It's standard procedure in these post mortems to reach brilliant conclusions in hindsight, but Herenton's loss of zeal, as he put it last week, was plain as day by the end of his third term. He was running on anger after that. It was at his 2004 New Year's Day prayer breakfast that he went off on his divine calling and the inadequacies of his enemies on the council and in the political establishment (even though it was true that some of them — Rickey Peete and John Ford, among others — were indeed for sale).
If Herenton had nudged his retirement announcement forward to the summer of 2002 or even 2003 instead of last week, he could have given would-be successors as much as a year to make their case instead of throwing the city into political chaos. He certainly would have been remembered more fondly.
The big local stories in the summer of 2002 were the heavyweight championship boxing match between Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson at the Pyramid, the construction of FedExForum, the coming of Jerry West (still "the logo" and not yet Mr. Cranky) to the Grizzlies and A C Wharton to the Shelby County mayor's office. Two-year-old AutoZone Park led the minors in attendance. Soulsville got under way. Memphis had some momentum. The stock index peaked in 2007, but the Memphis index has never been higher in 40 years than it was in 2002 and 2003.
If Herenton had only said "so long" after three terms, there would have been no Joe Frazier, Joe Lee, Hurricane Elvis aftermath, MLGW bond deal, shakin' off the haters, Herman Morris the "boy," Elvin Moon deals, Bass Pro nonsense, empty Pyramid headaches, federal grand jury investigation, increased taxes, obsessed reporters, rehab rumors, idiotic racist comments on the Internet, school board snub, snakes, strippers, step outside, garage-gate, Election Night 2007 smackdown, phony 2008 resignation, or all that other crap.
The housing boom would continue through 2005. Herenton was 62 years old in 2002, in perfect position to cash in on the coming five-year bull market in stocks that would take the Dow above 13,000. Like thousands of politicians before him, he could have walked through the revolving door to Herenton Ventures Ltd., turned his name and contacts into an ATM card, and given a few sage elder statesman interviews every now and then about how his successor was learning what it was really like to be the one in the arena. Instead, he hung on until the bottom fell out of the Herenton market. He sold low. He became increasingly arrogant, bored, isolated, and frustrated, speaking of himself in the third person, doling out jobs to loyalists and sycophants.
Running for a fourth term was unwise. Running for a fifth term that he had no intention of completing was inexcusably irresponsible and selfish. He ought to be charged with the cost of the special election.
Memphis deserved better. So did the mayor.
Every mayor of Memphis has a portrait in City Hall, but only two of them have statues. E.H. Crump's is in Overton Park, and Willie Herenton's is on Walker Avenue across from LeMoyne-Owen College. The site used to be the dirty and dangerous LeMoyne Gardens housing project and is now a green and pristine mixed-income neighborhood. The Herenton haters should see that, both the development and the statue.
Some reporters made a fuss last week over Herenton's pension of about $75,000. Get over it, folks. He earned it. Added to his $171,500 salary, the pay package is less than the $285,845 Kevin Kane made in 2008 to run the Convention & Visitors Bureau, the $361,300 Pat Halloran made to run the Orpheum in 2007, and not much more than the $216,969 Benny Lendermon made in 2008 to run the quasi-government Riverfront Development Corporation. Which job do you think is hardest? And the mayor's pay is pocket change to the CEOs who ran the regional banks into the ground, like Dowd Ritter of Regions Financial, who was paid $9,261,865 in compensation last year.
Mayors, coaches, and weathermen get too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they don't. The "downtown revival" in sports, entertainment, and residential development ignores the half-empty office buildings, the vacant former retail stores, the bankruptcies, and the overbuilding. That $89 million surplus on the city's books is in part a result of the highest property taxes in Tennessee.
The real power of the mayor is to inspire, set an example, sign contracts, forge partnerships, and make appointments to boards and city divisions. The last big executive decision is when to make your exit. Herenton muffed that one.