, the editors of this newspaper gathered mayors Herenton, Hackett, and Wyeth Chandler together for a photograph and three long stories.

Chandler advised Herenton to be a strong mayor, to conciliate individual council members but keep the council as a body at bay. "You're the one who's got to be the cook," he said. "Not those other folks in the kitchen."

Hackett followed that advice and stuck mainly to goals that were achievable. Herenton's proposals, on the other hand, made great headlines but nearly impossible policy: consolidate city and county governments, abolish the school board, sell MLGW, rebalance city and county taxes. And far from conciliating individual council members, Herenton has antagonized and insulted them.

The present focus on Herenton's supposedly Nixonian exercise of political influence in the bond deal is absurdly myopic, partisan, and narrow. The $25,000 steered to a Little Rock law firm wouldn't pay the food and bar bill at a major East Memphis Republican political pony-up, and everyone on the council knows it. But no one said politics is fair.

Chuck Daly, one of the basketball coaches honored at the Grizzlies game Monday, once said something very wise about leaving the Detroit Pistons after winning two championships. "Sooner or later, they just stop listening to you."

After 12 years, that's what's happened to Mayor Herenton.

E-mail: branston@memphisflyer.com

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