BY JACKSON BAKER | JUNE 14, 2007
This week's published allegations of his involvement in a blackmail plot against Mayor Willie Herenton are the latest and most sensational elements of a cascade of controversy swirling about attorney Richard Fields, whose role in a desegregation case in nearby Jackson has also generated a storm in that West Tennesse city.
Known for many years as a civil rights attorney, Fields has been attempting to broaden his involvement in public affairs for several years, intervening in local election contests by issuing sample ballots favoring his approved candidates while circulating negative information about candidates he disapproves of.
As a pro bono attorney, he also worked in harness in early 2006 with a legal team representing the state Republican Party charging electoral fraud in an effort, ultimately successful, to unseat newly elected Democratic state Senator Ophelia Ford in favor of her Republican opponent, Terry Roland. Fields was forced to withdraw from the Shelby County Democratic Committee after several of its members charged a political conflict of interest.
Fields was subsequently reelected to the local Democratic committee and survived a renewed attempt to oust him when new party chairman Keith Norman ruled another member's motion to that effect out of order. (The member in question, sometime radio talk-show host Jennings Bernard, has also charged Fields with having assaulted him.)
Though a longtime Herenton confidante, Fields has been on the outs with the mayor in recent years and was one of two local figures (businessman Karl Schledwitz was the other) who commissioned polls earlier this year showing Herenton's approval ratings to have sunk in both the black and white communities.
Published reports on the weblog of Thaddeus Matthews, followed by a front-page article in The Commercial Appeal, name Fields as the active party in a purported effort to recruit a former topless-club waitress to attempt an intimate personal relationship with Herenton. The point, say both accounts, would have been to create fodder for pressuring the mayor to withdraw from the mayoral race.
Meanwhile, Fields has been a bone of contention in Jackson, where, as representative of that city's NAACP chapter, he has been pressing the Madison County School Board to make substantial revisions in an existing 2000 school-desegregation plan negotiated by the board with the NAACP.
In a disapproving article of May 29, the Jackson Sun's editorial page editor, Tom Bohs, commended the prior agreement and Richard Dinkins, now a judge and then the local attorney for the NAACP. Bohs went on:
"[The NAACP's] current lawyer, Richard Fields, being paid by taxpayers, should be fired. He failed to respond to requests from the school system's lawyer. He is late for meetings and he shows up in blue jeans when he does finally get there. Where did they find this guy? Is this the image the NAACP wants to project? We've got professional educators, lawyers, elected officials and a hippie lawyer for the other side who doesn't own a watch. That might have cut the mustard in the 1960s, but it won't today. Get rid of this guy!"