Live in Memphis long enough (say, two weeks or so) and Mayor Willie Herenton will do something to tick you off or, at least, confound the hell out of you. I've been living in Midtown Memphis since 1993, long enough to have been ticked off and confounded dozens of times.
Herenton is the media's go-to guy for a good story — and has been for more than 20 years. His angry naivete (or arrogance), his unbridled willingness to play the race card when it suits him, his proclivity for surprise announcements ("Hey, let's build a stadium." "Hey, I'm resigning." "Hey, I wanta be the director of Memphis City Schools." "Hey, I'm running for Congress."), his pugnaciousness (Actual, as in the case of his boxing match with Joe Frazier, or potential, as in the cases of former councilmen Brent Taylor and newsman Cameron Harper) all make Herenton a lightning rod for controversy — and a sure ratings/readers magnet for local media.
His is a cult of macho personality. He is our Hugo Chavez, our Kim Jong Il, our Castro — seemingly destined to stay in power as long as he chooses. His statements this week to the City Council on the MSARC issue are just the latest examples of a man so confident (or delusional) that he was almost daring the council to confront him. For example (as quoted by Mary Cashiola in her blog):
"I was not moved by the television appearances of some of the council members. I was not moved by the private interests groups. I was not moved by any segment of this community."
"I do regret that my office was not shown proper respect. I don’t care about people liking me but I care about people respecting me."
"Only a few of the people involved give a damn about rape victims."
The mayor also played the race card, suggesting white members of the council didn't do anything last summer when three black children drowned in city pools (not true), and that that "influential" (read, "white) groups were behind all the controversy at the MSARC.
There's little doubt in my mind that in a one-on-one race with almost anybody, black or white, Herenton would lose a mayoral election if it were held today. He's ticked off too many people for too many years. His cronyism is overt and in-our-faces — the appointing of former bodyguards to high-paid administrative positions, which, of course, includes Yalanda McFagdon, a former bodyguard who served time on a drug conviction and was subsequently rehired and promoted by Herenton to run the city agency in charge of MSARC.
Is Herenton a clever provocateur or an angry, insecure megalomaniac? Is he in over his head and past his prime, or a smart politician who knows that if you spell his name right, even "bad" publicity will appeal to some of his constituents? No one seems to know the answers, but everyone has an opinion.
The long-lingering FBI "investigation" just adds to the puzzle. Is Herenton a crook or just a businessman with solid-gold connections? Which leads to the biggest mystery of all: Will he ever leave office? Or are we destined, like Cuba, to have a leader for life?