Live in Memphis long enough (say, two weeks or so) and Mayor Willie Herenton will do something to tick you off or, at least, confound the hell out of you. I've been living in Midtown Memphis since 1993, long enough to have been ticked off and confounded dozens of times.
Herenton is the media's go-to guy for a good story — and has been for more than 20 years. His angry naiveté, his unbridled willingness to play the race card when it suits him, his proclivity for surprise announcements ("Hey, let's build a stadium." "Hey, I'm resigning." "Hey, I wanna be the director of Memphis City Schools." "Hey, I'm running for Congress."), his pugnaciousness (actual, in the case of his boxing match with Joe Frazier, or potential, in the cases of former Councilman Brent Taylor and newsman Cameron Harper) all make Herenton a lightning rod for controversy and a sure ratings/readers magnet for local media.
His is a cult of macho personality. He is our Hugo Chavez, our Kim Jong Il, our Fidel Castro — seemingly destined to stay in power as long as he chooses. His statements last week to the City Council on the MSARC issue are just the latest examples of a man so confident (or delusional) that he was almost daring the council to confront him.
The mayor also played the race card, suggesting that influential (read, "white") groups were behind all the controversy. A week later, in another classic Herenton about-face, he agreed to let the county take over the center.
There's little doubt in my mind that in a one-on-one race with almost anybody, black or white, Herenton would lose a mayoral election if it were held today. But there is no upcoming election and no assurance that Herenton will follow through on his recent profession of interest in running for Congress.
So, is Herenton a clever provocateur or an insecure megalomaniac? Is he in over his head and past his prime or a smart politician who knows that if you spell his name right, even bad publicity will appeal to some of his constituents? The long-lingering FBI "investigation" just adds to the puzzle. Is Herenton in real trouble or a businessman with solid-gold connections? But the biggest mystery of all is this: Will he ever leave office? Or are we destined, like Cuba, to have a leader for life?
In the 14 years I've been the Flyer editor, I've gotten lots of hate mail. It mostly used to come in envelopes filled with pages of scrawled handwriting. I read them and put them in the wastebasket, chalking it up as a natural by-product of writing for a liberal paper in the conservative South. Lately, the angry folks have switched to email, and it comes in waves ...