The career of Willie Herenton can be divided into two parts.
In Part One, he was the breaker of racial barriers in Memphis: the first black assistant school superintendent, the first black school superintendent, the first black mayor. In Part Two, he was the champion of black power. Not the radical black power of "Burn Baby Burn" and a clenched-fist salute, but the black economic power of an affluent class, a growing middle class, and a rising underclass.
It was in Part Two that Herenton got himself in a jam and possibly a federal grand jury investigation.
This is the Herenton who, a few years after becoming mayor, became a partner in Banneker Estates, an upscale real estate development next to his home in South Memphis that he hoped would rival similar enclaves for wealthy whites in East Memphis.
This is the Herenton who explored selling MLGW, clashed with Herman Morris, installed his protégé Joseph Lee, and insisted that MLGW reallocate its lucrative bond business so that firms in Memphis, including one where his son worked, got more business.
This is the Herenton who hired special adviser/real estate man Pete Aviotti, who says the mayor has "a passion" for real estate.
This is the Herenton who co-existed with Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and special adviser Bobby Lanier and a posse of hostile suburban mayors for 16 years and ran for city mayor a fifth time to keep Morris from getting the job.
And this is the Herenton who did deals with one E.W. Moon at Banneker Estates and downtown near Beale Street.
How you look at Herenton, builder of black economic wealth, depends somewhat on whether you are black or white. By Herenton's lights, he has been more than fair to whites by putting them in director jobs and going along with their pet business projects.
The root of this federal investigation is minority participation, the rule that says you don't do a big public deal in this town without black and white partners in the underwriting firms, the PR firms, the law firms, on the job sites, and any place where there's the smell of money. Minority participation was the making and unmaking of Tennessee Waltz star witness Tim Willis, among others.
My guess is that the feds have about a one-month window to indict. After that, Mr. Obama goes to Washington, and a new attorney general gets installed along with new U.S. attorneys with Democratic loyalties and antennas.
If there is a case, it will surely have to go to Washington for review, and I can imagine the conversation going like this.
"Mr. Attorney General, we've got a hot one down in Memphis against the mayor who's been in office for 17 years. He's taken some shots over the years, but he's still a local hero to a lot of people. He knows it, and he'll fight like hell. Is it a go?"
"What did he do?"
"It's a real estate deal."
"About time. Nail a bunch of bankers and brokers, too?"
"Uh, actually, no."
"I see. I'm kinda busy. Can we get back to you in January?"
And I can imagine the Herenton lines of defense, first in the media and then in the courtroom: It's the Republicans' parting shot, the sequel to Tennessee Waltz. If you can't vote him out of office, indict him. Payback for Joseph Lee. The mayor is indicted while bankers get $25 million bonuses for destroying the global economy.
A Herenton indictment would be a national story. I can see a New York Times equivalent to The Wall Street Journal's obsession with the back story of the 1993 federal corruption trial of former congressman Harold Ford Sr., two months after Bill Clinton was sworn in. The pre-trial and the trial itself would be a war, tougher than the Ford trial or the trial of former Atlanta mayor (and Herenton friend) Bill Campbell, who was indicted after he left office.
It is very possible, of course, that the feds have some juicy evidence of their own and a list of witnesses ready to testify. They may even have a smoking gun.
After the Joe Lee and Ed Ford fiascoes, they better have a lot of them.
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