Such uncertainty as still existed concerning the reality of a congressional race by Willie Herenton seemed to go out the window for good Saturday, The former Memphis mayor kicked off his candidacy for the 9th district Democratic nomination before a sizeable — and almost entirely African-American — crowd at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn on Central Avenue.
In keeping with the composition of his audience — and with the reality of a contest that requires him to unseat a sitting incumbent, U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, whom he once supported — Herenton pitched his remarks squarely on the theme of “proportional representation” for blacks in the 9th District.
Noting at one point that there were eleven congressional seats from Tennessee — two in the Senate and nine in the House — Herenton said, “We just want one!” — the “we” being identified as “people who look like me.”
The event was in many ways a throwback to his first race for mayor back in 1991, when Herenton was regarded as an underdog in his challenge to incumbent mayor Dick Hackett and relied out of necessity on grass-roots blacks like those who predominated in the ballroom crowd on Saturday.
The ex-mayor reminded his listeners of that come-from-behind triumph in that first of his five victorious mayoral races and ended up telling them, “We will win this election!,” and like some terminator returned to “retrieve what we lost in representation.,” assured them, “I am back!”
Along the way he spelled out some of his mayoral achievements — $89 million in the city’s financial reserve when he left office as against $3 million when he was sworn in; the conversion of a “desolate and barren” downtown into a “flourishing” one; the “dramatic transformation” of dilapidated housing projects into vibrant new developments.
But the gist of his remarks dramatized his personal situation in ways he related to the history of blacks in America. “When Herenton arrived, black folks arrived in high places,” the first elected black mayor said. But:” I’ve been the target of people who want to dismantle what we’ve built...all because I’m a man, all because I served the people and broke barriers and have been independent.”
Herenton cited the lengthy legal jeopardy he had endured because of his role in a “private investment” involving the sale of Greyhound Bus property and the local terminal’s relocation, contrasting it with his well-publicized charges that erstwhile Beale Street entrepreneur John Elkington had misappropriated funds and with weekend news about the indictment of three former Animal Shelter employees.
“The FBI spent millions of dollars trying to send me to jail…but there are $6 million unaccounted for…and they’re trying to lock three black folks up about some dogs.” Herenton also referenced what he charged had been a blackmail plot by political enemies — one, however, that had not resulted in formal indictments. “I thought ‘criminal intent’ was a crime. It is for black folks, but it ain’t for white folks,” the ex-mayor said bitterly.
(Two members of Herenton’s audience Saturday were African-American entrepreneur Elvin Moon of Los Angeles, whose involvement with Herenton in the Greyhound transaction had put him, too, under investigation, and Marty Grusin, one of Herenton’s legal advisers. Both said they said been assured that Herenton’s legal jeopardy was at an end, though no explicit announcement to that effect has been made by Department of Justice authorities.)
At one point in his speech, Herenton gestured toward a group of children who stood behind him on stage, holding red-and-white “Herenton/Congress” campaign signs, The former mayor and would-be congressman said, “They ought to have opportunities in America. Every opportunity that African Americans have got to serve as leader, we’ve got to go after….They need to see people that look like them in positions of leadership.”
Herenton did not refer directly to Cohen but indulged in several dismissive statements meant to belittle the professed achievements of the congressman, who sponsored a congressional resolution apologizing for the former institution of slavery and who has actively sought to rename various public properties for eminent local African Americans.
After mentioning slavery, segregation, and discrimination, Herenton said, “The residual of those shames is still with us. I’m not going to ‘apologize.’…I’ll try to make conditions better.” Instead of naming buildings, he would “help black folks to own some buildings.” Instead of naming highways, he would get African American firms involved in the construction of them.
Herenton included in his speech an appeal to “fair-minded” whites to “understand us and join us” and made a point of saying that his mayoral administrations had been “inclusive” without regard to race and gender.
But in most regards Saturday’s kick-off event evoked the political atmosphere of 1991 when black and white voters were starkly divided along racial lines. One difference between then and now, as both Herenton and his longtime political ally, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, somewhat scornfully acknowledged, was that considerable numbers of blacks had aligned themselves with Cohen, who won reelection handily in 2008 with overwhelming majority support in black precincts.
(One of Chism's milder passages, when he took the stage to convene the kick-off, went like this: "We’ve even got some of our preachers saying, 'Well, he could be polka-dot, he could be anything.' Look at your church and see what they look like!...…What is disheartening to me is people who look like me who tell me it don’t make no difference.")
The look and sound of things Saturday was clear indication that Herenton intends to re-gather the 9th District’s black vote into his camp, as monolithically as possible. His success or failure in doing so will largely determine the outcome of his current race.
Other than via the presence of a few candidates seeking election or reelection this year — something characteristic of any large-scale political event — there was no noticeable turnout Saturday of well-known politicians or public officials, black or white, and no public endorsement of Herenton save the obvious ones of Chism and attorney Ricky Wilkins, who shared the stage with the ex-mayor.
Willie Herenton clearly has his work cut out for him, but it has to be remembered that he is still unbeaten in political races. A defeat in 2010 would be his first.
Herenton on His Legal Predicament::
Herenton Predicts Victory