Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mayor Herenton: Great For A News Cycle

There are those who are dismissive of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s media skills.
From where we’re sitting, he’s the master.

On a day when FedEx founder Fred Smith ventured into the halls of city government, the mayor reminded him whose house it is.

No one knows better how to upstage everyone else than Mayor Herenton and how to produce one of those “second coming” headlines in The Commercial Appeal and “breaking news” bulletins on television.

Déjà vu

This time around, it’s the breathless news that Mayor Herenton is planning to run for U.S. Congress against incumbent Steve Cohen. If there are two realities in local politics, it is that Mayor Herenton can always be counted on for the unexpected and Congressman Cohen can always be counted on for the quotable soundbite. Both were on display yesterday with their point-counterpoint, but make no mistake about it, it was Mayor Herenton who was the center of attention.

It’s the ultimate irony. By alternating between utter disdain and coy pronouncements, Mayor Herenton is able to make the media look like they are on bungee cords. He bounces them at will, causing them to chase every announcement with every reporter on staff despite dependably casting each as a personality conflict or a horse race with the observations by the customary political “experts.”

There’s the pervasive feeling among reporters that the mayor is erratic and uncontrolled, and more than anything else, that opinion shows how little they know him.

In a city where a large part of the population sees him as a bomb thrower, he is anything but. If he’s throwing grenades, it’s only after he’s calibrated them, selected a target, decided on the message he wants to send and how much of a frantic reaction he wants to cause.

Getting Real

So, for us, this isn’t about whether he can beat U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen or not, it’s more about why did he make this announcement now and what motivation is behind it.

There’s the thought that he really wants to campaign for Congress. His alter ego, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, said that he’s dead serious about running, but of course, he also said last year that Mayor Herenton was dead serious about resigning so he could become school board superintendent. (Despite having the memories of the frenzied coverage of that previous announcement, the news media dependably ran down the same trail with the latest about a Congressional campaign.)

Here’s the thing about his potential candidacy. There are many who say that he can’t win, but that’s because they only talk to the “downtown crowd,” reformers, creatives and college-educated young professionals. These don’t represent Mayor Herenton’s base (although some of them once were), and so listening to the echo chamber that reverberates the shared opinion that disparages Mayor Herenton, they think every one agrees with them.

They don’t. The truth is that if you go to New Chicago, South Memphis, Whitehaven and Orange Mound, you’ll find that Mayor Herenton continues to have strong support. They remain faithful, and despite the pronouncements of so many others, they believe that he’s been – and is - a good mayor. They identify with battles and his rhetoric, and they think his travails are a magnified version of those in their own lives.

Getting Out

That said, it’s still hard to imagine Mayor Herenton relishing a move to Washington, D.C. For someone who doesn’t exactly covet the thrill of travel, he would be required to fly back and forth to Memphis almost weekly and while in the nation’s capital, he would be living in relatively Spartan conditions. But if Commissioner Chism is right, the mayor is genuinely committed to this run for another office as a fitting ending to his storied career.

That’s theory #1.

Then, there’s the thought that Mayor Herenton really is ready to resign and move on and running for Congress gives him a dignified “out.” After all, the mayor is a proud man, and people who know him best say that he will be reluctant to resign if it results in a loss of face. But, as Commissioner Chism said, if he’s tired of being mayor and is looking for something that will capture his imagination and engage his energies, this might be it, but most of all, it’s a smooth way to wrap up his record-setting terms as mayor.

Whether he ultimately runs for Congress or simply decides after resigning to retire to his home, it allows him to enter a time of transition without appearing to leave as a result of federal investigations, media criticisms and business frustrations.

That’s theory #2.

Calling Their Bluff
Then, there’s the concept that Mayor Herenton’s announcement sent the ultimate message to federal investigators who seem to be casting from one lead to another in their investigation into the alleged convergence between his political life and his private business interests. Some of it unsurprisingly looks like over-reaching, but federal prosecutors feel that there is enough at its core to move ahead.

The questions in the U.S. Attorney’s office appear to be about timing and lack of consensus about options for action. After the fiasco of the Lee-Ford indictment, prosecutors are loathe to be embarrassed again in a case of this magnitude, especially without a permanent head of the office nominated by President Obama.
However, for some, the Herenton announcement was a way of telling federal investigators to put up or shut up, because he was prepared to not only continue his political career, but continue it with a race for Congress, daring them to indict him then.

That’s theory #3.

No Need For Diversion

Regardless of what motivated Mayor Herenton, here’s the reality. He’s still able to prove anytime he wants that he’s the dominant political figure – or is it dominant figure, period – in this city, perhaps since the days of Boss Crump.

Some people think that Mayor Herenton made this bombshell announcement to divert attention from his proposed budget. That’s a pretty thin premise. It was a day that hardly needed any diversion. A budget speech is a budget speech. On balance, they are largely irrelevant and are always an exercise in putting the best possible slant on an administration’s financial management.

It’s in the Memphis City Council’s budget committee review of the budget where the details are revealed. For example, more than one Council member wants to see what assumptions were made within the budget – assumptions that could change the level or distribution of services.

One thing’s for sure. With a balanced budget whose tax rate will likely go lower as a result of reappraisal, City Council looks on the surface to be painted in the corner. But with the option to eliminate 3% pay raises for city employees, Council may well have a trick or two up its sleeves.

There’s a strong interest by influential Council members to get the city tax rate under $3.00, so there’s just no reason now to assume that the mayor’s proposed budget will look anything like the final budget approved by City Council.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out some realities about a Herenton candidacy. As some of us who worked for his opponents (Herman Morris for me)found out, Herenton keeps that strong base of support. I have read all of the liberal blogs lately up in arms about Herenton having the audacity to think about running against Cohen, many of them pronouncing that he has no chance. Most of these bloggers live in their own little Midtown societies that prove that the "Blogosphere" has a serious disconnect with reality.

Cohen will never be a strong fit for the 9th District, not only racially but culturally. He may last for awhile only by strong constituent service and good performance but if Herenton runs, he very well may win.

With that said, he will be totally out of his element. Herenton in congress reminds me of E. H. Crump going there as a New Deal congressman. He was totally bored and left after two terms. Crump was even more influential as a freshman congressman than Herenton would be since he controlled the rest of the TN delegation.

So for now we can sit back and see what the next episode of the Wille Herenton drama show presents to us.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, that's interesting that you read all the liberal blogs and that they pronounced he had no chance. I took a quick look at the 5 or 6 biggest liberal blogs and I couldn't find any that said he couldn't win. At this point no one is taking his possible candidacy serious. But thanks for trying to reconnect midtown society to reality. I'm sure you are keeping it more reality based somewhere like New Chicago, South Memphis, Whitehaven, or Orange Mound.

I'm sort of not getting the point of this post. You aren't sure about theory 1, and discount theory 2 & 3. Ok, so are you arguing Herenton did this announcement just cause he could, an even pettier reason? Implying he did it for shits and giggles is kind of more insulting than Theories 2 & 3 and undermines the argument for 1.

Kerry said...

As a liberal midtowner, I've got no illusions whatsoever that Herenton could win if he really applied himself. He's got the base and the media savvy to make it a real competition, and could probably make his campaign into all of the things that Nikki tried to make hers into, but lacked the common sense and acumen to pull off.

That said, I'm enormously skeptical that this will survive past the next couple of week's worth of news cycles. Last year around this time we were glued to our sets watching him get ready to resign and take over the schools. Before that, he was going to build a new stadium. Since then, we've heard about a new convention center. The question is not why did he declare a run for Congress, but what's next?

Two things are clear: (1) Herenton never wanted to be Mayor of Memphis at this point in his life, and (2) is desperate to create some sort of lasting legacy for himself, whether it be through physical structures he can put his name on, or by further entwining his identity with the city's through more (and increasingly improbable) political gains.

rebekah said...

I think of course the media had to jump on Herenton's comments, if for no other reason (which I suppose we will eventually find out) than it's just another demonstration of how impulsive and capricious Herenton is in making such announcements as, "I'm going to resign and become superintendent" - "Oh, wait, nevermind!" I seriously hope that's the case here, and that he will withdraw his Congressional "bid" as it is, because Cohen has done a great job in the 9th district, and has continually been re-elected - even though he's WHITE (shock!). But it's scary, to me, to think of a Congressional race between the two, because the many within the black majority in neighborhoods such as Orange Mound and Whitehaven will go for a black Congressman any day, even if the white Congressman who has been their representative for years has done a bang-up job.

Anonymous said...

I find the Cohen aspect of this thing much more fascinating than the Herenton aspect. Judging from the Congressman's remarks yesterday, it's pretty clear that he understands his predicament: He will sit on pins and needles for his entire tenure in the Congress -- no matter how long he's there, no matter how many races he wins and opponents he turns away. I suspect he will always keep a closetful of empty boxes in his offices, prepared for the move back to Memphis -- which is, most likely and unfortunately, imminent.

antisocialist said...

It might be enough to prompt me to vote in the wrong primary in order to vote against Cohen.

Anonymous said...

Herenton in Congress would merely be emblematic of Memphis' irrelevance both in the state of Tennessee and nationally. No one cares, it'll just be one more reason to guffaw at the expense of this city of ignorants.

Zippy the giver said...

Can someone keep ruining Memphis from Congress? That's one way to do it I guess.

Anonymous said...

Can't he just go away?

rebekah said...

One of you "anonymouses" said you found the Cohen aspect to be more interesting. I can agree. but in his interview with Fox 13, he seemed pretty stable. Of course, that's how he's going to appear on TV. yeah, he must be on "pins and needles," as you said. because even though he knows he's a far better politician, he also knows the racial issues that have surrounded both Herenton's and his own political career.

yes to the last, as well: why can't he just retire??

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