Former Mayor W.W. Herenton seemed even taller, if possible, as he made his way to the podium and a broad smile lit up the room, even in the face of a crushing defeat at the hands of Steve Cohen, the incumbent U.S. Representative from Tennessee's 9th Congressional district. A small but adoring crowd applauded and chanted, “Thank you Doctor Herenton.”
In the final days before the election Herenton, who has been accused of running a negative, racially-charged campaign, had predicted victory by a margin of 4-1. He got the spread exactly right, even if he called the wrong victor, but the minimal décor and meager refreshments available at the Botanic Garden suggested that Herenton knew that victory wasn't in the cards. A disc jockey played soul classics for a crowd that sat and chatted quietly at the half-dozen tables scattered about the room. There was no dancing. There were no speakers. Neither was there any audible evidence of disappointment or disbelief when the Associated Press called the election for Cohen sometime after 8 p.m.
Herenton has often been accused of arrogance but he was at least superficially gracious in his concession speech and urged his supporters to rally around Cohen, although many in the room booed loudly at the mention of his opponents name. But Herenton calmed the room by saying that the God he serves is a good God who sometimes works in mysterious ways.
The racial makeup of the room in no way reflected Herenton's claims that his campaign had always been about diversity. The only non-African Americans at the Botanic Garden were bartending, operating news cameras or holding reporters notebooks. “The community spoke,” Herenton readily acknowledged, expressing both his deep disappointment and respect for the democratic process. “If I'm honest with myself, and I have to be that was somewhat of a referendum on Willie Herenton,” he confessed. “In some other time in some other forum I will express in a historical context and probably in an ethnocentric context what is really occurring,” he added, suggesting a certain eagerness to share the blame.
“That's deep,” many of his supporters called out, at Herenton's mention of an ethnocentric subtext to the campaign and his ultimate loss.
But Herenton, Memphis' first elected African-American Mayor didn't wait for another time or another forum to air his ethnocentric theories. A soon as the speech was over he shared blame with what he described as a new African-American middle class that doesn't understand politics and power. “They don't understand the struggle,” Herenton said, reminiscing about segregation and his own hard road from poverty to City Hall.
-- Chris Davis