Politics » Politics Feature

Still Looming Large

School issues, elections, and ominous rumors notwithstanding, Willie Herenton endures.

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Even as an election year that doesn't involve him directly heads to its first climax on August 7th, Willie Herenton can still transfix the political and governmental scene.

Well-placed backers of the reelection campaign of 9th District congressman Steve Cohen were confiding their hopes that Herenton and his local counterpart, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, could be persuaded, in advance of the primary, to do a reprise of their joint endorsement of Cohen's congressional campaign in 2006. Still other establishment types were arm-twisting both mayors on behalf of congressional challenger Nikki Tinker. (For his part, Wharton was hosting a fund-raiser this week for two other Democratic candidates, Trustee Paul Mattila and Cheyenne Johnson, the party's nominee for assessor, though both — contending against Republicans Ray Butler and Bill Giannini, respectively — were long past their primary challenges.)

And last Thursday, the same day, ironically, that city government and the school board began locking horns in Chancery Court over next year's funding, the incoming schools superintendent and the city's long-standing mayor made public peace at a City Hall reception that ushered in a new and uncertain era for both local institutions.

Herenton, a former superintendent and unofficial aspirant for the school position himself, had groused out loud weeks ago about a school board search process that yielded up what he termed "third-raters." The mayor was more diplomatic at last week's reception, going so far as to offer the school board's new hire, Miami educator Kriner Cash, an apology.

Though the apology had more to do with the uncertain conditions awaiting Cash than with Herenton's implied insult, the new superintendent was happy to accept the mayor's conciliatory words anyhow. Foreseeing no problem in co-existing with the main man in City Hall, Cash put it this way in an interview after the brief ceremony: "We all know why Herenton said what he did." He then gave a stoic shrug and said, "And if they think they can find somebody better, they can go back into the [search] pool."

As for the mayor, he in fact found much to praise about the new man, citing in his prepared remarks Cash's "background and skills and ... passion" and commending Cash later for being of like mind with himself on specific issues. "He's in favor of subdividing the school system into manageable districts, which was one of the hallmarks of my school administration," Herenton said, going on to predict that he and Cash would enjoy a "great relationship."

Asked about the competing lawsuits that got their first hearing before an overflow audience in the courtroom of Chancellor Kenny Armstrong last Thursday, Herenton made a point of dissociating himself from the City Council's countersuit against Memphis City Schools. The council suit asks for $152 million in compensation for expended school bonds and was filed as a response to MCS's own suit seeking to regain almost $70 million withheld from the school system by the City Council last month.

Herenton noted that the mayor's office and the city administration as such were "not part of any countersuit" and declared "there ought to be some compromises on school funding" so as to ensure that "the boys and girls of the school system do not suffer because of this political issue."

The mayor took a firm stand against a proposed city-charter amendment and a referendum proposal passed by the City Council granting the council a say in the approval of deputy division directors and other second-level city appointees. That one proposal could doom the rest of the proposed charter amendments, he predicted. Herenton then repeated a teasing, presumably facetious suggestion he first made at a now-famous sitdown with members of the media last month. As he put it on Thursday, "Maybe I'll do a sixth term!"

One note of foreboding: Asked about a rumor, widely circulated on the day of the City Hall reception and persistent enough to come alive again early this week, that he was the subject of a multi-count federal indictment, the mayor declined comment. The rumor, which ranged wide enough to beget inquiries from Nashville-based news media, was repudiated on its first go-around last Thursday by assistant U.S. attorney Tim DiScenza.

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