To say that last week's Flyer cover story, "Willie Herenton: The Exit Interview," made some waves is an understatement.
Once in print, that condensed version of my lengthy sit-down with the man who seemed ready to vacate his 18-year tenure as Memphis mayor became something of a whirlwind — for Herenton's version of what he and county mayor A C Wharton talked about in their 2007 tête-à-tête at Le Chardonnay; for his terse and profane description of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, his prospective 2010 election opponent; and for several other matters he was willing and able to speak confidentially of for the first time.
For the usual reasons of space and time, much of that interview ended up on the cutting-room floor, and I promised to dish out portions of it at the earliest feasible time. Given the fact that Herenton seems — on a weekly, daily, or even hourly basis — to be changing his mind on when and whether to leave office, the time has clearly come to reveal some of Herenton's thoughts regarding his entering the office of mayor and his pending departure from it.
To start with, there was this assertion: "It was not my desire, not on my wish list, to become the mayor. I never cared for politicians and never thought I would become one."
As Herenton explained it, he was the subject of a bona fide draft to run for mayor when, in 1991, beleaguered with controversy as Memphis' superintendent of schools, he had, by his account, dictated a buyout contract to the school board.
"My passion was really for education. I was a good school superintendent." Herenton had, as he noted, received job offers from Atlanta and from other school systems throughout the nation. "But the City Council at that time was very hostile toward me. I had differences with the board. There was a bad sexual harassment case [brought by teacher/principal Mahnaz Bahrmand, whose suit against Herenton was eventually settled] that went all over America. Some board members were turned against me, and the council wouldn't fund the schools."
Herenton said he was confident of one thing: "The black community stood by me. They [the board] knew they couldn't fire me. They'd have torn Memphis up. But I felt that my presence was really hurting those kids. I'm the kind of guy, when I come to some soul-searching, I make a decision."
Consequently, Herenton said he personally drew up a retirement agreement, one with generous buy-out provisions — including payment for an extra year of nonemployment, upping his pension category a notch — that weren't disclosed publicly until the Flyer revealed them in early 1992, after Herenton had taken office as mayor.
"Maybe I was arrogant, but I drew up the document and told [Memphis City Schools attorney Ernest Kelly] I wasn't going to negotiate it." The board acquiesced, and, said Herenton, "I never looked back. I was getting ready to do some consulting work."
That was in early 1991, and Herenton characterized his subsequent entry into politics as a mayoral candidate as something of an inadvertence. "There was a meeting at Claiborne Temple, and [then Congressman] Harold Ford Sr. walked in, and I was guest speaker. I called him out. I said, 'Congressman Ford, you are our leader. And you ought to be responsible for us changing this paradigm." The "paradigm" in question was nothing less than Memphis' history up to that point of never having elected a black mayor.
"People started hooraying and hooraying and hooraying," as Herenton told it, by way of accounting for how he began to be thought of as the consensus black candidate for mayor.
"I didn't want to be the man," he insisted. Subsequently, he said, he was drawn into participating in a "People's Convention" called by then Councilman Shep Wilbun and other African-American leaders to select a consensus mayoral candidate.
"The rest is history," he said, that history having been urged along, as I reminded him, by a sea of red-and-white Herenton-for-mayor signs and by a tightly organized support presence on the floor of the Mid-South Coliseum, where the event was held.
Herenton shrugged. "I was competitive," the old Golden Glover conceded. "Knowing me, I don't like losing anything. If I got in, I had to win, in the first round if possible." Having done so, he was faced with one more obstacle, then Representative Ford's stated determination to crown a consensus candidate at a "black summit."
When that summit meeting came, at Bloomfield Baptist Church in South Memphis, Herenton was aware that "Ford didn't want me to be mayor" and, behind the scenes, was pushing the candidacy of Judge Otis Higgs, who had run for mayor twice before.
Both Herenton and Higgs were present for the resolution of things at the church, where Herenton had not only managed to fill every seat with supporters bearing those red-and-white signs but had stationed sign-bearing supporters at every nearby intersection that Ford would have to pass on his way to the church.
The commotion in favor of Herenton's candidacy was obvious, and early on, Herenton, Ford, and Higgs withdrew to a back room to discuss the matter.
"Those people were getting restless out there," Herenton remembers. "Otis said he should be candidate, that some people, many of them white, were going to raise money and vote for him. I said, 'Harold, that's the very reason why we can't let Otis win. First of all, he believes that white folks are going to support him. 'And black folks won't support you,' I told Higgs. 'You've run several times. Black people are not in love with you.' I said, 'Harold, you've got to nominate one of us.' And they kept making noise out there. Eventually he said, 'I believe Doc is right.'"
Ford reentered the auditorium, recalled Herenton, who stood up and waved his arms by way of imitating the congressman's dramatic announcement: "I give you — Dr. Willie. Herenton!"
That was then. This was now, a victory over incumbent mayor Dick Hackett and 18 years of mayoral service later. He sat back down and reflected on the upcoming special election to succeed him. He predicted a low turnout.
"You might think this is absurd, but I know it to be true. I've raised the bar so high in terms of Memphis mayoral leadership role that any of the individuals who have indicated an interest won't be viewed as being at the level of leadership capabilities that I exerted. And, therefore, I just don't see a great deal of public interest.
"My biggest accomplishment was defeating the toy towns," he said, meaning the 1997 legislation sneaked through the General Assembly by then Lt. Gov. John Wilder in order to protect the small Fayette County community of Hickory Wythe from annexation. The bill contained a clause that allowed virtually any smallish suburb of Memphis to incorporate.
"That would have been the death of Memphis. There would have been no more growth opportunities, no future for Memphis. I singlehandedly, with very able counsel, fought that all the way to the state Supreme Court."
Other accomplishments he mentioned: "Completely demolishing old, dilapidated public housing and building decent housing in its place. The 'downtown renaissance.' The Grizzlies' NBA franchise and the building of FedExForum."
His biggest regret? "That I was not able to convince Shelby Countians that government ought to be consolidated. I'll leave this office not having accomplished that. I would have regarded that as my major accomplishment."
One other regret: "On the morality side, I've never been a perfect moral person. But," Herenton quickly added, "I've always been ethical and legal."
Why, then, was the FBI investigating him for possible misdeeds and conflicts of interest relating to his personal business dealings? "It's personal. It has nothing to do with breaking laws. It's personal and retaliatory."
All in all, the mayor seemed genuinely at peace with himself, despite acknowledging there was a clamor for his departure in certain quarters. "The majority of voters don't feel that way, or I wouldn't have been elected five times. I've been successful. And confident. And independent. I've been fronted with white racism and with envy and jealousy on the part of [some] blacks. That's the duality."
Perhaps it is the mayor's awareness of this "duality" that leads him to spite it with suggestions that he'll change his mind about leaving office.
In any case, at this writing only one thing was clear: Willie Herenton hadn't yet written "period" to his tenure.
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