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Still the Man

From a brand-new perch atop City Hall, Willie Herenton gets ready for a new millennium.

by Jackson Baker

“I’m getting old. I’ve had 12 tough years as superintendent, and eight years as mayor. Those are two of the toughest public-service jobs in America.”

Willie Herenton, on the edge of 60 and of a reelection race for a third term as Memphis mayor, is recalling his Booker T. Washington boxing days as he shadow-boxes up in his new seventh-floor City Hall office. Looking as ready to go as he ever was, he bobs his head quickly and tucks his elbows in close to his ribs, flicking out strong-looking jabs – snap! snap! It’s not at all hard to imagine an opponent being rocked back on his heels.

Herenton offers a running commentary. “You could see a guy, if you popped him, you really got his attention – snap! Even if he was aggressive. If you hit him hard – snap! snap!– you got his attention. Then you saw his zest, his stamina slow up on him. There are some guys that’ll look you in the eye, you can tell you got their attention, you know what I mean?”

Except there is no opponent so far for this former Golden Gloves boxing champ and city schools superintendent. He spars some more into the thin air, which might represent Harold Ford or Shep Wilbun or Pete Sisson, all of them once and possibly future antagonists – snap! snap! snap! – and then stops abruptly.

Scant minutes later, after insisting that his forthcoming attempt at reelection, one for which he has already raised well over half a million dollars (much of it from the kind of well-heeled white citizen who opposed him when he first ran in 1991), will be his last electoral hurrah, Herenton unexpectedly assumes a sagging posture and his face turns weary.

“I’m getting old,” he says. “I’ve had 12 tough years as superintendent, and eight years as mayor. Those are two of the toughest public-service jobs in America. These things begin to take their toll. Sometimes you’ve got to stop and smell the roses.”

It is only then that you realize that this veteran of public affairs – undefeated in each of his encounters so far – has taken some cruel shots himself, and that some of the worst ones are self-administered, the near-compulsive acts that have taken him so often to the brink of vulnerability or even close to the abyss of catastrophe.

He is a typical Memphian, this first elected African-American mayor in Memphis history. Self-assured in the extreme, he also has his self-destructive bent – as witness his proposal, in the wake of his dramatic 1997 triumph over the “Toy Towns,” to sell off MLGW, the city’s utility. The result was a one-man parade, renewed charges of potential conflicts of interest (his son Duke was employed by Morgan Keegan, which would have brokered the sale), and the abrupt diminishment of his then-heroic stature. All of a sudden, potential opponents got new heart, and the foremost among them, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., offered a “guarantee” that Herenton would be defeated for reelection in 1999.

Well, 1999 has come, and so far there is no sign of a mayoral challenger – not Ford or County Commission chairman Wilbun or former Commissioner Sisson or Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey – or of any fund-raising activity that might produce one. If not exactly home-free yet, the mayor has certainly got his key in the door.

John Ford Sr.

Back in October, Herenton finally accomplished something which way back in his first year, 1991, he’d first proposed (and which he says his predecessor, Dick Hackett, also coveted) – a move from a roomy if closed-in second-floor space in City Hall to a more open, if smaller, office on the seventh floor.

The mayor recalls a moment from his first term: “I was sitting behind my desk, and all of a sudden it dawned on me that I was sitting in the space that Henry Loeb sat in.” Loeb, of course, was three mayors back – the man who resisted Dr. King and the sanitation workers and the very symbol of the Old Guard. “During that era I was wearing a sign saying ‘I Am a Man’ and protesting Henry Loeb, and here I was sitting in the same space. Can you imagine that?”

If it’s not quite the penthouse that critics on the council and in the media charged seven years ago, Herenton’s new office certainly looks comfortable. Instead of the hard-mahogany windowless space downstairs, the new office has a glassed-in back wall that permits a view of the Memphis riverfront – the same riverfront which – in a new, improved version – the city’s first black mayor has always wanted to leave behind as one of his legacies.

The thriving new tourist-magnet complex which he has proposed – and for which he is still hoping to get real seed money from Nashville – isn’t down there yet. But a new Welcome Center is, and there’s Harbor Town, over on Mud Island.

Herenton tells a story on himself. “Back when I was still with the school system, Henry Turley tried to sell me a lot down there. Henry took me down and tried to tell me it was a good solid foundation, but it looked like sand to me. I said, ‘Henry, you can’t tell me it’s geologically solid.’” He stops and spreads out his hand – the same one that’s been sifting imaginary sand – in the general direction of Harbor Town and its now-teeming upscale residences. “Well …,” he says, his rueful smile indicating that the joke was on him.

Actually, he had something up his own sleeve. “I decided to go into the southwest area. I wanted to make a statement: The white real estate market was not going to define value for me.”

This was the origin of Banneker Estates, Herenton’s own contribution to the real estate market, 20 acres purchased on a 73 percent loan (“It damn near broke me”) and now a posh neighborhood inhabited by the mayor himself and various other successful Memphis blacks – notably the 10,000-square-foot mansion built recently by Sidney Chism, the retired Teamster leader and longtime Herenton ally. The street names, all selected by Herenton himself, evoke various pioneer African Americans: Dubois Drive, Bethune Cove, Banneker Cove.

“There are a lot of African Americans who are enjoying the prosperity of the nation,” Herenton says. He launches into a dissertation on the theme that urban out-migration is not a racial phenomenon but a class one occurring throughout America. He scoffs at the long-accepted concept of white flight – or “doomsday flight,” as he puts it – and maintains that there is an accelerating counter-phenomenon of people moving back to the city.

“They can’t build enough single-family homes downtown,” Herenton insists. He talks of 90-percent occupancy rates downtown and new demographic figures which he says prove that Memphis “exceeds the national per-capita income average.”

Heady stuff, and never mind that it sounds counter-intuitive, given the fact that Memphis has the reputation of being a national bankruptcy capital and that cash-advance and quickie-loan establishments of all sorts seem to be abounding in the area just now.

No question that, for better or for worse, it is already a different Memphis from the one Willie Herenton became mayor of eight years ago, regardless of whether the city goes on in the next millennium to become the thriving beacon city Herenton likes to imagine, the one that will outshine even Atlanta, or settles into the rut of failure, poverty, and depopulation that so many pessimists imagine.

The city’s blacks have been a majority in the city for a decade now, and they have spread out from the carefully circumscribed areas in North and South Memphis that had historically confined them into milieus that were once wholly white – in the south, into the now ironically named Whitehaven; in the north, into Raleigh; and of late into the far southeast, where Hickory Hill was already undergoing a demographic sea change even before it was formally annexed at the beginning of this year.

And, as Herenton points out, blacks who can afford it are involved, however marginally, in the general out-migration to such burgeoning suburban areas as Germantown, Bartlett, and Cordova. Even far-off Collierville. In the long run, Memphis’ mayor believes, this out-migration – coupled with increasing in-migration back into the city – will create a stable metropolitan balance.

There was a time, in Herenton’s first term, when he floated the idea of city-county consolidation, suggesting the novel approach of surrendering the city’s charter and forcing its absorption into county government. No more. White suburbanites and inner-city black politicians decisively shot down that trial balloon, and Herenton hunkered down into defense of what he saw as Memphis’ long-term interests.

His trial by fire came in 1997 when, weeks after the end of that year’s session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the city’s various unincorporated suburbs began filing for elections to become cities under a stealth law – the so-called Toy Town bill – whose provisions, unsuspected at the time, made the process of incorporation virtually pain-free. Gone were virtually all the checks against such a procedure, including the practical abolition of urban-annexation reserve areas.

Herenton proclaimed the law a virtual “death sentence” for Memphis, one which would hem the city in with a crazy quilt of new municipalities. He became the leader of a statewide legal struggle against it which seemed increasingly futile after a Nashville chancellor deigned not even to hear the challenge. The beleaguered Memphis mayor saw himself pitted against his local counterpart, Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, whose discreet silence on the “Toy Town” issue infuriated Herenton. The two mayors alternated between exchanging insults and advancing widely divergent blueprints for the future.

All that ended in late 1997 when the state Supreme Court awarded Herenton and the other plaintiffs what they had been seeking, a ruling that the Toy Town law was unconstitutional because, essentially, it had been sneaked through the legislature under a misleading “chapter” title. In the aftermath of the ruling, Herenton was able to announce the immediate annexation of Wolfchase Galleria, the Cordova-based commercial mega-plex that had symbolized suburban enterprise. After that came the long-deferred absorption of Hickory Hill.

Dick Hackett

Even without the MLGW debacle, Herenton might have lost steam after what he termed (and celebrated as) a “historic victory.” There would have been in any case a renewed public and media attention to his many diversified attempts to branch out into business – billboards, casino boards, and what have you – most of them abortive but all of them seeming to hog the line where the public and private sectors interface.

But there was also a generalized sense that the mayor had settled into a defensive posture, even that of a caretaker. Undermined somewhat, to be sure, by a bumpy relationship with U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr., he had indifferent success working the levers of the federal government – suffering the embarrassment, for example, of losing out to Knoxville this year in the competition for a major federal empowerment grant. Suddenly people were remembering, too, that the city administration had seemed to flounder indifferently in its quest for a major-league sports franchise. (Nashville, the rival sister city to the east, meanwhile had copped two such franchises.)

Herenton has countered by citing other accomplishments – hefty increases in the city’s financial reserves, the Double-A bond rating which the city owns with three different fiscal-rating services, a new convention center in the offing, the completion of the Peabody Place complex – and by claiming victories on the law-enforcement front.

“Police brutality is almost unheard of today. It was rampant just a decade ago,” Herenton says. “My presence here, just the whole ethos of the police department, has resulted in citizens of color being treated with greater respect.”

He brushes off a question about a celebrated racially tinged pepper-spray incident which ended with both himself and the city owing liabilities to a discharged white officer. His first police director, Melvin Burgess, had been fired as a result of the same incident, and now a second, Walter Winfrey, has resigned in the wake of several other embarrassments.

But Herenton cites what he says is a steady reduction in violent crime, and, in replacing Winfrey with interim director Bill Oldham, a veteran white officer, the mayor may have pulled off a modest – if temporary – political coup on the front end of an election cycle. (Herenton claims to have given no political thought to the matter, although he acknowledges that he anticipated possible criticism from Wilbun and Ford Sr.)

Herenton does his best to minimize the importance of the former congressman – his political rival and potential nemesis – in his watershed election victory of 1991. “We hadn’t wanted him in our campaign, and we kept him out until about five days before the election. He was a Johnny-come-lately,” Herenton says. Even so, the mayor grudgingly credits the senior Ford (whom he calls “power-crazy”) for help in Get-Out-the-Vote efforts and in doing some useful “hell raising” at the Shelby County Election Commission. Even today Herenton believes that his celebrated 142-vote margin of victory was only what remained after thousands of votes that belonged to his column were somehow stolen away by a resentful Establishment.

Kenneth Whalum

What if – rightly or wrongly, by a little or a lot – he had been certified the loser on that fateful October night in 1991 when angry masses of African-American supporters surrounded the commission headquarters?

“The city would have gone up in riots,” Herenton declares matter-of-factly. After a thoughtful pause, he repeats that, with certainty. “You’d have had riots in the city. You have to understand that this was a people longing to be free, and Dick Hackett – well, Hackett to them was Pharaoh.”

Shortly thereafter, Herenton’s mood has lightened up, and he is showing off some of the pictures which hang from his office walls. There’s the one – attesting to the tension of election night – showing his glum face and those of supporters Chism and Charles Carpenter and Harold Ford in his Peabody hotel room, just before Ford burst from the room to go confront the members of the Election Commission.

“That was the only time I really thought I was a goner, right then,” remembers Herenton.

He then moves to another photograph, showing himself, Ford, and various other African-American dignitaries all crowding a podium at The Peabody on the occasion of his victory announcement. Everybody owns a broad smile, and another one appears on Herenton’s face as he continues, for what must be the thousandth time over the last few years, looking at it.

Suddenly, the smile turns broader and yields to a laugh as he notices something new, something he’d never noticed before. Crowded into a cluster of faces some distance behind him on the podium is the unmistakable visage of Shep Wilbun, currently the chairman of the Shelby County Commission and now, as then, an aspirant to the city mayorship himself.

“Look at that boy!” Herenton exults as he studies Wilbun’s cramped, uncomfortable-looking features in the picture. “He was behind me then, and that’s where he’s going to always be.”

Willie Herenton, mayor of Memphis for the last eight years and the odds-on favorite to monopolize the office – and the news – for the next four, could still be heard laughing when his visitor took his leave, minutes later, even after the doors had closed and the elevator had started its long ride down.

10 Years of Polarity – and Change

What began as a simple case of black-and-white turned complex by decade’s end.

Harold Sterling

It would be disingenuous to say that the decade of the ’90s in Memphis and Shelby County has witnessed unforeseen developments in the sphere of politics. Most of what has happened – white flight, gridlock between city and county, the racial polarization of the two major political parties – had been anticipated in general. It is the details that have come as something of a shock, and one is often hard put to decide which of two competing proverbs – “God is in the details” or “The devil is in the details” – is the rightful one.

There is no disputing one fact. Race has been the primary determinant of things, and there could have been no better example of that than the watershed Memphis municipal election of 1991, which was decided by a population that was virtually balanced by race, with blacks for the first time owning a slight majority.

The end result was a revolution in local power, with 98 percent of the city’s African-American population voting for the black candidate, former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton, and 96 percent of whites voting for incumbent Mayor Dick Hackett. Nobody even bothered to pretend that the election was about anything other than race; at stake, clearly, was which ethnic group would control the immediate political future locally. In what at the time seemed an upset but perhaps should not have been, Herenton won by the grand margin of 142 votes. (A third entry, perennial candidate Robert “Prince Mongo” Hodges, may have drained off enough funky-chicken whites to have decided the issue.)

Actually, there were two revolutions going on. Despite the suspicion of many whites that the political organization founded by U.S. Representative Harold Ford (first elected in 1974) controlled Memphis’ black voters monolithically, Herenton’s very candidacy rebutted such an idea. The two men had never been close, and the congressman – who might have run for mayor himself had he not been under indictment for bank fraud at the time – tried for months to steer consensus-minded black voters in the direction of Otis Higgs, then a former Criminal Court Judge and a benign, if unspectacular, presence.

At two events, however – a self-styled “People’s Convention” and a black “summit” organized by Ford – insurgents outside the congressman’s sway carried the day for Herenton, whose genuine leadership skills were augmented that year by the mantle of martyrdom, assumed after a majority-white school board forced him out in the wake of sexual and administrative irregularities.

In the last few days of the mayor’s race, Ford and Herenton would unite for a round of feverish Get-Out-the-Vote activity. The congressman not only put his celebrated political machine at Herenton’s disposal, he kept an angry vigil at the Shelby County Election Commission headquarters on election night, ostensibly to make sure that no suspiciously late vote count ended up favoring Hackett.

Even as dour jokes were being circulated by white Memphians about the financial bonanzas awaiting real estate brokers and as African Americans of all persuasions were engaging in a public revel of unity, normal human complications began to shade what had seemed to be a black-and-white picture.

When Mayor-elect Herenton, whose basic racial and political centrism had been obscured by circumstance, made a series of appointments that were patently racially balanced, one of his possible rivals in the African-American community, Rev. Kenneth Whalum – a city councilman known, ironically, for moderation – complained about Herenton’s evenhandedness in a sermon that, to his embarrassment, leaked to this newspaper.

And the inevitable rivalry between Herenton and Ford began to surface when Mayor Herenton – able to play the race card upon occasion but essentially trying to function as a socio-political intermediary – distanced himself from the congressman in 1993 during Ford’s politically charged second trial. (The first had been declared a mistrial.)

Against all expectations, Ford won acquittal from a heavily white jury imported from rural West Tennessee. Thereafter, he and Herenton drifted further and further apart – until their mutual bitterness exploded in a 1994 dispute that began with a disagreement over how to fund a summer jobs program and ended in an exchange of insults that almost came to blows. Since then, the two have only rarely and superficially agreed on anything; they – and their respective political supporters – are essentially warring camps within the black community.

Still, racial polarization or the appearance of it – or both – had crept irrevocably into the political process. Racial crossover had been evident in the countywide election of 1990 – when black lawyer D’Army Bailey depended heavily on white votes in his election to a Circuit Court judgeship; in 1991 – when city council candidate Myron Lowery achieved victory similarly; and even in 1995 – when Mayor Herenton captured 25 percent of the white vote against a nominal white candidate. But in elections involving party labels, the twain increasingly ceased to meet.

By the late ’90s, the word “Democrat” had become virtually interchangeable with the word “black”; “Republican,” likewise, meant “white.” This was so despite the continued presence in Democratic ranks of holdover whites, especially within the Memphis city limits, and at least a rhetorical solicitation of black membership by the local Republican hierarchy.

For decades, municipal and countywide campaigns had drawn on the cadres of both major political parties as well as upon a reasonably large number of bona fide independents. But activism within Republican ranks on behalf of partisan countywide primaries won the day early in the decade; in the 1992 countywide general election, there was, for the first time, a Republican slate of nominees as such.

The results that year were ambiguous; the GOP had only one winner, Property Assessor candidate Harold Sterling, who owed his victory over incumbent Michael Hooks in no small measure to a public dispute with racial and religious overtones between Rep. Ford – the orchestrator of a “dream team” featuring himself, brother John Ford, and Hooks – and a Commercial Appeal reporter, Charles Bernsen. (Ironically, Sterling would fall to a Democratic challenger, Rita Clark, four years later.)

More prophetic than Sterling’s win was John Ford’s election as General Sessions Court clerk – a victory made possible by the GOP’s insistence on running a nominee against long-term incumbent Gene Goldsby, who eschewed a party label. The three-way split opened the way for Ford, and the Realpolitik of that was not lost on other incumbents – and on white candidates in general – when the next countywide election came around in 1994.

That was the year of the Great Republican Sweep at all three electoral levels – local, statewide, and national. Countywide, the GOP attracted to its standard such previously independent or Democratic name-brand candidates as city councilman Jimmy Moore, who won the Circuit Court clerkship, while the Democrats – now led by black Teamster leader Sidney Chism – fecklessly tried to get by with merely endorsing a few candidates.

There was only one local winner that year who wasn’t technically a Republican. That was Sheriff A.C. Gilless, who declined, however, to accept the Democrats’ lovingly proferred endorsement and, in effect, ran as the last of the true independents. (Tellingly, Gilless had crossed over by 1998, when he ran as a true-blue Republican and won against former Memphis police director Melvin Burgess, a true-black Democrat.)

Even as Democrats – declared or otherwise – were losing in the county, they were being scourged at the state and federal level, as well. In 1994 three-term Democrat Jim Sasser had managed to get out of touch with Tennesseans, and, despite being in line to become the next Senate Majority Leader, was soundly thumped by free-spending newcomer Bill Frist of Nashville, a member of a family of corporate physicians. For the state’s other Senate seat (Vice President Al Gore’s old one), the laconically charismatic Fred Thompson, a lawyer who had tasted the limelight both as a Watergate counsel and as a movie actor, won easily over Democratic congressman Jim Cooper, most of whose marbles were committed to the lost cause of a national medical insurance plan.

After two terms of Democrat Ned Ray McWherter, the governorship in 1994 was won by Tennessee’s 7th District Republican congressman, Memphian Don Sundquist, who beat another health-care millionaire, Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, handily. Then as later, the low-key but amiable Sundquist made a point of cozying up to McWherter, and to the West Tennessee rural Democrats who were beginning to slide the GOP’s way.

Even as Democratic strength in Tennessee was being largely confined to the environs of Greater Nashville (whose suburbs, however, like those of Memphis, were becoming Republican reservoirs), so were West Tennessee Democrats increasingly being held to a beachhead in the inner city of Memphis.

In presidential years, Memphis Democrats could still get it up, and the Ford machine – otherwise devoted that year to the elevation of recent law school graduate Harold Ford Jr. to the 9th District congressional seat as successor to his father – pumped hard for the Clinton-Gore presidential ticket, winning enough of a margin in Memphis to provide a bare-bones victory in Tennessee.

As the end of the century neared, native son Gore was slated to be the presidential nominee in 2000, and he would need ample help from Memphis to go with the Middle Tennessee Democratic base that was the last bastion of the old Roosevelt-era Solid South. Young Ford was a rising star with the national Democratic establishment and the Beltway media, but it remained to be seen whether too much rust had collected on the family political machine to allow it to be a factor in the federal and statewide races of the approaching new millennium.

Hoping to succeed Sundquist as governor, meanwhile, was Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout, a numbers-cruncher and policy wonk of sorts and one of that new suburbanite GOP breed who advocated low taxes and efficient low-cost government. It wasn’t sexy politics, but it sold well for most of the ’90s – at least among those whites who convinced themselves that what they considered the Democrats’ tax-and-spend politics benefited nobody but a welfare (read “minority”) class who would constantly depend more and more on the dole.

Unexpectedly but dramatically, all the assumptions which had characterized the decade of the ’90s politically were turned upside-down in the decade’s last year, when a safely re-elected Sundquist, the embodiment of hold-the-line conservatism, suddenly recast himself as an apostle of tax reform.

The state would go broke unless businesses were made to pay their fair share of taxes, Sundquist declared, and what promises to be a pivotal special legislative session on new taxation begins in Nashville even as we speak.

The same conundrum confronts politics at the city and county levels. Sometime this year Rout will have to bite the bullet and decide how far he wants to follow the Democrats and the majority of Republicans on the county commission into a property-tax increase that will get county government abreast of its obligations. If reelected, as would seem likely, Herenton will confront momentum for a tax increase, too.

One thing seems clear: As the politics of Memphis and Shelby County prepared to follow a Yeatsian turning of the gyre into an unpredictable new millennium, all bets were off. The old verities of race and taxes and perhaps even those of party allegiance might, it seemed, count for very little in the New Age that had yet to declare itself.

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