Still Standing

You may think you're through with Willie Herenton. But he's not through with you.



Brandon Dill

"Here's a guy, he's a five-term mayor. He's dabbled in real estate, he's been on corporate boards. What does Herenton do next?"

"There have been some rumors. Will he really take [Mayor] A C [Wharton] on in 2011? If there's a Metro form of government, will he get excited about that? Remember, he always pushed for Metro government. Would Herenton re-emerge to be a Metro mayor?"

"There's a lot of disenchantment with A C. There are rumors. Will he be drafted? Can we see him in the political ring again? In two more years, will he take Cohen on again? Or is he through with politics? Are there business opportunities out there? Will he do that?"

And who's the speaker of these lines? Willie Herenton himself, at his ease with this journalist in September, playing prognosticator on the subject of — Willie Herenton! The former five-times-elected mayor and recent congressional candidate had carefully stayed out of the spotlight since his humbling 4-to-1 loss in early August to incumbent Steve Cohen in the race for the Democratic nomination in the 9th Tennessee District. A "referendum on Willie Herenton," as the former mayor would describe it in what was universally seen as a gracious concession speech.

So what indeed does he do next? On a mid-September day, Herenton agreed to discuss the matter in an exclusive interview for Memphis magazine. Casually dressed and clearly at peace with himself, he sat down with me in the cavernous interior of his erstwhile campaign headquarters at the intersection of South Third and Belz.

The ex-mayor's relaxed, insouciant manner may have been a carry-over from the attitude of acceptance he displayed on election night — although in our interview he would make the cryptic statement, "I did not lose an election," promising to follow that up in the book he says he's writing about his life and times.

More likely, Herenton was beginning to feel his oats again. Not all of his cards were on the table. Maybe, as he indicated, he was holding something back for "the book," and maybe there was a thing or two about to happen that he chose only to hint at. At one point, he made a point of announcing, with all the portentousness of a drumroll: "I no longer identify with the Democratic Party. I am an independent."

My reaction to that must have seemed too matter-of-fact (after all, Herenton in the past had often wandered off the party reservation, having pointedly endorsed Republican Lamar Alexander for senator in 2002, for example). In any case, Herenton fixed me with what was clearly meant to be a significant look, said he wasn't sure I was grasping what he was hinting at, and continued, "It's important. You'll see why later on."

Okay, time for conjecture: From his time as mayor, Herenton was friendly with Knoxville chief executive Bill Haslam, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, as both men had confirmed in earlier conversations I'd had with them. Was there something possibly in the works?

As for what else Herenton might have in mind to do, he told me he had been "looking for business opportunities in Nashville and Atlanta" and might have something going there.

But all of that was preamble. Now came the big news, the bird in the hand, as it were: Willie Herenton is poised to join the ranks of those luminaries — the Tim McCarvers and Eliot Spitzers of the world — who have departed from the fields in which they achieved eminence and/or notoriety to enter the broadcast booth.

More accurately in Herenton's case, the broadcast studio. Starting this fall, when and if negotiations with Flinn Broadcasting Corporation conclude with actual signatures on the dotted lines, Herenton will become a noontime talk-show host on a newly created news-oriented station in the Flinn stable.

As I knew, Herenton had already had conversations with both Dr. George Flinn, the radiologist and former Shelby County commissioner who founded the now far-flung Flinn Broadcasting Network, and son Shea Flinn, the lawyer and city councilman who is the architect of this latest expansion of the Flinn family enterprises.

And now, after a period of mulling it over, Herenton came to a decision in the very course of our conversation. "I'm going to do it!" he said. As we went to press, things were moving quickly toward a formal contract-signing.

And why not? From the Flinns' point of view, they would be acquiring a personality familiar, one way or another, to everybody within reach of their broadcast signal, someone fully conversant with the metropolitan issues of the day, and a pre-vetted attraction with the hottest possible pre-existing profile.

And from Herenton's standpoint? "I always kidded news commentators, 'I know how to do this, because I've been your target all these years.'"

The degree of his success would remain to be seen — or, rather, heard. But of all his available options, it was hard to imagine an opportunity better suited to restore his lost viability, to give him renewed influence in the world, and to allow him the range to extend and satisfy the curiosity and drive that had taken him, first, into an educational career and then into politics, where he had become both icon and, of late, tragic figure.

I recalled the last time I had visited with Herenton in the interior of this now largely deserted space on South Third. Back then, it was the site of some modestly bustling activity. That was the morning of Saturday, July 10, 2010, and Herenton was leaning back on a chair in a corner room of the headquarters. With him were two aides — Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, a political ally of some years' standing, and Michael Gray, a former bodyguard who had served Herenton long and well.

The two of them were the core of Herenton's bare-bones campaign staff, getting ad hoc assistance from Tony Elion, another longtime bodyguard, along with broadcaster/blogger Thaddeus Matthews, the embodiment of African-American gonzo and a constant supporter and companion of Herenton's since — well, since he gave up attempts to force a recall of the then-mayor four or five years back.

Having just arrived, I stood unobtrusively against a side wall and listened. Herenton was saying to Chism, "We may need a whole network of radios. What we need to do at all our locations when we do advance, we need radio communications."

Chism agreed. "See, we're off schedule about 10 or 15 minutes. If we had the radio, we'd just pick up . . ."

Herenton interrupted. "That's what I'm talking about. It's that simple."

The former mayor turned in my direction. "Jackson, I wanted you to hear that part. What you heard then was the fact that we need multiple sets of radios for communication because we do a lot of advancing. You've got to have communication when you're moving from one location to the other. And if there are any glitches, anybody needs anything, we'd have instant communication. That's what we're talking about."

This radio network would have to operate "all over the 9th District," Herenton said.

And Chism, going along with what, it was all too apparent, was an outsized estimate for what was then, and would remain, a modest campaign effort, said, "We're going to need about 50 or 60 people."

That was about twice the number of Herenton loyalists who had been rounded up for an all-day motorcade that would thread its way through the streets and thoroughfares and neighborhoods of the 9th congressional district, which encompasses most of currently incorporated Memphis.

Herenton spelled it out. "What you see me doing now is, I'm deep in the trenches and contacting our voters, and you're going to see intensity."

It was to be the first full day of actual campaigning of any kind for Herenton, who — for reasons he never succeeded in making clear — decided in the spring of 2009 to challenge the incumbent congressman, Steve Cohen, then a few months later resigned the mayoralty that at least might have given him the wherewithal to put the arm on potential donors.

The ex-mayor was making do with financial contributions that he acknowledged came to "less than $50,000." (Well less; his financial disclosures would show receipts of less than half that sum.) Meanwhile, Cohen had something like a million dollars in reserve and the ability to make news on a daily basis through the simple medium of a press release.

Still, Herenton, as the winner of an epochal victory in 1991, when he defeated another favored incumbent, then Mayor Dick Hackett, to become Memphis' first elected black mayor, had name I.D. Call it legendary status, in fact.

When he overheard me discussing with Chism the fact that the latter, who was about to assume the chairmanship of the county commission, had been included in Memphis magazine's "Who's Who" list for the 2010 City Guide, Herenton sounded off.

"Memphis magazine. That's been another mean magazine. I'm familiar with what he's talking about." As far as the Who's Who list went, "I'm there every year — in the, what do you call it?"

The Hall of Fame, he was reminded, the special list for those who have been included in the Who's Who every year since 1984, at which time future mayor Herenton was superintendent of Memphis City Schools.

"Yeah, the Hall of Fame. What they do is, on the little narrative description, if they like you, you get little glowing narrative descriptions. When they get to me, it's —" Here his voice turned sharp and nasal and edgy, and he got out the word "Herenton" and a few mumbled syllables before he trailed off without a finished predicate. It was the same affected voice, I realized, that he had used a few days earlier at a press conference while attempting an imitation of one of his bêtes noires, WREG-TV commentator Norm Brewer.

Brewer and then Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford had been scheduled to co-moderate a TV debate involving Herenton and Cohen, but the former mayor bailed out months after his initial acceptance, pronouncing the two panelists to be "biased" and unacceptable and thereby forgoing what might have been some useful free media for his cash-poor campaign.

At this stage of his life, Herenton has a jaundiced opinion of the mainstream media. He talked about a recent interview he'd given Ursula Madden, a WMC-TV news anchor, and, while he bragged on Madden as being "bright," he recalled quarreling with her about one of her questions.

"She — what's the word?" he said, trying to recall, then had it. "'Presuppose!' I said, 'Your question is saturated with presuppositions.' She says, 'What?' I say, 'Presuppositions.' I said presuppositions are lead-in statements. 'If I answer you with those presuppositions I give credence to them.'"

Madden's presupposition had, as he recalled it, been posed to him this way: "'Given the fact that you've had this history with the Justice Department — and is the investigation over? — would your mind be just consumed with the investigation?'"

As most of Memphis knew, Herenton had indeed been preoccupied for much of the last two years with an FBI investigation of possible conflict-of-interest involved in his profiting as a private speculator in a real-estate transfer of Greyhound bus station property after he, as mayor, had pushed the rezoning that enabled it. Though no indictment ever came, his reputation had taken a mauling — a circumstance Herenton clearly regarded as unfair.

"I said, 'Okay, I'll answer your question.' I said, 'First of all, they never should have been there anyway. It was baseless. There was never any rational reason other than for political, racial purposes to take me through a persecution. The prosecution never occurred. But there was a persecution, okay?'"

Herenton said he had assured Madden that he would not be distracted from attending to his congressional duties, if elected.

"It's just if any reporter hits you with a negative question, you just walk into it and they've got you responding to something that's not even true."

Which served to remind him of my reason for being there — representing the aforementioned "mean" Memphis magazine. "You walked in, we're talking some real strategic stuff. I just shared a little bit." He laughed and said he couldn't afford to have me "too close."

Moments later, having shown me a bare room containing a map of the 9th District, he pronounced it a "war room" which would have to be "off limits." But he happily posed for a snapshot in front of the map. And, with Chism meanwhile having rejoined us, Herenton returned to a standing grudge — the one he had maintained for years against his predecessor as a major-domo in Memphis' inner city, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.

"I remember once when Harold Ford was running. That's when Reginald French was working close to me. That's when Ford had a headquarters on the second level of Beale Street. We came down there and he was scared to death, Sidney. I was trying to figure out, why in the world is Harold Ford nervous? I was trying to figure out, why does he need me? He's gonna beat this guy.

"I started asking him questions, and I found out they had no organization. He never had an organization. They never had an organization. No, no, he was off the seat of his pants. What he was a master at was this: He'd always create press, especially going down the stretch. He always wanted to make press. Get the attention of the press, that was all.

"His energy level was — aw, he had a high energy level, Harold Ford, but in terms of organization? You know the year [1999, when the ex-congressman's brother Joe Ford was an opponent] we beat 'em so bad in so many precincts. Man, we had an army of people. He didn't have any people, didn't have an organization, didn't have anything. His was a bully pulpit, and we beat that!"

Herenton smiled, savoring his remembered triumph as he led me out of the "war room" into the large open floor where, here and there, sitting on a battered couch or at otherwise barren, uncluttered desks, participants in the forthcoming motorcade were waiting for instructions.

"All right, get ready. 'Just One!'" Michael Gray said, reminding the motorcaders of the ex-mayor's campaign slogan and passing out signs bearing those words — meant to suggest that Tennessee should have at least one African-American in Congress, and where else but the majority-black 9th District?

By now, Herenton himself, clad in a red T-shirt and having donned a red-and-white campaign hat with the "Just One" slogan on it, was ready to go.

We passed a large portrait hanging from one wall. It showed a much more youthful Willie Herenton, fully suited, with a determined, ambitious look and a full head of dark hair.

"A young Willie Herenton," I observed.

"Oh yeah," said the older, 70-year-old Willie Herenton, balding and gray under his "Just One" cap. "That's me as schools superintendent. I got some more somewhere else. I got some big ones."

Big ones.  After August 5th, it was hard for anyone but a Herenton-hater not to feel some sadness for the fallen idol, whose long predominance — in politics, anyhow — then seemed irrevocably gone.

I have often reflected on the sheer irony of what he'd said so dismissively, a month earlier, about Harold Ford Sr.: They never had an organization. No, no, he was off the seat of his pants. What he was a master at was this: He'd always create press, especially going down the stretch. He always wanted to make press. Get the attention of the press, that was all.

Back in May, having rejected the one televised debate previously agreed to, Herenton turned up at opponent Cohen's Union Avenue headquarters for an impromptu press conference after failing to involve the congressman in discussions for scheduling other debates on the mayor's own terms.

From my account of that press conference, in the Memphis Flyer: "There was a brief but impassioned verbal detour during which Herenton called me 'inept' for having suggested (in several recent columns and interviews, I'll admit) that there was no Herenton campaign to speak of. No money, no events, no paraphernalia, no organization, no campaign — unless you count the occasional stab at getting some free media, like, come to think of it, the press conference on Friday.

"'How do you have the audacity to talk about the campaign organization of the longest-serving mayor in this city, who beat an entrenched Republican and had no money, who dismantled the Ford political machine?' Herenton thundered."

It was the first of two major run-ins we would have during the course of his Last Hurrah 2010 campaign. The second would come two weeks later, at what he would call a "free-for-all" press conference at his then freshly opened South Third headquarters.

I would open up that session with this question: "Isn't this really an attempt to get free media? Are you not asking us to provide free coverage for a campaign you're not running?"

Whereupon the onetime amateur boxing champion would serve to remind me, via a series of verbal jabs he threw my way during the course of the ensuing hour-and-a-half, that he had been no slouch in the ring and still possessed a move or two.

I had known Herenton for almost 20 years, having covered his 1991 race for mayor, when I was one of the few reporters to have given his underdog campaign a chance against incumbent mayor Hackett, who was widely expected to coast to victory. I had interviewed him many times since, both singly and in tandem with such Flyer colleagues as John Branston and the late Dennis Freeland.

I had never ceased to enjoy Herenton's outgoing, candid presence in such encounters, and, even before he confirmed the fact in our September conversation, I felt reasonably sure that — those two bumps along the way in 2010 notwithstanding — he reciprocated the feeling.

He had, after all, a month before leaving office as mayor, given me and the Flyer the highly candid and introspective look-back over his political career we titled "The Exit Interview," the one in which he blasted old foes like Ford and in which he characterized the upcoming one, Cohen, with the blunt term "asshole."

He would often, in conversation, recall the very title of a profile of him I had written in 1999, when he stood poised to defeat a whole galaxy of name-brand opponents, including the aforementioned Joe Ford. "Still the Man," that piece had been titled, and Herenton would delight in the phrase. "I'm still the man, Jackson. Still the man!"

Except, bu mid-summer of 2010, he clearly wasn't. His July 10th motorcade — a low-budget affair in which he and his band of supporters would honk and wave as they drove through neighborhoods, then stop at major intersections to get out and wave some more, sometimes to be honked at by friendly motorists — had gone okay, though there was nothing in it to disprove my frequently expressed thesis that he had no organization, no money, no real campaign, and therefore no hope.

And only two days later the boom was lowered on a campaign that was already on life support.

It came in the form of a simple, straightforward written statement from the White House: "Congressman Cohen is a proven leader in the United States Congress and a strong voice for Tennessee. Together, we passed historic health-care reform and together we're continuing the fight to renew our economy and bring jobs back to the American people. I am proud to stand with Steve and support his re-election to Congress. — President Barack Obama."

Polls taken by Cohen had already shown him with a surpassing lead over Herenton, whose "Just One" campaign apparently seemed — to black voters as well as white — a disappointing reductio for a man whose 17 years as mayor had surely given him sufficient issue-based grounds to run on. Downtown redevelopment and refurbished public housing, to name two. Not to mention the fact that black voters in the 9th District had controlled the outcome ever since 1974, when Ford Sr. won his first race, going on to serve ten terms before relinquishing the seat to his son, Harold Ford Jr.

That fact, plus Herenton's own string of mayoral victories in the overlapping Memphis jurisdiction after 1991, made it obvious that Memphis' African-American electorate could elect one of their own any time it chose. Even before the Obama statement it was clearly on course to opt for Cohen again (as it had in 2008 when Cohen ran for re-election against an African-American nonentity, Nikki Tinker).

But after Obama's endorsement of Cohen came the deluge. Black public figures and officeholders (in Washington as well as Memphis), and, just as importantly, ministers — a group that had earlier tended to keep its distance — began lining up to confer their own endorsements on the incumbent white, Jewish congressman.

Among local officials willing to endorse him, Herenton had only Chism — unless you counted City Court clerk Thomas Long, who made a few public appearances with the ex-mayor (as he had two years earlier with Tinker) and city councilman Joe Brown, who would play host for Herenton's final campaign event.

This — billed as a "North Memphis rally" — was originally planned for a parking lot outside but, because of the stifling 100-degree heat, was held in a commercial space used by Brown as a district office, where some 40-odd diehard supporters listened as Herenton ridiculed several published polls showing him the loser and proclaimed the certainty of a 4-1 victory.

The former mayor had one caveat: "You got to watch these white folks," he warned, speaking of alleged "irregularities" that occurred during the 2006 election. "Anything goes down, you got to watch white folks counting." That was one of the lessons learned on the slave ships, he said.

A few days later, he was holding another press conference at his South Third headquarters, gamely citing mysterious poll results ("I'm my own best pollster," he said when pressed about the source) that showed him headed toward the aforesaid landslide. The other polls had erred by being countywide and not restricted to the 9th District, where there were monster turnouts for him in some heavily black precincts. Or so he claimed.

He did not look like somebody about to be a runaway winner. Gone was the mischievous boxer's smirk that the old Golden Glover sported when he thought he was ahead in the late rounds. He was rope-a-dopin' it with no punch left. Or so it seemed.

There had been attempts to regain the initiative — notably at a late rally outside his headquarters when he tried to maintain that his "Just One" rhetoric was aimed at the class line, not the color line; and at the Election Commission downtown when he — like Cohen on the same day — early-voted, schmoozing with black voters waiting in line with him and exchanging fist bumps of solidarity.

But more common had been weeks like the one in late July, post-Obama, when such events as were announced through the medium of emails from Gray, who had become his former boss' major handler, turned out, often as not, to be no-shows. One night, after a string of such things, I had showed up at an event which had been billed as a "Herenton Social Supper," held at Chow Time Buffet & Grill in Hickory Hill.

Herenton arrived, late, at Chow Time, one of those all-you-can-eat establishments with multiple buffet tables and diners who took their eating seriously. Threading his way through the restaurant's outer rooms, the former mayor made his way around the crowded tables toward the back room which had been reserved for his event.

He stopped at one table, recognizing the members of a family who had moved up north some time ago and were back on this night — whether temporarily or permanently, whether for Herenton's event or coincidentally, was never made clear.

But Herenton was delighted to encounter them. "Good to see you," he would exclaim. "It's so cold I don't know how y'all live up there in the wintertime." In Memphis it had been another steamy hot day of 100-degree-plus temperatures.

He listened to some compliments from the flattered family, who assured him he would do well in the election. Noticing me, he cocked his head in my direction. "Tell him," he said. "He don't know." He was smiling pleasantly as he said this, and the family members, not knowing what else to do, smiled pleasantly at me as well.

Herenton headed toward the back room. I tried to follow him but was met at the door by Gray, who told me politely that the affair was private, not for media, but for "a few family and friends."

The next night's event, called a "Mix and Mingle," and scheduled for a nightclub at an address on Winchester, would be different — "wide open," I was assured. When the next night came, however, I couldn't find anything at the address listed in the email he'd sent me and called Gray on his cell phone for directions.

When he answered, he told me he honestly didn't know where the place was and hadn't tried to go himself. "You know, Jackson, a lot of these things aren't really our events. Some people have something and ask us to come by." I could almost feel his shrug over the telephone.

The "Mix and Mingle" had apparently been one of "these things." My mind flashed back to a bash that mayoral candidate Herenton had scheduled for Memphis lawyers in 1991, at a low ebb in his underdog campaign. The event was being held at the showcase restaurant at the summit of the 100 North Main Building.

When I'd got there, there were only two people present — Herenton and his then campaign manager, attorney Charles Carpenter. They sat, somewhat forlornly, dressed to the nines and surrounded by lavish quantities of shrimp, salmon, and other comestibles, all untouched, in silver dishes laid upon expanses of chopped ice that had begun to melt.

There had been time, in that miracle year of 1991, to turn that campaign around. Time in 2010 had run out, however. There was yet to come only the "rally" at Joe Brown's and that final I've-got-the-numbers press conference.

And there was Election Night. Addressing a crowd at Memphis Botanic Garden that had shrunk considerably in the course of the evening, as the returns had made his fate clear and turned the atmosphere dirgelike, Herenton had not flinched from reality.

"The community spoke," he acknowledged. "If I'm honest with myself, and I have to be, that was somewhat of a referendum on Willie Herenton. In some other time in some other forum I will express in a historical context and probably in an ethnocentric context what is really occurring."

The when and where and how of that were left indefinite, but, if the new career of Willie Herenton, Lion of the Airwaves, comes to pass and takes hold, it could all happen sooner than any of us had anticipated. And there is the forthcoming memoir, of course — "the book," the intended repository, it would seem, of much that will stay on the Q.T. until then.

Often during our talk in September, Herenton would react to something by sprouting a smile and saying, "Oh now, Jackson, you're getting into the book," then take the conversation in another direction.

Much of what he said during our talk was familiar — his proud boast that the city's reserves had climbed from $3 million to $90 million during his mayorship or his conviction that the Ford political dynasty had been so "bad for the body politic" that he determined to oppose it whenever and however he could, or his belief that The Commercial Appeal, the U.S. Attorney's office, and the FBI had conspired to destroy his reputation, or his prediction that "the best years of Memphis were under the Herenton administration, the worst will be under Wharton."

Herenton confirmed my surmise that he had entered politics by default, becoming a consensus black candidate for mayor in 1991 only after being forced to resign from the schools superintendent's job he loved in the wake of a sex scandal and facing accusations of administrative irregularities.

Reluctantly, he said, he had agreed to run for mayor, but there were limits to what he could be talked into. "Everybody wanted me to get married," he recalled, summarizing the view of his political advisors, concerned about the lingering effects on the divorced ex-superintendent of a jilted teacher's lawsuit for breach of promise. "African-American women won't vote for you, they said. You've got to get married. You're out of your damn mind, I told them. You can get me to run for mayor, but you're not going to get me married."

He recalled with pride that he had been considered for the superintendency of the Chicago and New York systems and had actually accepted the top school job in Atlanta before, he said, "the black people [in Memphis] wouldn't let me leave."

He talked with regret of the fact that he had not been able to accomplish in Memphis the kind of collaboration between a black professional/governing class and the corporate elite that he had seen work in Atlanta.

And he was fatalistic but accepting concerning the decline of his political base over his 17-year mayoral tenure. "There is some substance to the notion that you can stay too long. There are some people who came to the dance with you who may not dance with you for 20 years. You can't be everything people want you to be. Some of my friends fell off, some of them were corporate, some of them were grass roots. Some people you disappoint. You make tough decisions. People look at you different."

But at 70, Willie Herenton refuses to see himself as down for the count. "Always remember, I was a fighter in the ring. No bigger than this," he said, tracking a modest-sized square in the carpet with the toe of his shoe. "I could tell if I hit a guy I got his attention. You can tell by the eyes. He looks at you different.

"I remember a guy hit me with a left hook. My lights went out. I'll never forget that punch. I don't know how I stood up. I couldn't see anything. I was standing up but I was out. I was wondering, could he see that? But I said then, he will never hit me again with that punch in this fight!"

As far as Willie Herenton is concerned, he is still standing, still in the fight, and determined to prove it.      

Jackson Baker is senior editor of the Memphis Flyer, a contributing editor of the Tennessee Journal, and a contributor to Memphis magazine. He has worked as a reporter for the Arkansas Gazette and as an aide in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He was a panelist on the WKNO-TV series Informed Sources and an assistant professor of English at the University of Memphis. A frequent TV commentator, he has written for such periodicals as Time Magazine and the New York Times. Jackson has won numerous journalism awards, including four Green Eyeshade Awards from the Society for Professional Journalists. He is married and has four children and two grandchildren. He lives in Cordova, Tennessee.

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