Politics » Politics Feature

One Mayor's In

As Herenton files for reelection this week, all eyes look toward his county counterpart.



Willie Herenton made it official Tuesday. At the stroke of noon — surrounded by a medley of supporters, reporters, and the curious throngs that only a longtime officeholder of his stature (and none of his opponents so far) can command, a smiling mayor showed up at the Election Commission, wrote out his check, turned in his reelection petition, acknowledged his supporters, and named his adversaries.

In no particular order, they were the media, the power establishment, assorted plotters and schemers, and almost as an afterthought, his declared ballot opponents. Herenton was asked if he thought that any "major" opponents were yet to declare. (That was code for his longtime friend and governmental counterpart, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.) "It doesn't matter," he boomed out, as a surrounding crowd cheered his confident declaration.

And it may not matter. But there is a general feeling now, with two weeks to go before the July 19th filing deadline, that the best bet — some think the only bet — to turn the mayor back from gaining a fifth four-year term is Wharton and that the county mayor is running out of temporizing time.

It seems clear that he must in very short order either declare his candidacy, risking an old friendship with the man whose campaigns he has more than once been the titular manager of, or make an unambiguous statement renouncing any possible shadow of ambition to move his mayoral chair across the downtown government mall to City Hall.

What is known is that Wharton has been tempted to run, but that, besides his native reluctance and his loyalty to Herenton, he fears a bitter campaign in which he ends up being mauled by his old friend, a former pugilist who has never been prone to pull any punches — in the ring or out.

It is further known that Wharton — or someone acting on his behalf — has researched various questions of governmental protocol, including the key one of whether he could run for one mayorship while occupying the other or even hold both offices at once.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field went on doing its collective thing:

Earlier in the week, former MLGW head Herman Morris perceptibly stepped up his schedule, appearing at a meet-and-greet on Wednesday, followed by a fund-raiser before an audience of lawyers on Thursday.

At the latter event, held at the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn on Central, Morris pointedly condemned political appeals to "racial divisiveness," an apparent reference to what many observers saw as a central element of Herenton's now famous "blackmail plot" press conference.

It is now clear that Morris and his supporters are staking their hopes on his prospects of appealing to both black and white voters and thereby becoming the legitimate default candidate for those seeking an alternative to a continuation of Herenton's tenure.

Mayor Herenton - JACKSON BAKER

As the leader in early mayoral polling, City Council member Carol Chumney, of course, wasn't conceding anything. She too accelerated her campaigning over the last week, following up a Monday-night appearance before the Germantown Democrats with some extended shmoozing at Thursday night's weekly "Drinking Liberally" event, held at the Cooper-Young bistro Dish.

Finally, on Saturday night, Chumney invited supporters to the Memphis Showboat for what she called a "kickoff" of her campaign. (For once, given the venue, the term "launch" might have been more appropriate.)

Chumney read a lengthy statement in which she noted the panoply of reformist positions and independent stances that have gained her a substantial following. Especially prominent in her audience Saturday night were a group of environmental activists.

Nor was former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham inactive. Appearing at Tuesday night's meeting of the East Shelby Republican Club at the Pickering Center in Germantown, Willingham made the most of a brief cameo appearance before the main address by state representative Brian Kelsey, espousing a disdain for the city's "power elite" that may have transcended even Herenton's in its intensity.

Of James Perkins, the retired FedEx executive who is reputed to have a million dollars to load into a campaign, not much is yet known. His campaign so far remains invisible, and, to the electorate at large, so does he.

The fact remains: In the field as constituted so far, only Willie Herenton is a creature of genuine sturm und drang. Only he has demonstrated the dramatic potency that, beyond all issues and for better or for worse, can motivate a mass electorate.

What happens if Wharton does get in? Chumney insists that she will remain in the race and eschew a return to the District 5 City Council position, which three candidates — Jim Strickland, Dee Parkinson, and Bob Schreiber — now seek. Morris insists that he raised enough money and support to go the distance, and no one doubts that Willingham will stay the course.

What the other candidates — or their representatives — all say is that they have displayed a resourcefulness that the county mayor has not. "It's easy enough for him to just say no. Why doesn't he?" is a common refrain. The answer to that, of course, is that he may yet give the alternative answer.

• A new physical principle has been discovered about the known universe, or at least about that corner of it occupied by the Shelby County Democratic Party. It is this: That the likes of Richard Fields can be gotten rid of — perhaps permanently — but longtime gadfly Del Gill is irrepressible and will return again and again — perhaps till the end of time.

Fields, accused by Mayor Herenton of being ringleader of a "blackmail plot" aimed at deposing the mayor, was the subject of two votes at last Thursday night's monthly meeting of the local Democrats' executive committee. First, his resignation from the committee — tendered in a letter to party chairman Keith Norman in which Fields blamed his departure on complications arising from "my present investigation of problems in Memphis" — was accepted by a 36-0 vote.

That vote, however, came only after Gill — yes, Gill — tried to move for Fields' expulsion and was talked by Norman into tacking that motion on to the acceptance motion as a second stage. The reason: As Norman explained it, only the state party could rule on an expulsion; hence, Fields' resignation had to be accepted first, lest some discovered technicality bind him forever to the committee, and to the party.

And that, Norman explained, was what nobody wanted. The chairman opined that "we should never have elected him back on in the first place" after Fields was forced off an earlier version of the committee in 2006 for working with Republican lawyers to overturn the election of Democrat Ophelia Ford to the state Senate.

Norman allowed himself some additional rhetoric to the effect that Fields was best gone forever — a point that Gill and others thought had been incorporated into the resolution of expulsion, which passed 27-6. Both Norman and party secretary David Holt said afterward, however, that the word "permanently" — heard frequently in discussion on Gill's motion — was not involved in the final vote. The point may be moot; it is hard to imagine a third coming for Fields.

The real miracle was the return to the committee of Gill, who has his own detractors. That resurrection occurred when Gill, a perennial member who was not, however, elected at this year's party convention, got nominated by the newly formed Memphis Democratic Club as its representative on the executive committee.

The Memphis Democratic Club is chaired by Jay Bailey, the lawyer who was defeated by Norman for the party chairmanship, and numbers other dissidents among its members.

Also returned to the committee was another longtime maverick, Bill Larsha, who was accepted as the representative of yet another newly formed dissident club.

• Even as all parties to the County Commission's Juvenile Court controversy await the state Supreme Court's verdict on whether it will adjudge the legality of the commission's vote for a second judgeship, the commission itself has established an oversight committee for the court. Its chair? First-term member Henri Brooks.

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