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Willie Herenton: The Exit Interview

A combative Herenton reviews the past with Jackson Baker and looks forward to one more fight.

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See companion cover piece, "Two Terms Too Many," by John Branston

Jackson Baker: On Monday, Willie Herenton, the controversial mayor of Memphis for the last 18 years, kicked back and talked with me at length about the past, the present, and the future. The last part includes his announced race for the 9th District congressional seat — one that he says will begin in earnest once he vacates the mayor's office on July 10th, as he announced last week.

Herenton, who in our conversation boasted the philosophical and spiritual aspects of his personality, was equally pleased to talk about his well-known macho side.

The day before I sat down with Herenton had been a scorcher, the temperature hitting just under 100 degrees. Herenton wanted me to know that not only did he cut the grass at the sprawling grounds of his estate just north of the Mississippi line, he did so with a push mower, and he chose to do the job at the hottest time of the day.

"It increases my discipline, my stamina, and my will," he said. The mayor had told this same story earlier to Michael Gray, the erstwhile bodyguard and, of late, deputy director of the Memphis Public Library, who was one of three Herenton loyalists tendering their resignations on Monday. The three — deputy director Yalanda McFadgon, Public Services and Neighborhoods director Kenneth Moody, and Gray — timed their departures to coincide with the mayor's.

"You know what [Gray] said to me?" Herenton asked. "He said, 'Doc, I admire you, but I'm gonna cut grass when the sun go down.'"

When he got to the punch line, he guffawed, as did Toni Holmon Turner, the good and faithful servant who has done her best, as had all her predecessors as the mayor's press liaison, to accommodate her two difficult constituencies — the mayor himself and an ever voracious and skeptical media. In the course of the conversation, Turner would often smile and echo the mayor's punch lines sotto voce.

Herenton made it clear that he valued loyalty and that he considered it a two-way street. He is aware that his critics charge him with indulging in "cronyism," and he responds this way:

"Part of the leadership role, in my judgment, is to release the energy and abilities of people through creativity, and that's what I've done. I select people on the basis of their abilities and talents. If they don't do a good job, I fire them. People who work for me know that better than anyone" — especially, he noted, "the ones that people call cronies."

The most notorious of these, at least in the eyes of media, is McFadgon, the former police officer and onetime head of the mayor's bodyguard service who, despite problems that included a well-publicized conviction on a drug charge, kept resurfacing in key roles in the Herenton administration.

"Let's talk about Yalanda," Herenton said. "She made a small program into a national model." He referred to Second Chance, a program for rehabilitating felons, which, Herenton said, had once been featured by former President George W. Bush in a budget address.

McFadgon, along with Moody, has been severely criticized for their supervision of the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC), which, under a barrage of attention from activists and the media, was recently transferred from city administration to that of Shelby County.

"Let me tell you how small-minded people think," Herenton said. "This MSARC thing. I just watch you guys take, what, a $700,000 or $800,000 program? Not that treating rape victims isn't important. Of course, it is important, but I wasn't going to allow this nonsense about one program when I've got so many programs. I have so many crimes being committed in this community. And I just looked at all of the media, you people, these personalities, as a bunch of idiots.

"This thing with this rape victim not being served was blown all out of proportion and never should have reached the attention that it reached. ... I got all kinds of issues, and you're going to tell me about a rape victim not being served at a particular time. I've got a lot of other lapses in service. So when you're in my world, which is complex, it's dynamic ... you don't get bent out of shape about an incident like that. This was utterly ridiculous."

The explanation was typical Herenton — candid, indiscreet, and possibly inflammatory. Several times, he asked me rhetorically if it wasn't true that he had answered questions over the years without sham or evasion, letting chips fall where they might. With the exception of a couple of lingering problem areas — his pending legal problems, most conspicuously — he did, I had to agree. He was surprisingly forthcoming Monday on several subjects.

One of the highlights of what, public-relations-wise, had been a generally bleak last several years, was his highly publicized 2006 "boxing" exhibition at FedExForum with Smokin' Joe Frazier, the former heavyweight champ — done in the interests of charity.

In the course of making the case that, at almost 70, he was physically prime enough to begin a new career in Congress, Herenton reminisced about his encounter with Frazier — running on the river, training hard in the gym, working on the bags, getting his timing down.

"I prepared for what I thought was a competitive fight with Joe Frazier. I knew it was a charitable thing, but yeah, I wanted Joe Frazier." The old champ turned out, however, to be something of a wreck, a mere fragment of his old self. "I wouldn't have trained had I known that," Herenton said. He recalled appearing with Frazier at a pre-fight event at Beale Street's Hard Rock Café. "His son Marvis took me aside and said, 'Mayor, my father is in no physical condition for a competitive fight.' I thanked him."

When the two got in the ring, Herenton said, "I could see his hand-to-eye coordination was off, so I never hit him. But I had trained for a competitive fight."

The same hard-edged fighter's instinct came through in almost everything Herenton said. One of the lingering mysteries of the mayor's last few years has been the famous dinner chat at Le Chardonnay with Shelby County mayor A C Wharton in 2007, when Wharton was the object of a serious draft movement to get him to run for mayor.

"We didn't have dinner." That was the first revelation about what the mayor described as a "cleansing conversation between A C Wharton and Willie Herenton." But more were to come. "A C and I did not make a deal," Herenton insisted. "People who know me know I'm not a dealmaker. ... We were both honest and candid with each other about some issues surrounding his flirtation with running for city mayor.

"I gave him my straight, pretty hard feelings about that. I had deep resentment for that. I felt he should not have flirted with that. It was a character flaw. I resented it. I felt he should not have entertained it for a moment." Herenton said he thought Wharton, by considering the issue of running, had yielded to "divide-and-conquer" forces in the community.

The county mayor, too, had vented some complaints at Le Chardonnay, Herenton said: "He felt my style was divisive, while his was unifying. He thought I should tone down my leadership role. He felt I should avoid a lot of the skirmishes I got involved in and stick to issues. He did not care for my temperament in the office and my style." Herenton smiled thinly as he recalled what his response to his mayoral counterpart had been. "My style is me."

Herenton maintains that he never recommended a course of action to Wharton, who would shortly announce his intention not to run for mayor that year.

Another thin smile. "We would have beat him. It would not have been nice. We would have won, but it would have been ugly. It would have been real ugly." Why? "Because I would have described him. I don't have to describe him now."

Herenton vows not to endorse any of the declared or rumored candidates to succeed him as mayor — not Wharton, not his trusty legal aide Charles Carpenter, and not police director Larry Godwin (whom the mayor, who used to change police directors the way most people change shirts, described as "my first real crime-fighter").

Instead, he is focusing on his currently declared showdown with onetime endorsee Steve Cohen for the 9th District congressional seat.

Looking ahead to that showdown (which he insists, despite any number of skeptics, will take place as promised), Herenton is typically blunt and combative.

"I've known Cohen for over 30 years. And to be honest with you, he's an asshole. Anybody who knows Cohen knows he's an asshole." For that reason, Herenton said he plans to have several fund-raisers in Nashville, site of Cohen's long service as a state senator.

Why then had he made such a point of endorsing Cohen versus independent contender Jake Ford in 2006, the year the current incumbent won his seat?

"I supported a principle of fairness and nondiscrimination," Herenton said. "I resented the way a group of African-American clergy had treated Cohen because of race and religion. That's why I stood with him. I am a product of the civil rights revolution. I stood with him in principle and not in person."

One lingering discontent for Herenton is his relationship with Harold Ford Sr., with whom he often feuded when the former congressman was in office, once challenging Ford to meet him at the Peabody. "I told him if I saw him downtown, I'd whip his ass. He didn't show up, either."

Despite their long-standing acrimony, Herenton thought he had an agreement with Ford for a joint appearance during the mayor's last campaign in 2007. Ford was a no-show. Something of the same sort happened this year, Herenton said, after he announced for Congress.

"He was supposed to meet me on June 3rd about supporting my candidacy and the legacy. He promised to get together. He didn't call, and the next thing was what I saw in the media." Namely, that Ford, now a lobbyist working out of Florida, would be helping Cohen's reelection effort with two fund-raisers, one last week in Washington, one in Memphis this week. "Typical Harold Ford. I felt that he saw some dollar signs or some contracts and relationships, so he just lied to me. Ford can be a habitual liar. He's got his price."

The mayor was candid about what is to come in 2010. "Race will be a critical factor. That's a good thing," he said, distinguishing between the "unfairness" of Cohen's opposition in 2006 and the need for "representative democracy" that his victory as an African American would mean for the majority-black 9th District.

"I've never been to Congress," Herenton said, stating the obvious. "Someone said [Boss E.H.] Crump won, and he didn't like it. I may be like Crump. I may not like it. Or I might be like [U.S. senator] Lamar Alexander and find myself immersed in national issues and enjoy it."

After being an executive for most of his adult life (he was a principal at age 28, schools superintendent at 39, and mayor at 51), Herenton looks forward to a career that would call on his philosophic and policy sides. "It will be relaxing by comparison," he said.

But make no mistake:

"You know when I'm in a campaign, it's on. It's on!"

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