POLITICS: Snake, Rat, or Martyr? 

Lawyer Richard Fields looks like the big loser in this year’s political drama.

BY JACKSON BAKER | JUNE 20, 2007

Whatever the final resolution of Memphis' current political soap opera - dubbed "The 2007 Political Conspiracy" by chief protagonist Willie Herenton - there would seem to be little doubt as to the fate of one principal, lawyer Richard Fields. One way or another, Fields will take a fall; indeed, he has already suffered one.

Designated as the chief villain of what Memphis mayor Herenton alleges is a blackmail plot against him - a "snake," in Herenton's term - Fields is now in an untenable situation. Even if, as many believe, he ends up being exonerated of the mayor's specific charges (orchestrating an elaborate sex sting against Herenton), Fields will have inevitably plummeted to earth from what a once lofty position, his wax wings burnt and melted like some presumptuous Icarus come too close to the sun.

In the classical sense, Fields is an object lesson in hubris--a Greek term denoting prideful - and ultimately ruinous -- over-reaching. Well regarded for years as a dedicated civil rights attorney, Fields seems to have made a decision some years back to establish himself as a power broker second to none in the city's history.

That phase of his life may have begun as far back as the school-superintendent years of Willie Herenton and crystallized in 1991 when Fields was one of the few whites who actively supported Herenton in his successful bid to become the city's first elected black mayor.

For some time thereafter, Fields remained close to the mayor, but he quarreled seriously with other mayoral intimates, like former city attorney Robert Spence, who would later accuse Fields of wanting to dictate city contracts. And, after an off-and-on period of close collaboration, Fields - or Herenton - decided in the last year or two, for whatever reason, to open up some real distance in the relationship.

That fissure seems to have coincided with turbulence in Fields' private life - including the latest of four divorces, all from African-American women. (Fields himself is Caucasian, and his enemies - notably blogger Thaddeus Matthews - have broadly insinuated an almost Freudian hostility on his part to black men, especially those holding public office.)

In the meantime, Fields had made a somewhat feckless Democratic primary race against then state Senator John Ford in 2002, finishing well out of the money (in every sense of that term). The experience, along with his long proximity to the city's powerful and often imperious mayor, seems to have pushed him in the direction of kingmaking.

Largely on the strength of his ties to Herenton, Fields got himself elected to the Shelby County Democratic executive committee in 2005 in a party convention dominated by Herenton ally Sidney Chism and reformist leader Desi Franklin. (If Fields' relations with Chism, since elected to the county commission, are now necessarily strained, he apparently remains close to Franklin, a possible city council candidate this year.)

Then came Fields' pro bono involvement, alongside the legal team of the state Republican Party, in an effort to void the state Senate victory of Democrat Ophelia Ford over the GOP's Terry Roland. Though the effort was ultimately successful, Fields had meanwhile been forced off the local Democratic committee amid accusations of a political conflict of interest.

Undaunted, Fields got his hand back in the political process almost immediately, with widely circulated broadsides enumerating the purported liabilities of certain judicial candidates in the 2006 August general election and calling for their defeat, while touting the prospects of others. His efforts seemed to some an attempt to replicate the influence of the old "Ford ballots," voter guides put out an election time by former congressman Harold Ford Sr.

Since many of the candidates opposed by Fields were black, and since his ballot choices, by design or otherwise, received most attention in largely white precincts of Midtown and East Memphis, he was accused - perhaps ironically, given his personal history - of a racial bias.

Whether for that reason or some other, Fields amended at least two early judicial choices, substituting African-American candidates for white candidates he had promised to support. To some, that took the gloss of his supposed high-mindedness.

Fields was back at it again for the fall elections last year, with newly distributed ballot choices in partisan races, taking sides with a number of Republican candidates against their Democratic opponents. That brought new outcries, especially among fellow Democrats, some of whom tried anew earlier this year to expel Fields, freshly elected to a reconstituted version of the Democratic committee. That attempt was ruled out of order by the party's new chairman, Keith Norman.

During the runup to the party's reorganization, Fields had made public statements about "vetting" Norman that suggested to some he had handpicked the new chairman - a fact that had prompted a clearly offended Norman to make a public disavowal of that scenario.

Fields continued in his new career as would-be power broker, sending out letters attacking old foe Spence in the latter's Democratic Party primary contest against ultimate winner Beverly Marrero in yet another special election contest, this one also for a state Senate seat.

Meanwhile, Fields was increasingly given to temperamental outbursts - some marginally understandable, as when he became unruly in Criminal Court Judge Rita Stotts' courtroom last year and had to be removed by her bailiff during a legal process in which he apparently thought his son had been unfairly targeted.

There were instances of alleged assault - one against lawyer Jay Bailey, another against radio talk-show host Jennings Bernard, who filed a formal complaint. There were hostile reactions by Fields to routine, even friendly media attention, which culminated in an attempt by the erstwhile civil-libertarian and First Amendment supporter to have the media banned from public meetings of the Democratic committee.

Though this action would patently have violated the state's Sunshine Law, Fields' motion was formally vetted by Norman before being dismissed out of hand. (After last week's events, Norman demanded - and got - Fields' resignation, his second in two years, from the executive committee.)

That brings the Fields saga to the present and the ongoing legal/political saga pitting the mayor, his allies, and double (perhaps triple) agent Gwen Smith, who alleges that Field hired her to entrap Herenton sexually, versus Fields and other alleged adversaries of the mayor, some of whom may have had no other involvement in things than to favor Herenton's taking leave of his office.

It is hard to imagine that an FBI agent would, as Herenton charged, take part in an illegal conspiracy designed to defeat his reelection. What seems more likely is that a sting may have been getting under way, perhaps urged on by Fields, centering on the relations of the mayor and beer board chairman Reginald French, a Herenton ally, with topless clubs seeking liquor licenses.

Just what is what in this affair may be determined - and in short order - by the special prosecutor requested by District Attorney General Bill Gibbons. And, whatever the legal and political consequences to others, the options available to Richard Fields in the end game seem rather starkly circumscribed.

In this age of the real Tennessee Waltz and the fictionalized Sopranos, they range from possible criminal defendant on one end to political "rat" on the other. Even if Fields proves to have had the purest of motives, he seems above all to have been an over-reacher.

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