Mayor Agonistes 

Willie Herenton, a true believer in his own mission, keeps on keeping the faith.

Lo and behold, Mayor Willie Herenton, beleaguered or not, is back on the mountaintop.

So I found out last Friday night, when the mayor, accompanied by Convention and Visitors Bureau head Kevin Kane, showed up in the lobby of The Peabody on the fringe of a milling crowd of Republicans here for the weekend's Southern Republican Leadership Conference.

After he'd beckoned us over, I introduced the mayor to Jennifer Duffy and Charlie Cook, two pundits who collaborate on a respected and nationally syndicated political column. Although Herenton's principal motive had seemingly been to make sure I noticed the "Frist Is My Leader" sticker he was wearing, he quickly rose to the bait when told that Duffy agreed with me that 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr. had good chances of being elected to the Senate this fall.

The mayor would have none of it. Shrugging off the snowball effect of an unprecedented degree of national media attention to Ford, Herenton said, "People who live outside Tennessee, they don't have a damn vote."

People, he went on, are persuaded by "ideology -- where the country is and where the country needs to go." He recalled advising optimistic supporters of Democrat John Kerry in 2004: "I don't give a damn what y'all say. Bush is going to win the election."

Maybe the mayor, considered at least a nominal Democrat, was absorbing the vibes of all those nearby Republicans, because he went on to remind us that he'd supported GOP candidate Lamar Alexander for the Senate in 2002. And when Bob Corker, another Republican senatorial hopeful, happened by, he managed to translate Duffy's salutary prognosis about Ford into the teasing -- and misleading -- statement, "She's not for you."

As others came and went, joining our group, Herenton shifted into reflections on his forthcoming 2007 reelection bid. "Who can beat me?" he asked rhetorically.

Somewhat later, the mayor segued into an attack on the "atheist" members of the media who had, he suggested, been ill equipped to understand embattled state senator Ophelia Ford's statement last week that God himself may have tapped her to be a candidate.

"I am a man of faith. I believe God calls people for special missions," Herenton said in words that recalled his own claims at a well-remembered New Year's Day prayer breakfast in 2004. He likened himself to David: "Why me? All I do is tend the sheep?" Continuing to deplore the media's "disconnect" on the subject of religion, Herenton went on to defend the spirited "holy dance" he performed in church recently, a video portion of which turned up on various detractors' Web sites.

The background of that, as the mayor explained it, was his near-escape, "by inches," from a fast-traveling car as he crossed a street adjoining LeMoyne-Owen College recently. "If the car had hit me, it would have mangled my body. So when I went to church, I said, for whatever reason, God has spared me." Thus the dance -- one of praise and release.

Herenton went on to recall a Flyer profile I'd written in 1999, as he stood poised on the brink of what would turn out to be a resounding mayoral victory over an assortment of well-known opponents.

"Still the Man," that article had been headed. The mayor smiled broadly as he recalled and savored the title and as he remembered a photograph mentioned in the article -- one that still adorns a wall of his penthouse office at City Hall. The photo shows him standing triumphant on a crowded stage at The Peabody on Election Night 1991. The upset winner of that epochal year had borne the same infinitely elated, broad grin that the older version of Willie Herenton sported now as he recalled a further significant detail from the photograph: "There I was, and Harold Ford was behind me." This was the senior Harold Ford, father of the present congressman and a man considered Herenton's great rival for power back then, even as the currently serving Ford is often now deemed the mayor's chief rival for public attention.

"Harold Ford behind me!" Willie Herenton repeated. And it sounded like a religious affirmation all by itself.

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