Yes, Willie Herenton had a fund-raiser Saturday night, at $250 a head, but its purpose -- though earmarked on the invitation as being for the honoree's "reelection" -- remains obscure, as does the political future of Memphis' erstwhile "mayor for life." The bottom line: He is uncertain whether he wants to continue in office.
A year ago, Herenton was in the process of walking through a smashing election victory, his fourth since 1991, and there were no conceivable rivals in sight. Things have changed though, as the mayor acknowledged during his evening-long, drop-in event at Beale Street's Plush Club, one that wrapped around the Johnson-Jones light heavyweight title fight at the FedExForum.
"There are a lot of names you hear," said the mayor about potential aspirants for his job, "and some of them are frightening to even think about. I mean that as a citizen. People should be frightened to think about some of these folks trying to take over."
But, though Herenton said he was getting active encouragement to run again in 2007, "from the business community, in particular," his message Saturday night -- an unusual one for this preternaturally assertive ex-Golden Glove champion, an alpha male if there ever was one -- was that he was doubtful about his future political course.
"There have been so many ups and downs this past year," confessed a mayor who has conducted a running battle with members of his City Council and of late has endured the specter of an FBI investigation and a whispering campaign about possible improprieties on his part or on that of his administration.
"None of that is what it seems to be. I'm okay," insisted Herenton. But the troubled look in his face as he dealt with the matter clearly attested to a measure of strain and anxiety.
"You're probably right," the mayor said when it was suggested that he appeared dubious about seeking reelection and that such a course was chancy, repeating, "You're probably right." But he noted that, in addition to Saturday night's event, he would be holding a "major fund-raiser" sometime in 2005.
Asked about persistent rumors that he intends to resign shortly after the New Year, the mayor hazarded a thin smile and shook his head slowly in apparent dismissal, but his murmured denial sounded anything but firm.
Instead, he looked beyond the current time frame. "People wonder what my legacy will be," said the man who has never been bashful about asserting either his agenda or what he regards as his accomplishments. "I don't know. That's something that people who write the histories will have to judge."
That Herenton is thinking out loud about his legacy rather than about his next move in the chess game of politics is itself something of a revelation. Hours later, at the Forum, the city's chief executive was at ringside when longtime boxing icon Roy Jones suffered a surprising knockout loss to International Boxing Federation light heavyweight champion Glen Johnson.
"When I was with Roy last night, I could tell his heart wasn't in boxing," the mayor said sadly. One was tempted to conclude the same thing about Her-enton and politics.
• Command Performance: Remember when Memphis' Anthony "Amp" Elmore used to be simultaneously the holder of a championship kick-boxing belt and the promoter of various championship fights in which he would take on an opponent? You had to wonder how on-the-level such a thing could be.
Similar thoughts crossed the minds of some of those invited for an open house at the home of Shelby County commissioner John Willingham and his wife Marge on Fairchild Cove in East Memphis Sunday night. It was billed by Commissioner Willingham as a reception for the several candidates seeking to succeed the recently vacated District 1 commission seat of Linda Rendtorff, now director of community services for county mayor A C Wharton.
Since one of the aspirants for that seat is teacher Karla Templeton, daughter of Commissioner Willingham, some of the skeptics might have been forgiven for their doubts. As it turned out, however, most of the serious contenders for the vacancy were on hand, as were a fair number of Willingham's commission colleagues, media people, and others. In fact, it was a right smart party -- with a wet bar and food furnished by barbecue maven Willingham himself -- and all of the politicking seemed to be congenial and on the up-and-up.
Best yet, nobody made speeches.
Among the candidates for Rendtorff's vacancy who showed up, besides Templeton: Billy Orgel, Wyatt Bunker, Mike Carpenter, Mike Ritz, George Flinn, Jay Sparks, Mark White, Lester Lit, and Phil Kantor.
The same cast of characters, plus others (one new entrant is Jeff Hynes, son of Dr. Leonard Hynes and county election commissioner Nancy Hynes), were invited to a specially called commission meeting Wednesday, at which all the hopefuls were extended the opportunity to state their credentials and purpose for the record.
• District 1 Candidates Face Off: Some, perhaps most, of the races this fall for Memphis school board positions will be dry, civil affairs conducted in dry, civil ways. The race for District 1, at large, isn't like that at all.
Sparks -- or, more aptly -- mortar rounds flew Monday night at the Central Library on Poplar during a League of Women Voters forum for the six District 1 contestants. Most of the action came in a three-way battle royal involving incumbent Wanda Halbert and her chief challengers, Robert Spence and Kenneth Whalum Jr.
Though each of the three other contestants -- Mary Taylor Shelby, Menelik C. Fombi, and Chuck Thompson -- had their moments, they were largely in the position of onlookers as the fireworks flew.
Former city attorney Spence, who has a current radio commercial attacking Halbert head-on for excessive travel expenses and other alleged offenses, took shots from the incumbent for the fact that his two school-age sons do not attend public school. "I am not the custodial parent" was the response he gave Monday night. He defended his commercial -- which includes a dig at Halbert for purportedly disdaining a bologna-sandwich lunch once proffered to school board members --as being based on "facts."
Halbert also took aim at opponent Whalum, making a reference to "sexual innuendoes" that would mystify some until after the forum, when sometime radio shock-jock Thaddeus Matthews made the rounds, passing out CD copies of an on-air interview he'd done with Whalum, one in which Whalum, pastor of Olivet Baptist Church, appeared to acknowledge occasional use of profanity and other unconventional pulpit techniques.
Whalum -- whose claque was somewhat more demonstrative than those of Halbert and Spence, clapping loudly whenever he spoke -- repeated several times that he decided to enter the school board race after seeing TV news broadcasts in which "I saw members of the school board publicly berating staff members at MCS [Memphis City Schools]."
Among candidates' specific proposals: Halbert suggested more computer programs and extension of the system's optional school program to every school in the district. Whalum suggested arrangements with the business community whereby parents could have paid leaves to address their children's school issues. He and Thompson both called for closing underutilized schools, while Spence argued for a go-slow policy in school closing, in recognition that some such schools were "integral to the community." Shelby called for undercover officers at schools to police gang activity.
Among the other issues addressed were those of extracurricular activities (everybody was for it); corporal punishment (opinions varied, with Shelby and Whalum strongly for, Fombi against, and the others qualifying their support); and construction contracting (proposals ranged from Whalum's call for stronger enforcement of existing standards to Fombi's suggestion that projects be scaled down to Shelby's advocacy of a crackdown on "nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism").
Some proposals -- such as Thompson's suggestion for drastic revision of course offerings -- seemed beyond the scope of board members, a point Halbert noted when she said the board was limited in its charge to general policies, budgetary oversight, and supervision of its "one employee," the superintendent.
Left unaddressed at the forum were the question of consolidation and the issue of the federally mandated No Child Left Behind program.
After the forum, one or two advocates for Halbert pointed out with evident satisfaction that candidates Spence and Whalum were likely to split up the anti-incumbent vote.
Whalum, addressing that point independently, volunteered that he'd been approached by one of Spence's backers seeking his withdrawal. "I told him to tell Robert he could withdraw," said Whalum.
That was then; this is now. Whoever is in is going to stay in on the ballot, and the candidates for this position will no doubt generate a good deal more of both heat and light between now and November 2nd. •