Speaking to an overflow breakfast meeting of the Whitehaven Kiwanis Club Tuesday, Mayor Willie Herenton defended his record, appealed to his base constituency, and took out after "people who have the audacity to say, 'What has he done?'"
Herenton made his disdain for such critics clear: "When they even raise the question, that means they're hating on me. Those of you who know that street lingo, you know what I'm talking about. It's envy, it's jealousy."
Acknowledging that much of the criticism has come from his fellow African Americans, Herenton peered out over his audience and went on: "I see a few haters in here right now. That's all right. You were on the train riding with me in '91, and when I couldn't do all you wanted me to do, you got off the train. That's all right."
Herenton then enumerated some questions he said he might pose to the Chamber of Commerce: "Under what mayor did this city experience the greatest economic growth in its history? That's not subjective. Under which mayor did median income exceed the national average?"
He boasted of International Paper's relocation here and Nike's expansion and, concerning what he and others have called the "downtown renaissance," claimed, "It's the envy of every city in America."
Continuing to cite his achievements and turning to a former statement that his adversaries have reproached him for, Herenton said, "People in Mississippi are paying more taxes than we are. All those people who are fleeing, going to DeSoto County! I remember when I said, 'If you aren't on the same page with me, if you don't care about making Memphis grow — bye-bye.' They said I invited people to leave Memphis. I didn't invite people to leave. I merely said if you don't have the passion, if you don't want to roll your sleeves up, help this community to grow, and you want to be negative about it — bye-bye. Now what's wrong with that?"
Calling himself a "growth mayor," Herenton said his policies had regenerated previously distressed neighborhoods like the former sites of Lamar Terrace, Dixie Homes, and LeMoyne Gardens — all renovated or undergoing renovation — and invited his critics and mayoral opponents to join with him in combating issues of poverty, crime, and blight.
But he would go on to scoff at unnamed "politicians" for claiming they could resolve those problems. "Some of y'all may be stupid enough to listen to that," Herenton said. "People don't want to deal with the truth. Nobody's going to solve the crime problem." As for poverty: "The Bible tells us the poor will always be with us," he said.
Instead, Herenton proposed a strategy "through education, through opportunities, [to] help people to acknowledge that there can be a better life."
Professing to "love" Whitehaven, Herenton recalled a time when, as school superintendent, he, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., and other prominent blacks lived in an integrated neighborhood in the area: "What happened was that everybody started moving."
Chastising those who chose to "run behind people that don't want to live with you," the mayor, who would go on to develop the Banneker Estates area off Horn Lake Road, said, "I decided that I didn't want to do that. I decided that whenever I built a house, it was going to be right in this area with people who wanted to live with me. And I never bought a house that anybody else had lived in. I never had 'em running."
All in all, the mayor professed "optimism about the future of this great city" and expressed hope — apropos his focus on residential issues — that Memphis could avoid the problems of a metropolis to the southeast. "If we're not careful, we will be a little Atlanta," he said — a city surrounded by a myriad of "satellite communities."
• If Herenton's penchant for straight talk is well known, that of city councilman Myron Lowery doesn't yet own the fame it deserves. How's this for a commentary on the recent rash of fires that have consumed known "crack" houses in the city:
"I smile when I read about these arsonists, because somebody has taken it upon themselves to be the vigilante. ... Somebody's gotten smart, and they're not waiting on due process. I'm just hopeful that nobody gets injured or killed in some of these fires, and they don't spread to other homes in the area. But somebody's smart. They're thinking about what they're doing.
"These fires are not happening by themselves, and they aren't being caused by the homeless people who live there. And they aren't being set by the drug folks who do their deals there, who need those places to operate."
None of that rumination, delivered to a meeting of the Memphis Democratic Women over the weekend, should be construed as approval on Lowery's part. He went on to say, "We need to do a better job than to let this type of thing continue," suggesting that these cases of freelance arson are the after-effect of procrastination and negligence on the civic front.
Lowery had a similar take on official delays in dealing with the lingering question of The Pyramid. (See "Pyramid Dreams," p. 16.)
Perhaps the at-large councilman — now, like the mayor, seeking a fifth term — feels empowered to express himself so freely because, while drawing two opponents (Del Gill and Toni Strong) in this year's election, he is widely, if not universally, regarded as a shoo-in for reelection to his current District 8, Position 3 seat.
Alternatively, Lowery may be impelled to speak out from time to time because of the paradox of his makeup. He is known for his ability to vote against the grain on some key issues (he was a holdout on approving the original FedExForum deal) and to seek consensus on others (somewhat to his present discomfiture, he favored MLGW's original Networx initiative). He is, by turns, cautious and irrepressible, and sometimes both at once.
Both — or rather, all — of his tendencies were on display at Saturday's meeting at the Piccadilly cafeteria in southeast Memphis. For more on Herenton's and Lowery's appearances, see an expanded version of this column in "Political Beat" at www.memphisflyer.com.