Wednesday, August 05, 2009
Willie W. Herenton: The Hero And Anti-Hero
The signs that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was going to be a short-timer began almost immediately after his reelection.
At his swearing in, he seemed detached and the ceremony lacked the fire in the belly passion that characterized the previous times that he had taken the oaths of office as city mayor.
Always a detached manager, he seemed even less connected and less interested as he launched his fifth term. On his best days, he seemed bored. On his worst days, he just didn’t seem to give a damn.
Shortly after winning one of the most divisive campaigns in recent memory, he began to hint to close confidantes that he would never serve out his full four years. He suggested that other things – such as Memphis City Schools – ignited more passion in him than city government.
The Truth Is Out There
The truth was obvious. After 16 years, he’d seen it all and done it all before.
Despite all the proud public statements to the contrary, he even tired of being a lightning rod and the constant political turmoil that greeted his positions, regardless of their merit.
More than ever, it was obvious to his friends that he just wasn’t having fun. The gleam in his eye was gone, the joy in igniting political short fuses was gone and the sense that he was accomplishing something profound was long gone.
As he considered a life outside City Hall, his mind repeatedly turned to education once again. At an age when elected officials consider their legacies, he realized that his greatest pride centered on his years in Memphis City Schools, rising through the ranks to become one of the youngest principals and the first African-American superintendent.
In those days, he was considered a hot property and various districts romanced him to take their superintendents’ jobs – including Chicago, New York City and Atlanta – but each time, his ties to Memphis proved too strong, and he stayed put. In its way, this may be the greatest regret of his life, despite breaking the color wall at City Hall.
Eventually, his Memphis City Schools superintendency would be marred somewhat by controversy, notably the sexual harassment complaint that was settled out of court and sealed. It was in the midst of that turbulent, troubling time in his life that he decided on the ultimate “I’ll show you” strategy: He ran for mayor. After all, his currency in the superintendent sweepstakes were seriously devalued.
Truthfully, he was almost surprised as every one else when he beat popular incumbent Richard Hackett by a razor-thin 142 votes. One early supporter recalled finding him sitting in his new office following his swearing in ceremony, asking: “Now what do I do?” His friend described him as the dog who caught the car he was chasing.
It was the same motivation that led him to run for a fifth term last year. It wasn’t because he had a clear political agenda or a pressing political program. It was personal. It was to show certain people that he wouldn’t be pushed aside.
It’s hard now after more than six years of unfocused leadership by Mayor Herenton to understand the sense of excitement that greeted his election. It is equally difficult to remember the good work that he did in those early years and the inspiration that he created among people who were traditionally disenfranchised in the political process.
His Finest Hour
Unquestionably, his finest hour was in 1998 when he fought back the incorporation of a ring of new suburban towns around Memphis (think St. Louis). His battle against the state’s “tiny town” legislation pitted him against some powerful political forces and in the end, defeating them was the crowning achievement of his 18 years in office.
He was equally decisive when it came to public facilities and public improvements – such as the riverfront, Autozone Park or FedEx Forum – but on other policy fronts, he regularly laid out bold visions followed by limited action, a tendency that followed him from the school district where it was said that each new year brought a new vision for Memphis’ schools.
Sadly, it resulted in so many chances when he was unable to convert his rhetoric into solid results.
Only in his rhetoric was downtown Memphis in the midst of a renaissance, and regardless of how many times he repeated $3 billion investment as evidence of progress, it was obvious that downtown lacked the vibrancy and activity found in downtowns that had been revived across the U.S. during the Clinton boom years.
Only in his rhetoric was there a plan for the future of Memphis. Parks were declining. Quality public realm was the exception not the rule. There was no emphasis on designing a city as much as taking whatever idea came in the front door.
Only in his rhetoric was there anything resembling a response to the sprawl that was decimating his city. In fact, when confronted with the hollowing out of the city by the middle class, he invited even more to leave.
Only in his rhetoric were there suggestions that the condition of the multi-generationally poor was improving. In fact, they were sinking further and further into a pit of deprivation, lacking money and any serious opportunity to claw their way into the economic mainstream.
While it is impossible to doubt his deep love for his city, it’s inarguable that his rhetoric on several occasions hastened its decline, particularly when he invited people to love it or leave it. It was a time when we almost thought we could hear the stampede, as Memphis took its place as one of the nation’s most hollowed out cities.
Most painfully of all, for the past 19 years, three people between the ages of 25-34 years old left our community each day.
As a result, the Memphis that was created during the Herenton years became one that was largely polarized by race and income, populated by the rich who could afford to live anywhere and the poor who have no options but to stay.
It’s left to history to be the ultimate judge about the Herenton years. At this point, it seems probable that he will be cited as a historic figure and a larger-than-life leader whose promise always seem to remain just out of his grasp. As we have said before, it’s as if the concept of Willie Herenton always outstripped the reality of Willie Herenton.
Benefits To The Wrong City
Had he not been in the Memphis mayor’s office, our city might be in the same position as Nashville, where Mayor Karl Dean is on the verge of taking over operations of his city’s schools and driving reform and change. It is worth remembering that there was a time when Mayor Herenton was considered one of the U.S.’s most innovative urban district superintendents, pioneering decentralized and site-based management.
Sadly, it was another missed opportunity caused by his presence in the mayor’s office. While there was important support for a mayor-led school district in Memphis, there was none for him to lead it. Because of it, the momentum moved ahead in Nashville but died here.
In the end, when Mayor Herenton looks to his most meaningful days, if not his legacy, we suspect that he would cite his years as superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Even today, public education generally and Memphis City Schools specifically elicits an enthusiasm and energy in him that is seldom seen with any other subject (except his family).
In his way, he proved the power that a great mayor can have on a city (his own before and after example). The early version was the bridge builder and he benefitted from the “at least he’s not Harold Ford” sentiment. But he got things done, stood up for racial understanding and built a bi-racial coalition.
Hero To Anti-Hero
But Harold vanished, and there was no good cop-bad cop profile to the city’s political leadership. Enter Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton. Suddenly, Mayor Herenton assumed the Harold Ford role and Mayor Wharton was the highly favored local leader.
It was a bitter point in Mayor Herenton’s career and became a motivator in the anger which always seemed to be seething just below the surface. He became the anti-hero to his first two terms, seeding racial discord, confusing and complicating public debate and confounding reasoned City Hall decision-making.
It was a sad finale to a man with so much promise and who began his political career with such high potential. But he’s not done yet, and it will be interesting whether the hero or the anti-hero shows up for his Congressional campaign against Rep. Steve Cohen.