Well, the mayor, who has famously “resigned” before, actually did it this time. The wolf was not only at the door, he was inside at the podium in the Hall of Mayors for what might have been, if not the last time, the most significant of his many appearances in that chamber. Someone in the teeming press corps gathered there to be teased one more time joked that Herenton would be punkin’ us all, that the press conference would be about his new plan for recycling.
As in a sense it was. There is no doubt that the new City Hall, the new city administration (to be presided over, beginning July 10th and ending no more than 90 days later, by interim mayor Myron Lowery), and the new city will be taken through some real changes. Recycling, indeed.
The very fact that Herenton, who was appropriately gracious throughout his leave-taking, could hand over the baton of city government as easily as he did to current council chairman Lowery, with whom he has had his problems, was a sign in itself of the finality of this announcement. Almost nobody afterward saw this departure in the same light as the previous one, a year and a half ago, when Herenton said he would be leaving his office on July 15, 2008.
That was predicated on the notion that he would be taking over his old job, then vacant, as schools superintendent. A recalcitrant school board, which insisted on looking elsewhere, scotched that plan. And so here it is, almost exactly a year later, and the deed is about to be done. And Plan B involves no longer the school board but the even chancier goal of the 9th District congressional seat, currently held by second-term Rep. Steve Cohen, whom the mayor had enthusiastically endorsed in 2006 and who has meanwhile established himself well enough to get reelected last year by a 4 to 1 margin over a well-funded black opponent.
Of course, Herenton is not Nikki Tinker, who has never been elected to anything. The mayor has gone asking to the constituency of the 9th District five times, and each time he has won its vote overwhelmingly – the last time giving him the breathing room he needed over second-place contender Carol Chumney.
Disregard all the insider talk and all the early polls: This will be a barn-burner of a race — a showdown that will give Herenton’s previous races, even the epochal victory in 1991 over the last white mayor, Dick Hackett, even his mano-a-mano over Joe Ford in 1999, the look of idle preliminaries.
It may be, in fact, that Herenton’s leavetaking has to be taken at face value —not prompted by looming legal threats or back-room negotiations or Machiavellian machinations but by the simple fact, as the mayor told an expectant media and a citywide audience on Thursday, that it was “the right time” to go. (The mayor's one brief moment of pique Thursday came when he was asked about the effect of an ongoing federal investigation on his decision. We all knew he was a "victim," Herenton said, and made it clear he would not dilate on the matter any further.)
Herenton will now be free to run full-time for Congress, if that is what he chooses. Gone will be the fundraising leverage of the mayor’s office, but there will be compensating advantages — a free hand, for one.
That’s always assuming the feds will leave Herenton alone long enough to make all the proper dispositions for his new political venture. Some weeks ago, Lowery may have spoken for many Memphians — certainly many in the media, who have wasted countless man- and woman-hours keeping vigil in Government Plaza downtown waiting for news of an imminent indictment. (Imminent every week for at least a year and half!)
The government should indict Herenton or get off the pot, Lowery said. We shall soon see what, if anything, it will do.
Meanwhile, what will the new man do? A 90-day wonder for now, by the terms of last year’s simplifying referendum on mayoral succession, Lowery left little doubt that he was a candidate for real in the special election that will take place after he leaves that temporary helm.
Never mind that, as recently as Saturday, at the annual Community Picnic of Herenton sidekick Sidney Chism, Lowery had said, “I am not running today. I may be running soon, though. We’ll have to see.”
He’s running now — and from the catbird seat. Lowery’s primary opponent will still be Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, who has an early start and just possibly Herenton’s own blessing. Others in the race will be James Harvey of the Shelby County Commission, former city council member and 2007 mayoral runner-up Chumney, and most probably the Rev. Kenneth Whalum of the Memphis school board.
Councilman Jim Strickland has a boom going on at the moment, and another first-term councilman, Kemp Conrad, could take a shot at the job (or at least a shot at the notoriety that running strong would give him for later electoral races). The pathway for Strickland and Conrad has been eased by the certainty now of a special election that will put their perches on the council out of danger. They can still run for reelection in 2011 if they lose a mayor’s race sometime next year or later this year.
It is a cliché, but Herenton’s shoes will be hard to fill — certainly as a newsmaker and possibly in several other ways having to do with an overall positive legacy, once the bad feelings of a tenure gone wrong and gone on too long fade away.
Herenton handed out copies of a souvenir photograph of himself to everyone who came to the Hall of Mayors on Thursday — a photo of a lean and ambitious young man taken at the moment, around 1978, when Willie Herenton had first entered public consciousness as a newly named superintendent of Memphis schools.
You could imagine the thoughts of that pensive-looking young Long and Tall in the picture. An odd and touching momento for the older, wiser, and definitely sadder man to give us now — as if he expected us to miss him. And, to be sure, for better and for worse, we will.