Politics » Politics Feature

CITY BEAT: Flashback to 1991 -- With a Twist

It's not the snakes, but the old bulls who define politics in the Herenton Era



In the immortal words of Mary Winkler after she whacked her husband, our "ugly got out" last week.

The bizarre events involving Mayor Willie Herenton, attorney Richard Fields, and his client-turned-accuser Gwen Smith promise an ugly year of retro politics driven by religion, race, revenge, and fear.

Doubtless there are plenty of snakes of all kinds in Memphis, but the city's biggest problem are the old bulls who still run the show. The relationship between Herenton and Fields goes back to 1969, when, as principal and teacher, they joined a school boycott called "Black Mondays" to get black representatives on the school board.

Fields supported Herenton and the NAACP when the school board tried to appoint a white superintendent in 1978. When Herenton was elected mayor in 1991 by just 142 votes, Fields was one of only two prominent white citizens to publicly support him. In federal court that year, he helped strike down the runoff provision in mayoral elections, enabling Herenton to win with 49.4 percent of the vote. He represented Herenton in his divorce and in well-publicized lawsuits filed by a teacher and a police officer.

"I know how to keep confidences," Fields said in a Flyer interview last week.

An activist at heart, he also knows how to take matters into his own hands. He tried to influence county and judicial elections last year by recommending some candidates and criticizing others with information gleaned from public records. He got in the middle of a state Senate election involving attorney Robert Spence earlier this year. And in March, he took a mayoral poll, and when it showed strong signs of Herenton fatigue, he took it to the top floor of City Hall.

"That's been my role," Fields said. "I get to disagree with him. That's the kind of relationship we have."

Or had, anyway. Fields says they met cordially that afternoon for three-and-a-half hours, talking about old times and the mayor's legacy as well as the poll and the people surrounding Herenton, particularly Reginald French, an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff last year and head of the beer board. Fields suggested Herenton not run again. "I was trying to help him go out gracefully without any mess," Fields said.

Herenton gave a much different account. At a news conference, he mocked Fields and said his sincerity and concern for his legacy were bogus. Then he called him a snake.

Fields said he was "distressed" by that, and, moreover, he is tired of activism.

"I would really like to get out of the business of being the person on the front lines," he said. "I wish some young black lawyers would come forward. But there's a lot of resentment out there because of the judges' survey that I did."

He denied having a sexual relationship with Gwen Smith, who was jailed in Nashville last week for violating probation, or giving her any files or indictments that are not public record. He said businessman and Joseph Lee accuser Nick Clark is "my client," but he isn't working for any mayoral candidate, announced or otherwise.

Not that anyone is knocking on his door. Rough-cut, outspoken, and married and divorced four times, Fields is one-of-a-kind. Five years ago, when they were still on good terms, Herenton said, "A lot of my friends don't understand my friendship with Richard because he irritates the hell out of them."

The mayoral campaign of 2007 will be the most interesting and bitter one since 1991. On New Year's Day, Herenton cast himself in biblical terms of being "on the wall" like Nehemiah at Jerusalem. He quoted Scripture at his press conference last week and drew a chorus of "amens" from police officers and supporters in attendance.

Addressing black Memphians specifically, he warned of efforts to divide them and said, "This time, divide-and-conquer ain't going to work."

Ominously, he said, "There are those in this community who would like to see me removed by any means," and, without naming anyone, "They might resort to what happened to Dr. [Martin Luther] King in Memphis."

A bit stunned by that one, I asked the mayor's friend and former campaign chairman Charles Carpenter, who was there, if he heard what I heard. At first, he said there had been death threats against the mayor, but when I said I thought that should be reported, he said he wasn't sure. Standing nearby, police director Larry Godwin said he was unaware of any such threats.

By appealing for racial solidarity, Herenton has little to lose. He already cast black challenger Herman Morris as a "boy" in league with whites from the geriatric set. He has more than $500,000 in his campaign account but has raised only $1,650 this year, and much of what he raised last fall came from supporters in Detroit and Atlanta. In 1999 and 2003, he raised more than $300,000 each year.

And he is right that the polls showing him on the skids are biased and misleading. As the four-term incumbent, he can rally old warriors including attorneys Carpenter and Ricky Wilkins, former MLGW presidents Joseph Lee and Rev. James Netters, and political hands French, Sara Lewis, Deidre Malone (the Shelby County commissioner who orchestrated the Gwen Smith media festival), Sidney Chism, Gale Jones Carson, Stephanie Dowell, Pete Aviotti, Rick Masson, and TaJuan Stout Mitchell. Even some of the now-maligned "wealthy business leaders" may get over it and join Team Herenton once they see how the field shapes up and which way the wind is blowing.

Herenton's demand for a federal investigation of "an ongoing civil/criminal conspiracy designed to entrap African-American leaders in the city of Memphis" was a politically shrewd reminder that the scorecard so far in Operation Tennessee Waltz and Main Street Sweeper shows six black elected officials in Memphis and no whites. The unpopular Republican attorney general Alberto Gonzales, who is barely hanging on to his job, probably won't do a thing. And if any federal indictments come out of the investigation of Ralph Lunati's strip clubs, they can be spun as the work of snakes if they touch anyone close to the mayor.

Divide-and-conquer may not work, but that is assuredly the strategy. The latest one to employ it is Herenton.

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