FOR 2005, WILLIE HERENTON SPEAKS MORE SOFTLY

FOR 2005, WILLIE HERENTON SPEAKS MORE SOFTLY

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So Mayor Willie Herenton has spoken, signifying -- as is the custom -- that a New Year has begun. But those of the Memphis chief executive’s sometime intimates who predicted a “bombshell” -- read in particular: Reginald French -- were mistaken. Even the pallid fireworks that dotted the city’s landscape the night before did not merit such a name; still less did the few pro forma firecrackers (a scolding of The Commercial Appeal and a ritual swipe at the white suburbs among them) that the mayor dutifully set off.

As for the oval silver-and-dark blue stickers that mayoral helpers passed out to attendees leaving Herenton’s Convention Center “prayer breakfast” ('WW/The Mayor/2007,' they said): those auguries of a fifth term hardly add up to a bombshell, despite French’s claim that this is what he had meant. Considering that the mayor still has a decent-sized campaign kitty left from his last campaign and his last fundraiser, the printing costs to prepare such a feint don’t add up to much. We’ll believe it when we see it. (Which is not, of course, to say that we won’t!)

The proper way to read Herenton’s New Year’s Day remarks is as a return to form ante-2004 -- before the genuinely pyrotechnic exhibition of last year in the same venue. That was when Herenton likened himself to a Biblical prophet and aimed verbal thunderbolts at both his City Council as an institution and particular -- if unnamed -- members as individuals. What came of that was a yearlong struggle between the chief executive and his legislature, punctuated with multiple crisies , and ending with the warring parties united in an awkward dŽtente as common budgetary and admninistrative concerns suggested they find a common strategy.

After being introduced by Black Business Association president Roby Williams (who likened him to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” macho archetype), Herenton actually began his 2005 remarks with something of an apology for his tsunami of a year ago. “Last year,” he said, to a roomful of nervous chuckles, “I was in a different mood. Thank God that mood has passed on over. We’ve been through a storm. Thank God storms pass over.” He paid tribute to the clergymen and elected officials present, as well as to “members of the Memphis city council” -- of whom perhaps two -- sometime critic E.C. Jones and dependable supporter Barbara Swearengen Holt -- were conspicuous. A few blocks away at The Peabody, councilman Myron Lowery was holding his own annual prayer breakfast, which until last year had been the occasion for the mayor’s New Year’s Day remarks, or, as he himself referred to them, his “State of the City” address.

The messianic self-description of last year was gone. In its place was a modest homage by Herenton to the Lord who had delivered him from a segregated childhood of “slop jars” and “Number Two tubs.” He quoted the encouragements of his grandmother: “Willie, you’re God’s child, and that makes you just as good as anybody else’s child.” As for the past year of discord, “I got distracted; I lost focus.” He hearkened back to earlier years in his mayoralty when, as the city’s first elected black mayor, he set about demonstrating that, as a “transitional” mayor, he could manage the city into prosperity, “bring us together,” and secure positive achievements -- notably the resurrection of downtown. As has always been his custom, Herenton boasted about economic development and the city’s improved bond rating under his tenure -- though the bragsheet that was passed out on tabletops this year also contained warnings about the currently pending revenue crisis.

Like Nehemiah, the builder/prophet who had also been distracted, Herenton vowed that he, too, had “great goals, and I can’t come down.” (That was his way, in advance of the reelection stickers, of suggesting that a fifth mayoral campaign was in order.)

“Now, my style gets me in trouble from time to time, and I understand that; Please understand that I am not perfect. I have all the frailties that all of you have here. They just don’t show yours on Channel 5, 13, and 3,” said Herenton, who promised that in the future, “you’re going to see this mayor and the city council work hand in glove.”

Then came a dose of cold water, “We’re going to reduce expenditures,” he promised, but he warned his constituents to “reduce your expectations.” In his speech, Herenton mentioned one ongoing economy -- the reduction of city garbage runs. (In a chat with reporters later, he suggested that the city’s police presencxe might also have to be scaled down.) “We can’t be all things to all people and keep your tax rate where you expect it to be,” Herenton told the prayer-breakfast attendees.. Hence his proposal (one alternative among several floated last month) for eliminating the city’s $86 million in contributions for its public schools -- an action which would make Shelby County government responsible for all education expenditures and allow the city to balance its budget while reducing its tax rate. Other municipalities avoided such budgetary commitments, the mayor noted. “Why should we be treated differently?” Herenton expressed his hopes for consensus on this stratagem. : “I hope I can convince the city council to stand with me. It’s a hardball play on my part. That’s what it is.”

He pumped for consolidation again this year, as he has in most previous ones. “Public officials need to step up,” he insisted. “They’re going to break the bank with two separate governments. I’ve been saying that!; I want some elected officials to look themselves in the mirror and ask, are they making a difference? Or are they just so happy to be there that you won’t make hard decisions, because you think you won’t be reelected.” Iif city officials "don't break ranks," Herenton said, they can force county government to deal with the issue of financing the public schools.

That, his acknowledgement that he wasn’t the “Number One Fan” of "selfish" suburban municipalities, and his reminder that county officials would be on the line in the election of 2006, were as close as he came to fire and brimstone this year, unless one counted some relatively dark musings about the “highs and lows” of the past year, during which he thought “very seriously,” he said, about possibly departing office for the sake of some “real estate ventures.” After reprising the Nehemiah comparison, he said, “Now, I’m back on focus; .If the Lord keeps me healthy, I intend to fulfill this term and am even looking beyond.” He said his adversaries should attempt to win the mayor’s office “at the ballot box” not, as he seemed to suggest, by arranging to make him the target of investigations.

As for any probes being conducted by the FBI or the Attorney General’s office or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation -- all based, according to reports, on suspect aspects of the brokering of Memphis Light Gas & Water’s $1.5 billion prepayment deal with the Tennessee Valley Authority last year., the mayor made his line of defense -- politically and, mayhap, legally -- perfectly clear: African Americans are “getting a fraction, a minute fraction” of public business.

And if he intervened “appropriately” on behalf of minority firms (various reports suggest his having done so in the MLGW/TVA deal, even for firms that may have benefited his mayoral campaigns), that was in line with his general campaign to improve the economic lot of his fellow African Americans. “I want to send a message: If we are serious about raising the socio-economic status of this community, you’ve got to include African American businesses in the total equation.” Doing so, he affirmed, would remain “a priority” in the coming year. “If that means I’m going to be investigated, they can just keep on investigating; I’m going to open the doors of opportunity for black principals and black entrepreneurs. If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” On that note, more defensive and exhortatory than confrontational, Herenton concluded.

Reactions from most of those present were as ambiguous and as muted (relatively) as the remarks themselves had been. Councilman Jones expressed satisfaction that the mayor’s tone had been more conciliatory than last year (though he noted that some of the thunder was still there and, further, that consolidation would likely remain a pipe dream). District Attorney General Bill Gibbons allowed as how Herenton’s speech might merit a ‘5’ on a Richter scale measuring provocation but likened the mayor’s forthrightness to that of his party’s president, George W. Bush. The most interesting suggeston came from a friend of the mayor’s in the judiciary. “Write something nice about him,” she said, adding, after a pause, “Leave out the quotes!” Then she laughed. Somewhat nervously.

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