Politics » Politics Feature

It's Official -- Herman Morris Enters Mayor's Race

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by JACKSON BAKER

After one of the most prolonged buildups in recent political history, Herman Morris finally did what everyone has known for months he would do - declare his candidacy for mayor of Memphis. In an announcement ceremony at The Peabody, the newly beleaguered former MLGW head offered himself as a "bridge" between the city's disparate racial populations at a "moment of crisis."

With his announcement, Morris joins city councilwoman Carol Chumney and former county commissioner John Willingham among those who have officially declared their candidacies. Mayor Willie Herenton has several times indicated he will run for reelection but has not yet formally announced.

Morris' coming-out party on Wednesday was billed as a "high tech press event" - meaning, evidently, that the event was simultaneously being packaged for rollout on the Internet and on local TV channels. But it was essentially the same old same old candidate-announces-shows-off-family-takes-questions affair.

There were highs and lows in Morris' presentation. Starting as an unknown quantity whose image in many minds was that of a somewhat remote and dignified - maybe too dignified - professional, the sartorially correct lawyer unbent here and there with a quip.

Asked why he was just now running for office after a lifetime spent on public issues (he had also served as chair of the local NAACP), Morris put on an abashed face and allowed as how he had in fact run for the city council in 1987. "I lost, and, just like you, I've tried to forget it," he joked.

There were several such moments, which properly complemented Morris' tendency to use elevated diction. There has been "an increase in wantonness," he said at one point, and at another, he professed himself able to stand up to the "ad hominem" attacks of incumbent Herenton.

After hearing civil rights eminence and former judge Russell Sugarmon describe his well-credentialed resume in glowing terms, Morris made his own formal statement and then had to do some standing up right away - to a brand-new attack emanating from the mayor's camp.

This was the email memo leaked to the media yesterday as an obvious response to recent revelations about special treatment given several individuals under current MLGW president Joseph Lee, a protégé of Mayor Herenton's. A number of local officials - notoriously councilman Edmund Ford, who had a due balance in five figures - appeared to have been given more than ample indulgence on their utility bills.

Morris' own newly leaked memo, written five years ago during his own tenure as head of the city utility, has provided apparent evidence of a similar list of prominent local people entitled to special handling and access.

Asked how he could justify that approach and how it would prefigure his conduct as mayor, Morris hemmed and hawed through a lengthy, somewhat shaggy-dog answer during which he acknowledged being especially accessible to friends and family but denied giving special favors. In an obvious reference to the Edmund Ford affair, he insisted he had let no bill run out of control and had been "diligent" about collections.

Later on, several of his supporters agreed that the issue wouldn't go away and that Morris needed to deal with it in a more concise manner, but their general reaction was that their man, though clearly unused to the stump, had done reasonably well.

To judge by the crowd on hand, numbering well over a hundred, Morris begins his candidacy with something of a support base - larded significantly, though by no means exclusively, with prominent local Republicans.

Always assuming he can get beyond his own current "moment of crisis" -- the MLGW memo, with its implications of possible elitist attitudes -- Morris has a chance of running an effective campaign. No one doubts that, as his resume makes clear, he has walked with kings. The question - now as before - is whether he can demonstrate a common touch.

Morris was scheduled later Wednesday to be the center of attention at a reception at the Botanic Gardens, where artworks of his will be on display.

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