Opinion » Viewpoint

Willie and "the Dozens"

History shows that the current mayor's opponents had better get ready for some rough stuff.

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One of the first things a would-be opponent of incumbent Memphis mayor Willie Herenton will discover is that he or she is in for a mauling -- figurative or maybe even otherwise. As for the latter, just ask retiring councilman Brent Taylor, who was asked outside by the mayor, or ABC-24's Cameron Harper, who, while persisting in an interview attempt, was warned to get his hands off ... or else.

Most of the abuse, though, is verbal -- the kind of extreme stuff you might expect from a proud alpha male and former fighter who happens to be undefeated both in the boxing ring and in the political arena. Mayoral opponent Carol Chumney got a whiff of that last week when, without really having said much about the current MLGW mess and Herenton protégé Joseph Lee, she nevertheless got relegated by Herenton to an "array of evil" -- right up there, presumably, with North Korea and Iran.

But the real rough stuff is what Herenton aims at fellow black politicians who, whether declared adversaries or not, get on his wrong side. What the mayor is doing has been known historically in Memphis' black neighborhoods as "doing the dozens."

That's the confrontational practice of trading insults which get rougher and rougher (up to the nuclear threshold of 12, hence the name) until somebody either gives up or one of the contestants is, one way or another, acknowledged the winner, or ... things get out of control. Out on the street, people have gotten killed. Dozens and dozens of them.

In a political contest, things are unlikely to get that far. But the mayor, who proudly boasts his rough-and-tumble origins, has demonstrated time and again that he is not loath to administer psychic wounds that, in the macho-conscious African-American community especially, can be crippling.

A case in point was his statement last week in a WDIA radio interview aimed at another rival for the mayoralty, former MLGW head Herman Morris, who announced his candidacy last week. Herenton's response? "I want the world to know, there's a man up in here in City Hall. If they're looking for a boy, they identified one in Herman Morris, but he ain't going to enter this gate."

The venue, a historic black radio station, was no accident. Nor was the insult. Herenton has aimed that same barb before -- at least twice to real or putative mayoral opponents. Back in early 1999, when it appeared likely that then county commissioner Shep Wilbun would be running for mayor, Herenton entertained this reporter in his penthouse office at City Hall and pointed out a vintage photograph from his first election-night celebration in 1991.

Wilbun, the mayor noted, was in a back row of the jammed entourage on stage, straining to get into the picture. "Look at that boy!" said a literally gleeful Herenton, who went on to declare that Wilbun's chances of getting into the foreground were no better in 1999 than they had been eight years before.

Another Herenton opponent that year was Joe Ford, then a well-liked city councilman and, as a member of the prominent Ford political clan, regarded as the best bet to upset the mayor in a crowded field. In the very first forum involving the two of them, Herenton waited until Joe Ford seemed hesitant on an answer to someone's question and then called out to the candidate's brother, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., in the audience: "Harold, you got to do a better job of getting this boy ready!''

Candidate Ford seemed flustered and never quite recovered his aplomb in that race. Both he and Wilbun went down hard, along with the rest of a generally accomplished field whom the mayor, in his election post-mortem with the Flyer, dismissed as "clowns."

In no sense, literal or metaphorical, is Herman Morris, a former star athlete and a middle-aged man of ample professional experience, a "boy." But he and Chumney and John Willingham and whoever else ventures to run against Willie Herenton this year can expect that kind of verbal treatment -- and worse.

In his exhibition boxing match last year against a gallant but used-up Joe Frazier, Herenton boxed circles around the onetime world champion, but he made sure to pull every punch. His mayoral opponents this year won't be so lucky.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.A longer version of this essay appears in "Political Beat" at www.memphisflyer.com.

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