12 Years On 

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is running for his fourth term. How's he doing?

Twelve years ago, Willie Herenton made history when he won a squeaker of an election and became the first elected black mayor of Memphis. Barring a miraculous upset, he will make history again in a month by being elected to a fourth consecutive four-year term.

The question, then, is not really "four more years?" That's a foregone conclusion. The question is "what for?"

At 63, he's got a combined 24 years experience as mayor and school superintendent. He's physically fit, bedding down by 10 o'clock most nights. He's happy, never taking more than three consecutive days off. He has nearly $1 million in campaign funds. And in contrast to 1999, when he got 46 percent of the vote in a 13-candidate free-for-all, this time there's not a Ford or a celebrity wrestler in the field and the mayor's main challenger, Shelby County commissioner John Willingham, can't even get the endorsement of his own party.

So what does Herenton propose to do with his unprecedented powers?

"They call me King Willie on the radio," he said with a laugh during an interview in the souvenir-stuffed conference room outside his office. "If I were King Willie, we would not have a lot of the problems that we have because I would rule decisively. But I'm just one elected official. I can't wave a magic wand. If I had the authority and the power, the school systems would be consolidated, the governments would be consolidated, and we would have casino gaming."

During the interview, Herenton warned, as he has several times this year, that Shelby County is "headed for a fiscal collapse" if it doesn't change the way schools are funded. He said he will only seek to raise city property taxes "when the interests of the people are at risk." And he said he is tired of political inaction.

"I clearly see what needs to be done," he said. "I'm impatient with the political status quo, with our inability as elected officials to make tough decisions."

How has Herenton himself done on the tough decisions? One thing about three-term mayors: They have track records. Herenton is generally clear about where he stands, and his public comments along with his 1999 campaign brochures give a good indication of what he hoped to accomplish four years ago.

Under the guidance of campaign manager Charles Carpenter, who managed his 1991 campaign, Herenton will launch his reelection bid this week.

"The thing about a political campaign is you can't take anything for granted," said Carpenter. "Anything can happen. He has to take the race seriously. He is really appealing to the voters, community leaders, and to the business community so it really doesn't matter who is running against him. He has to show the determination and vision to make Memphis a major city."

In one view, Herenton makes a hard job look easy: no scandals; one tax increase in 10 years; a great personal success story; host of a successful heavyweight championship fight. And contractors have feasted on $500 million of public projects in just the last four years, including FedExForum, the convention center, Central Library, and AutoZone Park.

In another view, the job is easier than it looks. Others do a lot of the heavy lifting. The Med, the jail, and school funding are the county's problem. The school board and superintendent take the rap for failing schools. Private enterprise has taken over tennis courts, housing projects, sports arenas and stadiums, riverfront parks, downtown developments, and the zoo, which were once run by public agencies.

There's a third view: Both of the previous views are true. Yes, Memphis is growing and moving forward but mainly due to annexation and the fact that births exceed deaths. And yes, political inaction is frustrating, but a single school system, government consolidation, and casino gambling may simply not be in the cards for a city and county that still answer to Nashville and are almost evenly divided between blacks and whites.

In 1991, Herenton got 49.4 percent of the vote and beat Dick Hackett by 142 votes. In 1995, he got 74 percent of the vote against John Baker. In 1999, he got 46 percent of the vote against city councilman Joe Ford, county commissioner and Republican-endorsed Pete Sisson, and wrestler Jerry Lawler but won 82 percent of the precincts. This time local Republicans are making no endorsement for mayor but are concentrating on winning two additional City Council seats.

"As a party, we have a finite amount of resources," said Shelby County Republican Party chairman Kemp Conrad. "We wanted to endorse people who are electable."

Incumbents on the City Council, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, are resigned to the fact of working with Herenton, a Democrat who supported Republicans Lamar Alexander and Don Sundquist.

"Presumably, this is Mayor Herenton's last term," said city councilman Jack Sammons. "Many of the issues he has brought forward he needs to bring to closure, such as single-source funding for schools. I think the public is on his side. They're sick and tired of being sick and tired."

Herenton said he knows the feeling but isn't burned out yet.

"The third term has been my most enjoyable," he said. "Every day I look forward to coming to work. I made a statement on television that I've never been away from the job for more than three consecutive days. Channel 5 challenged me. I've accrued something like 116 vacation days. That tells you I enjoy what I do. I'm more conscious of taking care of myself physically and mentally than I've ever been. It's very seldom that I am not in bed before 10 o'clock."

Should the rest of us be sleeping as well? Using the mayor's own public speeches and campaign promises as a benchmark, here's a look at how he's done.


In his first term, Herenton pushed through two property tax increases. Since then, there has been only one more, a hike from $2.77 to $3.37 in 2000.

The city has an annual operating budget of $483 million and a reserve fund of $69 million, according to director of finance Joseph Lee. The reserves are likely to take two hits -- one from the windstorm, which has cost $16 million so far (about $12 million is expected to be reimbursed by the federal government), and another from 9 percent or $8.5 million cut in shared state revenues.

The city's general obligation debt is rated AA.

"What I worry about is that state and county financial woes will impact the city's fiscal stability irrespective of how well we manage our resources," said Herenton. "We will only raise taxes when the interests of the people are at risk. In other words, if we got to the point where we couldn't provide for public safety, fire departments, and other amenities, and we needed more revenue, then you raise taxes. My philosophy is you don't grow government by increased taxes. You grow government by economic growth."

Downtown growth, as always, is heavily subsidized. The deal that brought AutoZone downtown will cost $9.2 million in tax breaks until 2033. The Peabody gets $18.9 million in tax breaks until 2037. The Peabody Office Tower gets $9.5 million in breaks until 2034.

All of those entities were already in Memphis. The FedExForum is being financed with a combination of public revenue streams. A few public officials, notably Councilman John Vergos and Commissioner Walter Bailey, have suggested that there might be a day of reckoning coming, but Herenton has been a staunch supporter.

"Last week I had a task force dealing with blight around the arena," he said. "You are going to see us aggressively acquiring property around the arena and addressing code violations to protect the investments."

Suburban growth is also subsidized with roads and schools. Herenton aided that growth by agreeing to the Gray's Creek sewer extension, but he said that was only one of many decisions made by business and political leaders that pushed growth to the suburbs over several decades.

"There were some policy decisions that are haunting us today," he said.

Is Memphis growing?

Strictly speaking, yes. According to the U.S. Census, the population was 618,000 in 1990 and 648,882 in 2002. The Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development says it is closer to 680,000 today because of the recent annexation of Hillshire, Countrywood, Eads, and the Southeast Industrial Corridor.

Is annexation really growth? Larry and Cindy Bronson live in Countrywood, literally on the line between Memphis and Shelby County. This year they started paying $1,461.75 more in property taxes than their next-door neighbors who were not annexed. Larry Bronson, an architect, says they get city garbage service and police protection but so far no streetlights or an elementary school.

"A lot of people out here with young children have concerns about the school," he said.

The Bronsons, who do not have children in school, are a good deal for Memphis, which gets to count them and their taxes as "growth" even though they've been living in the same house for several years. Without them and their 65,000 fellow citizens (some might say POWs) in Hickory Hill, Memphis would join the unfortunate ranks of the Detroits and Flints as "shrinking" cities.

"Without the ability to annex you would have had population loss, and I think that would have been disastrous," said Larry Henson, researcher for the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. "The cities that have not had that ability are in deep trouble."

Henson said downtown Memphis is having "real" growth from outsiders seeking an urban environment. Other "growing" areas like Hickory Hill and Cordova are simply catching Memphians on the move.

"In spite of all the talk about sprawl, the five-county Memphis metro area is surprisingly compact," he said. "About 85 percent of the population is still in the central county of Shelby. In Memphis, you drive 30 minutes and you see cows. In Nashville, you see concrete."

Two fun facts to amaze your friends: At 304 square miles, Memphis is larger than Atlanta, St. Louis, and Birmingham combined. And Hickory Hill has the highest concentration of college grads in the city but, ever the stepchild, not one City Council member lives there.

The Buzz.

Outsiders, of course, couldn't care less about underlying demographics. They know Memphis through occasional visits, publicity, and marketing. In the past four years, the television networks and national newspapers have done favorable stories on the Grizzlies, FedExForum, AutoZone Park, Memphis music, and the Lewis-Tyson fight, all of which Herenton had a hand in.

Memphis, however, rarely shows up on the "best places to live" lists, many of which are admittedly idiotic. It has not had a new business catch on the order of Nissan for Jackson, Mississippi, or Saturn and Dell for Nashville since International Paper came here 17 years ago. Beneath the downtown and suburban glitz there is a disturbing "net migration" trend which the chamber of commerce says cost Memphis $90 million in income while Nashville was gaining $851 million.


Nothing fires up the voters like fat paychecks. In 1999, Herenton boasted that city unemployment was 3.8 percent. In July 2003, according to the University of Memphis Bureau of Business and Economic Research, it was 5.7 percent.

Local government has certainly done its part to create jobs. Four big projects -- the Central Library, convention center, FedExForum, and AutoZone Park -- have been worth $500 million, with local contractors and laborers getting a nice share. And the flip side of the Great Windstorm of 2003 is that one person's costs are someone else's revenues.

Bringing back the dead.

That's buildings, not people. In 1999, candidate Herenton said "imminent" projects included the fairgrounds master plan and revival, greenways along the Wolf River and Nonconnah Creek, and "brownfield initiatives" for abandoned Firestone and International Harvester plants.

Four years later, the fairgrounds has only this year hired a planning firm; the biggest thing along Nonconnah Creek is the abandoned Mall of Memphis; and Firestone and Harvester are desolate as ever.

"The fairgrounds to me is some of the most valuable real estate for the city of Memphis," said Herenton. "We've got to do a lot better with that."

A modest success story is the old Defense Depot on Airways. Jim Covington, head of the city's redevelopment effort, says there are 22 tenants and 981 jobs, mostly expansions by local companies. Once empty, the depot is 51 percent occupied.


To his credit, Herenton never second-guessed his successor as schools superintendent, Dr. Gerry House, until after she left in 2000. He influenced the selection of her successor (and his former assistant superintendent), Johnnie Watson, and Watson's chief financial adviser, Roland McElrath.

McElrath, who was director of finance for the city before going to the school system, never hit it off with the school board and resigned earlier this year. The MGT of America consultants blame McElrath for poor communication between the superintendent and the consultants. Watson will resign at the end of this year.

Two school board members, Carl Johnson and Sara Lewis, are former Herenton cronies from his school superintendent days. In other words, short of appointing the whole school board, the mayor has had a pretty heavy hand in school matters. But nobody has ever accused him of having a light touch. The mayor and school board have been openly at war for most of the past four years.

"In the city schools today, they can comfortably close at least 20 schools," said Herenton. "I closed 20-something schools. I caught hell from people at Messick and Douglass. But I had a board that stuck with me. Today everyone wants to be popular."

He envisions a single city-county school system with five subdistricts. He thinks a pending "fiscal calamity" will make it happen. Others still have faith in diplomacy.

"I think Mayor Wharton is going to be better suited to sell the community on meaningful education reform," said city councilman Brent Taylor. "I don't mean it as criticism, but Mayor Herenton has become a lightning rod on this particular issue."

The Future.

It remains to be seen if the mayor can follow through on his "If I Were King Willie" wish list. The last time we looked, magic wands were still in short supply. Consolidating city and county governments and combining both school systems will prove to be a formidable task for even a four-term mayor. And casino gambling also looks like a long shot.

But if Herenton can avoid scandals and keep taxes down, odds are he'll continue to make a hard job look easy.

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