On Friday, for the third time in little over a month, the Hall of Mayors in City Hall was the scene of interaction between Willie Herenton and Myron Lowery — the former as mayor of Memphis on every occasion except Friday’s, when he was a courtesy speaker at the swearing-in of Lowery as “mayor pro tem” for the next 87 days.
The two previous occasions had been something of a Mutt and Jeff show, with the towering, self-confident Herenton dominating proceedings.
That was understandably so on June 25 when Herenton made the bombshell announcement that he would be resigning his office. On that date Lowery made the ill-fated and perhaps ill-considered decision to assume the podium immediately after Herenton, a prelude to some take-charge actions which proved premature, especially as Herenton made it clear he intended to spike them right away, even if — as turned out to be the case — he had to postpone his original July 10 date of departure by three additional weeks.
The second occasion was Thursday’s retirement ceremony, at the very end of which Herenton deigned finally to hold out to a chastened and patient Lowery the document, a formal letter of resignation, which finally entitled Lowery as current city council chairman to assume the mayoralty until the selection of a new city chief executive on the special election date of October 27.
The element of condescension was not entirely absent from Herenton’s behavior on Friday. In a brief interview with the media before Lowery’s formal swearing-in, the ex-mayor seemed to be commenting on what turned out to be a major personnel change on Lowery’s part when he noted that, on his own ascension to power in 1992, “I kept the vast majority of the former mayor’s staff because they were knowledgeable and dedicated, and I needed a period of time in which I could learn the government.” He proceeded: “It behooves any individual with a major leadership role to have some continuity and make sure the government works.”
Once at the podium, Herenton was brief and gracious, though with a touch of ambiguity, noting the presence of his own predecessor, former mayor Dick Hackett, and continuing, “I congratulate Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery for his acceptance of this highly responsible position….I feel certain that Mayor Pro Tem Lowery, with the men and women that will accompany him, that the government will continue to work.” Then, with a quick wish of “godspeed,” Herenton departed the podium.
It was at this point that Lowery was officially sworn in by U.S. District Judge Hardy S. Mays.
Once he began his own brief remarks, Lowery sounded resolute and determined to put his own stamp on the occasion and, for that matter, demonstrated that he was no slouch at ambiguity himself. “It’s a new day in City Hall,” he said, reminding his audience that “change is a good thing, “ that “new life and new individuals” bring “hope and promise.” He promised “to promote ethical leadership in government,” and to “tell the truth” (especially about financial matters). Matters that had lagged, such as those involving The Pyramid, the Fairgrounds, and Beal Street, would be expedited.
Lowery summed up: “What you will get from Myron Lowery will be good government.”
In a brief press conference after the swearing-in ceremony, Lowery was even more assertive, letting the media people know that he had asked for the resignation of city attorney Elbert Jefferson and he would review what he indicated was a suspicious number of new hires in the city’s legal department. No further changes in personnel for planned for the moment, he said, but he made it clear he intended to monitor the activities of department heads. He introduced former councilman Jack Sammons as his CAO and former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman Davis as Jefferson’s replacement.
Neither he nor they would be serving past the certification of the election results in late October, unless, of course, he, as a candidate for mayor in that election, happened to be elected.
Given the fact that his chances for that might depend on, and would certainly be enhanced by, a successful mini-tenure as mayor, it seemed a good bet that Lowery won’t be a mere caretaker for the next three months. He announced the scheduling of a “Town Meeting” for next Friday, at which time the public at large will get a chance to check out the new day and the new man in City Hall.