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Doing It Up Brown

As emcee, the former TV judge adds some shock content to the Shelby Democrats’ inaugural roast event for former Mayor Herenton.

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Saturday night's "roast" of former Mayor Willie Herenton at Colonial Country Club, a fund-raising affair of the Shelby County Democratic Party, was highlighted by many things, including a caustic comic monologue by former city councilman Brent Taylor and the culminating appearance of honoree Herenton himself.

But the most talked-about aspect of the affair was a raging monologue by former Criminal Court judge and erstwhile TV judge Joe Brown, not to be confused with the city council member by that name. Brown, who emceed the event, at one point went off on an apparent stream-of-consciousness ramble in which, among other things, he was harshly critical of President Barack Obama: "I think Doc [Herenton] would have made a better president than the one we got up there, because, hell, help is not on the damn way! Been there six years, and I have not seen any bill to put people back to work."

Brown also had pointed remarks about gays: "I don't care if you're gay or not. Do it behind closed doors, and keep Big Brother out of the bedroom. But I'm damned if I'm going to get all worked up about this stuff coming out of San Francisco, when gay rights are more important than people having employment rights!"

And, contending that the rate of illegitimate births in Shelby County had reached 86 percent, Brown fumed, "And the preachers don't tell these girls to keep their legs shut!"

There was much more in that vein, and, most unusually for what was, after all, a Democratic Party event, and especially since he had talked out loud about possibly seeking an elective office himself next year, Brown concluded, "Get down to business, cut some throats if necessary, and cooperate with the Republican parties [sic]!"

It is a fact that several attendees made a point of walking out during a portion of Brown's speech. It is also a fact it seemed to resonate with others.

In comparison with Brown, Republican Taylor's earlier routine had the crowd alternately laughing or groaning virtually nonstop. His barb-laced comments ("I didn't come to toast, I came to roast!") were downright playful — though at times morbidly so. Comparing the program for the event to the kind of foldout one might find at a funeral home, self-described undertaker Taylor discoursed on the fact that it takes "six friends" to serve as one's pallbearers and hoist a casket but that "there were times on the council that your ass would have been drug."

Toward his close, however, Taylor softened: "You wouldn't have this kind of turnout if you hadn't been a friend to everyone in this room."

Among the friends and sympathizers whose testimonies were featured were Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism, longtime Herenton associates Charles Carpenter and TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, City Court judge Tarik Sugarmon, state representatives G.A. Hardaway and Antonio Parkinson, Councilman Myron Lowery, state senator Jim Kyle, and Sara Kyle, the former Tennessee Regulatory Authority member now being urged by some Democrats to run for governor.

Attorney Ricky Wilkins, who had earlier confirmed his intent to challenge 9th District congressman Steve Cohen in next year's Democratic primary, was on hand as a speaker. Other potential 2014 candidacies that were discussed from the dais were those of Sugarmon for Juvenile Court judge and Henri Brooks for Juvenile Court clerk.

Among the conspicuous absentees at the event were Cohen, members of the extended Ford family, and current Memphis mayor A C Wharton. (Harold Ford Sr., the family patriarch, had a large turnout of his own Friday night, also replete with politically influential types, for an open house at his new state-of-the-art funeral center on Sycamore View.)

Wharton was the subject of some withering remarks by predecessor Herenton, who, in a brief speech that concluded the Saturday night roast event, referred to a recording of my 2009 Flyer "exit interview" with the outgoing mayor, portions of which were played aloud on the P.A. system during dinner.

Reprising what he had said back then, Herenton basically said his successor preferred to be liked rather than respected, and he repeated that he had warned Wharton during their famous meal together at Le Chardonnay in 2007 that the forthcoming mayoral contest that year would be "ugly" should then county mayor Wharton (who ultimately opted out) decide to challenge Herenton's bid for a fifth mayoral term.

The former mayor and current proprietor of the W.E.B. DuBois network of local charter schools also professed gratitude to be back in education after 25 "tough" years in the political sector. He reminded his listeners of his long-expressed intention to publish a tell-all book that would, among other things, expose what he said was a concerted effort within the media and the justice system to unjustly railroad him into prison.

"What they intended was Willie Herenton to be a bunk-mate of John Ford," he averred.

Herenton's bottom line: The "haters" could not change the history he made.

In sum: Much of the conversation Saturday night, both from the dais and otherwise, was unusually nitty-gritty and well outside the realm of normal political boilerplate, but the capacity crowd, alternately shocked and charmed, seemed pleased enough with this "inaugural" Democratic Party roast to have a go at another somewhere down the line.

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