Method and Madness 

Dueling banjos Herenton and Fields provide a discordant backdrop for the latest civic drama.

Okay, so it wasn't just frivolous nonsense. Those of us (present company included) who hastened to argue that ex-mayor Willie Herenton had gone off the edge and was more to be pitied than scorned were (somewhat) guilty of a rush to judgment.

It would appear that there actually was some reasoned thinking involved when the former mayor sauntered down to the Election Commission last Thursday morning and pulled a petition to run as his own replacement.

Reasoned, but not rational. Serious, but not sensible.

So Herenton is concerned — as he insisted in a lengthy, live impromptu interview with WMC-TV news anchor Joe Birch — about the direction mayor pro tem Myron Lowery and Lowery's CAO Jack Sammons wish to take city government on such specific issues as Beale Street litigation and Fairgrounds development.

So, as a sideshow to the main event, as we learn from Channel 5 reporter Kontji Anthony, the former mayor may be engaged in a power struggle of sorts with his onetime bud, Richard Fields, the lawyer whom Herenton (not without reason) dubbed a "snake" and accused of attempted blackmail back in 2007.

So the man who ran Memphis for the last 18 years isn't just running an ego trip.

Except he is.

Inasmuch as Herenton voluntarily surrendered the reins of government and couldn't get back in until after what is now a mandated special election on October 15th, why doesn't he choose, instead, to express his dissatisfaction by publicly venting the details of what he insists are bad deals? Why doesn't he get behind one of the declared candidates for mayor — his former campaign chairman A C Wharton, say, or his former campaign manager and legal factotum Charles Carpenter?

click to enlarge Willie Herenton - BIANCA PHILLIPS

The fact that Herenton has fresh motive to intervene in the affairs of a city government he supposedly left behind does not mean that he isn't being narcissistic and irrational and heedless of the trouble he's putting the city to. Is he really as oblivious to the million-dollar special-election bill he's causing the city to run up as he indicated in his interview with a stupefied Birch?

Not to mention the horrific P.R. he's inflicting on the city.

And Fields ...

The term "gone off the deep end" hangs on this sad-sack Deacon Blue as if made for him. Yes, as Anthony has noted, Fields has an iron or two in the fire — including his representation of a collection agency that wants a share of the business accruing to the city's Emergency Medical Services and has sued to get it.

And yes, as we all know, Fields has something to avenge. He owns the deep hurt belonging to any wax-wings case who flies too close to the sun and plummets to earth, as Fields, who had begun to fancy himself a kingmaker par excellence, did in 2007.

Did he really think that the canny Herenton would sit still for Fields to make a fool of him with the sometime strip-club employee Gwendolyn Smith, whom the then mayor co-opted for his own purposes and turned into exhibit number one against the ambitious ex-courtier?

When Herenton told his version of the snake story two years ago, he seemed to relish that part of the tale which had Fields trying to show him out the door of City Hall, telling him that he, "Willie," had to leave to protect his legacy.

Willie. The sardonic grin affected by Herenton, whom everyone calls either "Mayor" or "Doc," was not one of amusement. Though a Ph.D., Herenton may not be exactly at home with the term "hubris," but he had just related to the media a first-class example of it.

And just who did Poor Richard have in mind to be the replacement mayor back in 2007?

"Dear Ex-Mayor Herenton: As a former friend and unjustly accused citizen, I was heartened by your resignation but saddened by the mess you have left behind. The City of Memphis is bankrupt. The pension plan is 50 percent of its value to cover all of the people who will be eligible soon. You have 500 people employed who are not doing anything and should be fired ... ."

This is the beginning of a relatively brief two-page letter, much rumored of late but first duly noted by the Flyer online last week. Dated July 30th, it was dispatched to the freshly resigned Herenton from Fields, the lawyer who had been friend and confidant to Herenton as candidate and then mayor for years until their highly public falling-out in 2007.

Though the tone of the first paragraph of that missive (an unexpurgated version of which is now available via a diligent search of the blogosphere) is caustic enough, it gets worse from there, going downhill both in civility and, alas, in quotability (short of a full and careful vetting by a libel attorney).

click to enlarge Richard Fields - JACKSON BAKER

In the body of the letter, Fields makes a number of accusations against the former mayor, his family members, and his closest aides, alleging a full catalogue of sexual irregularities and, as described, patently criminal activities. Indeed, Fields employs the word "criminality"as a catch-all phrase for his allegations. For all that, the letter is notable more for its down-low gossip than for anything that might hold up in court.

Among the few passages that are quotable without legal risk is this statement: "Your friends that you hired will desert you because there is nothing you can do for them. Without being mayor, you have no power."

Another relatively tame broadside, coupled with a threat: "The infamous annual Christmas party was a bold-faced lie. No one who paid $1,000 per person knew you were receiving funds personally. I am filing a class action lawsuit for you to refund personally all monies you received from the party donations."

And there is this spiteful and, to Fields' remaining friends who know of the letter, troubling conclusion: "I am so glad you resigned. We will see each other in court many times over, and I will look down upon your sufferings in the hereafter. Yes, I do pray, and God has answered my prayers."

As recently as the middle years of the current decade, Fields appeared to be riding high. The California native, who arrived in Memphis in the 1960s as an anti-poverty activist and ultimately became a well-known civil rights attorney, had launched a new career as a political arbiter of sorts, disseminating widely read open letters at election time which praised selected candidates and damned selected others — in the case of the latter, freely citing details of known or alleged personal and professional failings.

The would-be kingmaker, who had been an early supporter of mayoral candidate Herenton in 1991, had evolved into a kingbreaker by 2007, or so alleged the then mayor, in whose version of the tale the aforementioned Smith had been delegated by Fields and his alleged co-conspirators to entangle Herenton in a sexual liaison to force him out of office.

No legal action was taken against Fields, though he was later censured by the state Supreme Court for alleged dereliction toward a client in another matter. (He later had the censure reversed.)

But Fields saw his reputation take a nosedive that has continued until the present. He had already been expelled once from the Shelby County Democratic executive committee for his collaboration with state Republican Party lawyers in making the case against the legality of Democratic state senator Ophelia Ford's suspect first election.

In the wake of Herenton's accusations, Fields, who had managed to get himself reelected to the committee, was forced to resign once again at the insistence of then party chairman Keith Norman.

Fields had led a relatively low-profile existence the last two years, but he surfaced unexpectedly at a recent meeting of the Shelby County Commission, where he interrupted a routine commission vote to adjourn, asking to be allowed to speak.

Permitted to do so, he began a rambling discourse in a quavering voice. He began with an attack on the Alabama law firm Beasley Allen, which had been hired by the commission to counter firms thought to be abusing their foreclosure options against local property owners.

Fields then began to justify himself as the victim of "false" accusations of being "off the wall" and concluded his remarks to the commission with a vow to "start again," as he had with his earlier election interventions, to "scour the earth for the kinds of things that we don't need in our politics."

Ironically, it may be that both Fields and the object of his curses for the hereafter now belong in that category.

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