Monday, August 03, 2009
Herenton Era Ends But Harmony Yet To Emerge
By the time the final hours of the record-setting terms of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton ticked to an end last week, there was no one left to beg him to stay.
For perhaps the only time in recent years, former Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton produced consensus. Simply put, everyone agreed it was time for him to go.
There was no friend or foe, advocate or adversary, who didn’t seem ready for his dominating – some say, domineering – influence over our city to end, despite the obligatory – if not ironic – tributes delivered at the City Hall reception marking his farewell.
In its way, the end came not with a bang but a whimper, despite frequent attempts by the City Council majority and media reporters to goad him into one last blast. In the end, the best we could get was his labeling of some critics as racists and perverts, and it produced more laughs than gasps.
But for those who cared about him most, he needed to leave for his own good and his own health. The one-dimensional image of him that was so frequently conveyed by the media was more and more becoming the reality – under siege, suspicious, volatile and stressed-out.
Sizing It Up Early
But if there was Herenton fatigue – the civic version of post-traumatic stress syndrome – it was matched by exhaustion from the media’s relentless attempts to translate everything into personalities and conflict. As a result, for many of us, July 31 was to be the dawning of a new day as Mayor Pro Tempore Myron Lowery took the oath of office for his 90-day stint in the mayor’s City Hall penthouse.
Mr. Lowery has already put his name into the election lottery for October 27 and he’s looking to use his three months as his opportunity to prove that he can end the bickering, controversy and conflict that have come to be synonymous with City Hall decision-making.
Memphis Mayor Pro Tempore Lowery and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton are favorites to be elected to kick off the new era in city government that will begin after the 90 days, but there are about a dozen others placing their own bets on a race. Many of them apparently are basing their hopes on garnering 15% of the vote and counting on the array of candidates to slice up the total vote in a way that gives them a chance.
Polls in the past two weeks reportedly show Mayor Wharton with a healthy lead regardless of the cast of characters in the race, but Mayor Pro Tempore Lowery is hoping to change all that by proving that he also can put together a coalition of black and white voters impressed by his steady, results-oriented leadership in the mayor’s office (although Mayor Wharton will be doing the same in his current office).
It Feels Familiar
If the public is hungry for anything right now, they are calmness and harmony in city government after years of controversy and racial division. That’s why the spectacle of City Attorney Elbert Jefferson being escorted out of City Hall like a thief was so disconcerting.
Voters are anxious for signs that a new day has dawned. They want a reason to be hopeful again. The Jefferson controversy and the tepid justifications by some Council members seem to tell voters that nothing has changed. That’s not fair to the new interim mayor, but it has nevertheless disrupted what should have been his honeymoon period.
Chief among the proof that this is a new day and that there is new leadership unwilling to put his or her own political advantage ahead of the city’s best interests would be the end of the impulse to see everything through the lens of race.
That too is likely to be undercut when the Memphis City Council votes tomorrow on Mayor Pro Tempore Lowery’s request to dismiss Mr. Jefferson. It’s difficult to see how this won’t be yet another racially charged vote with the white Councilmen supporting the interim mayor and the African-American Council members siding with Mr. Jefferson. Not only does Mayor Pro Tempore Lowery not want a racially divided vote, but his alliance with the white Councilmen isn’t going to help him much on the campaign trail.
City Of Choice
It’s a shaky way to usher in the new day that Memphians have anticipated for so long.
That said, the campaign for Memphis mayor promises to be a street fight, so things are likely to get much worse before they get better. But you can say this for the two men presently occupying the city and county mayors’ offices – they have begun the campaign with a pledge of civility and honest, reasoned discussion that we can only hope the other candidates will endorse.
Little more than two weeks ago, both Mayors Wharton and Lowery – along with Robert Lipscomb, director of Memphis Housing and Community Development and executive director of Memphis Housing Authority - attended a meeting at Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where their efforts to strategically invest the stimulus money here won praise.
In particular, Brookings Institution said they were impressed by the unique context being used in Memphis to develop a plan launched by Mr. Lipscomb: “Memphis: City of Choice.”
In particular, Brookings Institution was interested in the way that the “City of Choice” process was all about identifying “game changers” for Memphis and about tying stimulus money to achievement of a broad vision rather than single shot projects.
We mention this because the chance to herald the Washington exposure should have been tempting for potential candidates, but both Mayor Lowery and Mayor Wharton told the Brookings gathering that they will do nothing to politicize the “city of choice” work, because it’s too important for Memphis’ future.
That alone is enough to be hopeful about this campaign. There will undoubtedly be some bomb throwers – although they are far outnumbered in this race – but in this post-Herenton era, voters aren’t likely to reward such tactics.
We suffer from rhetorical overload. Week after week, Mayor Herenton’s verbal blasts forced all of us to take sides, most regularly along the racial themes and fault lines in this city. In the end, that was the problem. There are many reasons that we need to be addressing race in Memphis – economic segregation, income divide, college attainment rate differences, minority business development and the failure to capitalize on our niche as a hub of African-American talent.
The Wrong Conversation
But we rarely got to talk about the really important, tough issues that deserved all of our attention, because that serious discussion was derailed by the wasted energy and focus that were put into the faux racial controversy du jour. The devastating results are dramatically reflected in the deepening of the conditions that typify too many African-American lives in Memphis, despite a mayor who continually suggested that he was fighting for the forgotten Memphians of South Memphis and North Memphis.
There was so much that Mayor Herenton could have done. Despite the general disapproval of what the former mayor called the “downtown crowd,” he continues to have an unshakable core of support. It is on that core that he is counting in his race for U.S. Congress.
Urged by political consultants to put a year between the Congressional election and his time as mayor, he decided to step down this year. As the Congressional campaign heats up, Mayor Herenton will inevitably rely heavily on the racial angle.
In that race, his entry could be taken as a warning shot for incumbent Congressman Steve Cohen to influence the selection of a sympathetic prosecutor to wrap up the endless investigation into the former Memphis mayor. Even if indicted, he will make the accusation on the campaign trail that his investigation was motivated by his refusal to cave to white power brokers and if he is finally indicted, he will charge that the indictment was returned because he opposed a white Congressman.
Turn Down The Volume
Hopefully, by then, the city mayor’s race will have had the effect of turning down the volume on the racial invective so that the reemergence of the Herenton rhetoric will seem more of an aberration. Yes, we know, hope springs eternal.
It would surprise many Memphians that Mayor Herenton is one of the smartest, most polite and gracious elected officials in private, and while there was a clear sense of this in his first two terms, it rarely emerged in the past eight years as his political survival summoned up racial blasts and shoot-from-the-hip attacks.
If life is about anything, it is about timing, but that goes double for political life. If Mayor Herenton had left the mayor’s office after his first eight years, he would have gone down in history as one of the city’s great mayors – the one who transitioned the city from a white to a black political power structure, who returned financial health to city government and who protected his city’s future by fighting and winning the tiny towns battle.
But he didn’t leave at that point, and the downhill descent that began about 18 months later never eased up, bringing with it not only different political climate but a different mayor.