Recent events and revelations have both deepened and dissipated the cloud of mystery concerning Mayor Willie Herenton's now-you-see-it, now-you-don't "retirement" from the helm of government in Memphis.
What at first appeared to be a surprise announcement that Herenton intended to withdraw from public life quickly transitioned into the expectation that he would seek the vacant job of Memphis school superintendent, a position that he once held for 12 years. And that understanding finally has morphed into a general suspicion that, so far from diminishing his role in the public order, what Memphis' longtime main man really had in mind was to expand his role in governmental matters to an unprecedented degree.
Some illuminating background to developments — and to what they portend for both Memphis and Shelby County — was provided to the Flyer this week by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, Herenton's longtime associate and, since 2002, governmental counterpart.
Insofar as Wharton has been discussed amid the widespread public bewilderment, it has been almost entirely as Herenton's potential successor somewhere down the line. And that logic still holds. Yes, Wharton happily owns up to an interest in running for Memphis mayor when and if the opportunity presents itself — maybe as early as November of this year.
But what few have suspected is that Wharton may have been a major reason — possibly even the prime mover — for Herenton's still reverberating bombshell announcement of week before last.
In a candid interview in his office in the Shelby County administration building on Monday, the dapper, reassuring man whom almost everybody refers to familiarly and simply as A C revealed that he had long been consulting with ally Herenton about coming to the rescue of Memphis' "troubled schools" and urging that solution to Memphis' business establishment and to Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen.
This process began even before Herenton was reelected to a fifth mayoral term and accelerated from the period immediately after Herenton's reelection last October to the very eve of the Memphis mayor's recent conditional retirement announcement — one that has come to appear more like a floated balloon than a lead-pipe certainty.
"I'll go way back before the election," Wharton said, beginning his account with then Memphis school superintendent Carol Johnson's announcement in June 2007 that she would be bailing out to go head Boston's school system.
This was at a time when responsible citizens — like restaurateur and former city coucilman John Vergos in a widely read Flyer op-ed column — were discussing the drastic option of a state takeover of the city schools under provisions of the "No Child Left Behind" act.
Among those also contemplating some variation of the takeover solution — looking into "what circumstances, if any, the governor can exercise his authority regarding a troubled school system," said Wharton — were himself and fellow mayor Herenton, when the county mayor, back in June or July of 2007, took his concerns to Governor Phil Bredesen.
That conversation concerned the general malaise then, as now, affecting the climate of local government in Memphis and Shelby County. "I said, one thing is critical — to do something with our schools, to make a bold signature statement," Wharton recalls. "The governor said he concurred."
This was at a time when, back in Memphis, momentum was building for last year's mayoral election and intense pressure from influential people in the political and business communities was being put on Wharton himself to become a candidate. It was shortly thereafter, just before the filing deadline for the city election, that the two mayors, old friends and confidantes, held their famous tête-à-tête at Le Chardonnay restaurant.
"I said to them, there's one man who can do that — Willie Herenton."
What immediately followed the Le Chardonnay summit was Wharton's public announcement, dashing the hopes of an organized movement to draft him for mayor, that he would not run in the 2007 city election. And the county mayor would remain on the sidelines during the course of a bruising three-way battle between Herenton and his two chief rivals, then City Council member Carol Chumney and former MLGW head Herman Morris.
The election over, Herenton and Wharton began an intensified series of discussions on matters pertaining to governmental consolidation and to the status of the schools.
"We had numerous meetings, talking to experts, sharing research, sharing articles that I'd run across," Wharton says.
During the immediate post-election period, Wharton recalls, he had a conversation with "some business folks." He told them, relative to the social and economic afflictions of Memphis and Shelby County, that "we've got to send some statement to the world." And that statement should focus on education.
"I said to them, there's one man who can do that. And they said, who? And I said, Dr. W.W. Herenton. And they were sort of looking at me in consternation."
Up to that point — as, indeed, up to the last momentous week or so — discussions about the Memphis schools had focused on a national search for a new superintendent. But Wharton focused the attention of his listeners on "the problem of alienating the African- American population." What had to be avoided, he said, was "making it appear that somebody was coming in to do the bidding of the white community in some sort of imperialistic plantation style."
Wharton says he told these business leaders, many of whom had been among those prodding him to run for city mayor in 2007, "Really good superintendents are few and far between. And those who are stellar, why would they leave and come to Memphis, to a system that's on life support and where public support is grudging at best?"
On the other hand: "Nobody could accuse Willie Herenton of doing something to the schools at the bidding of this 'bad white community' out there. The mayor was totally independent. He could never be accused of doing the power structure's bidding. Anybody else would be accused of being this group's flunky or that group's flunky. Even Forrest Gump could see that Willie Herenton couldn't be accused of that."
And besides, he says he told them about the Memphis mayor: "He has a bona fide Ph.D. in education." His pitch for Herenton was greeted with surprise. "Maybe they were thinking that folks had tried to get me to run against him or that there was enmity between us."
Meanwhile, the two mayors were redoubling their round of discussions. "We had several between November and January," Wharton says. Among the matters discussed were various means of increasing the city's role in managing the school system. A spin-off of those discussions surfaced later when, after a school shooting, Herenton announced he would take the lead, for public safety's sake, in supervising the use of metal detectors at the schools.
The two mayors also talked explicitly about ways to combine city and county government. Both would go public with renewed appeals for consolidation — a process that, Wharton acknowledges, is complicated by the issue of the two school systems. (He says he now looks with favor on an expedient, several times advanced in the Tennessee General Assembly by state senator Mark Norris of Collierville and others, to achieve a unified school system "but within that system to have two separate districts.")
At some point in their talks, Wharton says, "I got the gist that he [Herenton] wanted to do something a bit more revolutionary than taking over part of the schools' administration. I did get the impression he had something in mind that was much more hands-on." And he acknowledges that he encouraged that shift in Herenton's thinking — even to the point of having some responsibility for what has come to pass the last couple of weeks.
Several matters have been largely overlooked since the Herenton bombshell — among them the plan announced by the two mayors in January and later aborted without explanation — for a joint pilgrimage to Nashville to discuss the issue of Memphis and Shelby County schools.
Concerning their joint plans for shaking up the structure of local government, Wharton says, "I didn't necessarily have in mind his leaving the [mayoral] seat over there."
Neither, it would appear, did Willie Herenton. There are so far unconfirmed reports that Herenton himself may have journeyed to Nashville to research the matter of whether the state's power to take over school districts could be, in effect, loaned out to city governments.
And there is a growing consensus among government-watchers that Herenton's proposed "retirement" was based on a scenario whereby CAO Keith McGee might have been able to serve as acting mayor all the way to the next regularly scheduled city elections in 2011.
Opinion is virtually unanimous that McGee — a quiet presence and a veteran of many years of service as a county jailer before acquiring his present position — would have been ill-equipped in the role of mayor. The operative theory is that Herenton, having left the mayor's office for his old seat as school superintendent, would have continued to run city government, pulling McGee's strings, as it were.
The situation prompted City Councilmember Myron Lowery, also a member of the city Charter Commission, to envision a possible charter provision ensuring that all mayoral successions in the future would be confined to duly elected officials, not appointed ones.
In any event, once it was established that a special election would have to be held to fill the vacated mayoralty this year, that scheme — if indeed it existed — went out the window.
The recent swirl of mysteries has by now settled down to a few key ones: Will Willie Herenton get the school job he apparently has coveted for some time? What changes in the structure and makeup of local government can be expected when and whether that occurs? Who will succeed him? And how?
(For more on these matters, see Viewpoint,"Constructive Confusion.")