"This whole Greyhound thing is all about minority economic development," Mayor Willie Herenton said before ducking into a waiting car and leaving the University Club, the Memphis Rotary Club, and a swarm of reporters.
The Commercial Appeal broke the story Tuesday that Herenton personally had an option to purchase the downtown Greyhound bus station and sold it for $116,000, keeping $91,000, the newspaper said.
Now comes the defense. Herenton said he would offer his reply in a column to the CA Tuesday evening for publication Wednesday or later this week. He said he would not be more specific about the option, on the advice of his legal counsel.
"You hit a home run," shouted attorney Ricky Wilkins to the mayor as he walked through the parking lot. Earlier, Wilkins introduced Herenton to the Rotary Club as someone who "has caught all the slings and arrows and remains to me that hero that I met in high school."
After Wilkins turned over the microphone, Herenton got right to the elephant in the dining room, saying "it sure feels good to be under some light" rather than under the dark cloud of a federal investigation and a 14-part history of his public life in the paper for the last two weeks.
He made a brief and perfunctory diversion to the state of the economy, crime, and consolidation — this was, after all, supposed to be a state-of-the-city speech — but then he was back at it. He read some words by Theodore Roosevelt: "It is the man in the arena, and not the critic who counts." Herenton said he had stumbled in 18 years as mayor "but I have been a man who has been in the arena."
He said his forthcoming newspaper column would delve into his views of the line between his public and private life. It was "no coincidence," he said, that the most damning story yet about him came out on the same day he was scheduled to make his annual state-of-the-city speech. The audience gave him a big round of applause for that one. Then he took some questions, one of which came from Rotarian and television anchor Cameron Harper about the propriety of that $91,000.
"I know where the line is, and I feel confident I have not crossed that line," Herenton said.
Meeting with reporters after lunch, the mayor said it bothers him that his integrity is being questioned on a near-daily basis lately. "That cuts deep," he said.
The cuts are not likely to end. Two federal grand juries were scheduled to meet Wednesday, January 14th, leading to speculation about a Herenton indictment just days before Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th president. We'll know soon enough.
A source familiar with the investigation told me it is broader than the bus station and encompasses control of Beale Street and the property south of Beale Street and FedExForum. The Greyhound station sits between the arena, The Peabody, and AutoZone Park — an underperformer if there ever was one. Moving it out of downtown to a MATA intermodal transportation terminal near the airport is tempting because of all the federal transportation money MATA can access.
Whether it makes sense to dump bus passengers at the airport is another question, but sense didn't stop MATA from extending the trolley halfway to Midtown, or building a sham terminal at FedExForum, or proposing a $405 million light-rail line from downtown to the airport.
Asked if he is tired of the job and if he thinks he will finish this year, much less the nearly three years remaining in his term, Herenton sounded genuinely undecided.
"I'm still going through some deliberations," he said.
If the mayor were to suddenly leave office, as he almost did a year ago, things get a little complicated. The interim mayor would be Myron Lowery, the chairman of the Memphis City Council. Lowery, who just happens to be an expert on the city charter, could serve for 20 days. There would be a special election within six months. An appointed mayor would serve between the interim mayor and the elected mayor. Six months is a huge head start in a mayoral horse race and Lowery is a veteran politician who has become a bridge builder between blacks and whites on the council.
It's all speculation, of course. But that is all anyone is doing in this gloomy-looking year 2009, the 18th year of the Herenton administration.