Herenton and Cohen: Still at It 

The former mayor and current congressman make waves for the new year.

Willie Herenton (left) and Steve Cohen

Willie Herenton (left) and Steve Cohen

Neither current Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen nor former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton have any intention of hanging it up. 

Those two realities, each with significant bearing on the coming year and beyond, were made evident on the last day of calendar year 2016 when the two familiar public figures each addressed separate public prayer breakfasts. Both made some possible waves with their remarks.

Herenton was the guest key-noter at the first New Year's prayer breakfast held by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland at the Guest House at Graceland. Though his speech conformed in general to the theme of citizen volunteerism enunciated by Strickland at the event, the former mayor's most widely noted statements had to do with what he saw as the imperative of the city's African-American community to improve its circumstances, not by appealing for help from others but through action of its own.

Or, as Herenton, who served from 1992 to 2009 as the city's first elected black chief executive, put it: "No one can help us if we don't help ourselves. It's up to us, to protect us from us." That was his preamble to a series of statements about urban crime that were bound to be received either as a provocation or as a challenge, depending on the attitude of the listener.

With the fact of a dramatic rise in the Memphis homicide rate serving as the background of his remarks, Herenton made a point of focusing on "black male youth" and "black-on-black crime" and laid a major portion of the burden for addressing the problem on the affected population itself. 

"The people who are shooting, they aren't riding deep in Germantown and Collierville," he said. "They're riding in Orange Mound. They are riding in Binghamton. They are riding in Frayser."

The public entities normally charged with dealing with crime were "floundering," said Herenton, who, without mentioning names, cited the offices of the sheriff and the Juvenile Court judge, as well as the Memphis/Shelby County Crime Commission. He went on: "I've had some people tell me the answer to this city's problems would be if we had an African-American mayor. The critics used to say the same things about me. I was the first black mayor, and people would say we need a white mayor. I don't care what color the mayor is. All I want is a good mayor."

To the end of enabling Strickland to become just that, Herenton called for 10,000 African-American men to volunteer as mentors for black youth. "They need to help this mayor with blight, tutoring, after-school programs, the Boy Scouts — all kinds of things." Herenton referred to such a collective effort as constituting a "new path," a term he also uses to describe his ongoing proposal for model charter-school dormitories in Shelby County for youthful offenders.

• Cohen's remarks, made some miles away at the Holiday Inn Select on Democrat Road, were the highlight of former City Councilman Myron Lowery's annual prayer breakfast.

An advance news release from the Congressman's office had served as a teaser for the event, promising "a major announcement ... regarding his future in the United States Congress." 

That both addressed existing reports of Cohen's possible exit from public life and gave them further fuel, but toward the end of his remarks at the breakfast, the Congressman decisively dismissed the prospect.

"There have been some rumors around that I was going to retire," Cohen said. These, he said, waggishly, citing statesman/financier Bernard Baruch as the author of remarks normally attributed to Mark Twain, had been "greatly exaggerated." 

Cohen declared categorically: "We'll be here in 2018, and we'll be here in 2020. I plan to run for reelection." He declared he was a better Congressional server today than ever before and said, "I'll do it as long as you want me to do it."

The Congressman disclaimed yet another rumor, that he intended a future run for the Senate. "It's cool to be in the United States Senate," he said, "[but] this state is red." Noting his first abortive race for Congress in 1996, when he was defeated by Harold Ford Jr., as well as one for Governor in 1994, Cohen said, "I've tilted at windmills before. ... I'm not running for another office the rest of my life that I can't win."

Vowing always to "speak truth to power," Cohen warned of imminent dangers to the Affordable Care Act, public education, and the environment resulting from the combination of a Donald Trump presidency and a GOP-dominated Congress.

Cohen said the forthcoming Trump administration has sold out to "Exxon and Russia," a fact presumably signaled both by Trump's choice of the giant oil company's CEO Rex W. Tillerson as secretary of state and by the president-elect's non-stop flattery of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Noting the Russian government's dependence on international oil sales, Cohen said, "All they want is to drill the Arctic."

As for Trump, Cohen said he did not trust "this presidency not to use the IRS or the FBI" as tools against dissenting citizens, and he warned, "When an individual becomes the power and not the country — like Benito Mussolini — that's fascism."

In an apparent reference to Congressional Republicans' intent to have the Constitution read aloud, Cohen said, "I hope when they read the impeachment clause, they understand it."

Though most of his remarks concerned issues of domestic import, the Congressman made a point of stressing the importance of a "peaceful solution in the Middle East." Referring to renewed controversy over Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank, Cohen said, "What the Israelis are doing now is wrong. ... We need peace there. Israel needs peace."

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