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The Mayor Who Would Be King

Mayor Willie Herenton seems to think he was ordained to lead Memphis.

by Ron Harris

f it weren’t for the ongoing Bill Clinton fiasco, Mayor Willie Herenton’s press conference last week might have grown into Memphis’ own little scandal. I don’t wish the mayor any ill will. It’s just that we could use some excitement around here.

See, the mayor was responding to reports of an FBI drug investigation that included one of his bodyguards. Seems that the Feds had found $70,000 in cash in her home during a sweep. Sounds like serious stuff that could have implications. To be fair, however, it certainly isn’t the mayor’s job to know if a police officer assigned to him is selling drugs. Still …

Things were going along rather calmly at the press conference until someone asked Herenton why he required four bodyguards. Sounded like a reasonable question, considering that the mayors in other major cities throughout the South, including the black mayors, have two at most. Could those officers possibly be better utilized somewhere else?

The mayor’s response? “How many bodyguards I have is nobody’s business but my own.”

Maybe I missed something. Isn’t Herenton an elected official paid by the taxpayers, and aren’t those bodyguards also on the public dole? Gee, Mr. Mayor, those press folks weren’t asking about how many rose bushes you had planted in your front yard or why you chose the blue shirt versus the white one.

But I learned that the citizens and the media of Memphis were in for a contentious relationship with “His Honor” just a few days before Herenton’s inauguration January 1, 1992. It was during the Homecoming Reception for Outstanding Memphians, a black tie, $150-a-plate dinner that was one of five “inaugural events” that the mayor held leading up to his real inauguration.

The idea was to invite back former Memphis residents, folks like Academy Award winners Kathy Bates and Isaac Hayes, jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum, and opera singer Alpha Brawner Ford. There were a bunch of lesser-known folks, like an Atlanta architect with whom I attended college, an editor from Ebony magazine and me, then a national correspondent for The Los Angeles Times. I never did figure out how I made the list.

Anyway, I was sitting there calmly that night at the dinner, looking cute in my double-breasted, shawl-collared tuxedo and munching my meal, when Herenton pronounced during his speech that God had wanted him to be mayor.

My mouth dropped open. My fork slid out of my hand and I looked up in amazement. I figured a few other folks would also be taken aback, but none were. Instead, there was a round of applause. Little did I know that Herenton had been dropping this, uh, uh, revelation around town for a while.

“I believe it was so arranged by divine power – God – that I would be the city’s first black superintendent of schools … and when Memphis had a black mayor, I was going to be that mayor,” he had already told The Commercial Appeal for their special inaugural edition.

And during a $15-a-plate prayer breakfast, another “inaugural event,” he reportedly said that “God had ordained that it was time for Memphis to change, so Willie Herenton has been elevated to another level of public service.”

I’ve heard politicians say a lot of things, but I never heard one say that he was anointed by God to raise or lower taxes, fire and hire police chiefs, consider the sale of public utilities, balance the budget, or make sure that he had four bodyguards. I never knew God took such interest in local politics.

But actually, those comments brought everything into perspective. Five days of inauguration, the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presence, actor Kris Kristofferson, 15,000 folks in The Pyramid. This wasn’t an inauguration, it was a coronation. Herenton didn’t think he was elected mayor; he thought the citizens had made him king.

I headed back to Los Angeles with funny stories to tell. I didn’t get another dose of the mayor’s, uh, uh, foresight until 1997 when I walked in on the Memphis Light, Gas and Water thing.

You remember that. Herenton thought it might be a good idea to sell Memphis Light, Gas and Water and then use the windfall for imaginative city projects.

Actually, I thought it was an interesting concept. The citizenry, however, weren’t quite as intrigued. For them, there were two main issues. The employees down at MLGW figured they might lose some jobs under privatization. Most regular folks figured they’d be facing higher utility prices. Herenton had tried to assuage our fears by assuring the citizenry that the idea was purely in the exploratory stage. But then later, he couldn’t resist telling us that under some obscure code he had discovered, he could sell the utility without anybody’s permission. In other words, saying – and we’re paraphrasing now – “I don’t need y’all.”


His comments virtually doomed any prospect of the idea ever going forward as the media and local politicians pounced on his comments. Which brings us to a bit of unsolicited advice to the mayor. The next time one of these issues arises, maybe humility and prudence are in order instead of impertinence and arrogance.

After all, you were elected mayor, and not king.

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