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Farewell to a Titan

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Unless yet another "Herenton shock" has occurred between the writing of these words on Tuesday and the mayor's scheduled leave-taking from his duties on Thursday, the city of Memphis is finally about to enter onto new and uncharted paths. It has long been presumed by the political cognoscenti that Shelby County mayor A C Wharton — conciliatory where Herenton is challenging; smooth where the outgoing Memphis mayor has been peremptory — will accede to the job of city mayor. But we have been through multiple surprises of late, and we're not about to take anything for granted.

The special mayoral election, certified by the City Council and scheduled by the Election Commission, will take place on October 27th. We'll know who wins it when they're finished counting the votes — and not until — although there is reason to believe that Wharton may have ranked prohibitively high in the poll that city councilman and erstwhile mayoral prospect Jim Strickland recently commissioned, only to decide against running upon receipt of it.

In summing up the 18 years of Mayor Herenton, it would be unfair to judge the man only, or even mainly, by the conflict-of-interest questions that have swirled up around him in recent years, or by the increasing cronyism of his administration, or by his manifest boredom with his job, or even by his ominous evocations of the race issue as he revs up for an apparent run against 9th District congressman Steve Cohen. The word "racist" as an epithet to describe his critics surfaced only last week, when the mayor chose to be offended by public questioning of his on-again, off-again timetable for leaving, so we fear we shall hear it again as a counter to all sorts of future questions.

Yet this is also the man who provided a reasonably seamless transition in 1991 between all the years of white-dominated, even segregated, city government that preceded him and the generation of slow but real racial accommodation that has followed. Yes, there has been "white flight" (and middle-class black flight, as well), but personal and professional relationships across the old racial barrier have multiplied since 1991, and Herenton is entitled to some credit for that — as he certainly is for his vaunted conversion of dilapidated public housing into some of the showcase projects that now dot the city's landscape.

In other words, things could have been a lot worse. We at the Flyer named Mayor Herenton "Man of the Year" for 1997 for his resourceful, even heroic defense of the city's growth prerogatives against the encroachments of the infamous "toy town" act that would have balkanized Shelby County and hemmed in Memphis. Without Herenton's pressing the issue, the act might never have been tested by the state Supreme Court and declared unconstitutional.

In any case, we wish ex-Mayor Herenton (though not necessarily candidate Herenton) well as he enters the next phase of his life and career. He has been a titanic influence in our affairs, and his reputation can only grow if he comports himself with dignity — or sadly sink if he does not.

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