A few weeks ago, about 60 of Mayor Willie Herenton's big financial backers joined him for lunch at Folk's Folly steakhouse. It was the mayor's way of thanking them for contributing $1,000 to "sponsor" his annual Christmas party last year.
"Herenton's Hypocrites" is how one attendee described it, suggesting that some of those attending were either ambivalent or secretly opposed to a fifth consecutive four-year term for Herenton.
In politics as in sports, they say money talks and bullshit walks. Not quite. As has been the mayor's practice in other years, the prospective "sponsors" get a letter from the mayor's special assistant, Pete Aviotti. If you're a lawyer, developer, or businessman who has dealings with the city of Memphis, it could well take more nerve to say "sorry, not this time" to a 16-year-incumbent mayor than to write a personal or corporate check. It could be foolish to say no. At any rate, the "host committee" included 82 names, among them Jack Belz, Richard Fields, Dick Hackett, Michael Heisley, Rusty Hyneman, Arnold Perl, Gayle Rose, Fred Smith, and Henry Turley.
Who wouldn't be fortified by backers like that? On New Year's Day, Herenton spoke at a prayer breakfast and appealed to the crowd to keep him "on the wall." Later that morning, he confirmed that he plans to run for mayor again but declined to talk about it, taking questions only about his proposal for a new stadium. When he presented his stadium plans in slightly more detail last week, there was a notable absence of big-business supporters and potential stadium sponsors.
A person who attended the thank-you luncheon said that the mayor was asked if he "loves" the job and that he replied, in so many words, no, but he will do it for the good of Memphis -- a variant of the "on the wall" theme. He told the questioner at the luncheon that he fears that if he does not run then the mayoral field will be wide open, as the 9th District congressional field was when Harold Ford Jr. abandoned his seat to run for Senate. And, he added, in a winner-take-all free-for-all, anything can happen.
There is another side to that, however. Intentionally or not, Herenton, who has $527,328 in his election fund, has made it difficult for credible challengers to muster the supporters and money they need to run or test the waters.
The mayor's job is too important for all this coyness and mystery. Are the big donors hypocrites or hardcores? There's at least one way to find out. Get them to put their mouth where their money is. So here's the deal. Anyone who wrote a $1,000 check to Aviotti for Herenton's 2006 Christmas party or his 2007 reelection campaign within the last three months can play. You get this space, 700 words, to tell Memphis why Herenton should be mayor -- again.
The only condition: You have to write the thing yourself or with the help of others who gave $1,000. And you have to sign it. If you hire a ghostwriter or public-relations firm to help, you have to identify them by name, and then you still have to sign it. Once the piece is done, you can pass it around to everyone who was at Folk's Folly -- you know who you are -- and ask them to co-sign.
We'll run the piece unedited, and if it goes longer than 700 words, I'm sure one of my colleagues will donate extra space.
The offer stands for four weeks. That will give mayoral-race candidates and prospective candidates time to ponder your words.
Nominating petitions can't be picked up until April 20th. The qualifying deadline is July 19th. The election is October 4th. There is still time for pretenders to reconsider and for undeclared contenders to jump in. Let's hear the case for four more years.
No other Memphis mayor has served four consecutive terms, much less five. Herenton says journalists are out of touch and don't appreciate the depth of support he has. Fair enough. Start typing and show us the depth of support the mayor has among his chief financial donors and prospective partners in the private sector.