A verbal dispute at a luncheon calls forth some strong language from Mayor Herenton.



You remember the famous conundrum about the tree falling in the forest? It goes this way: If there's nobody around to hear the crash, does the tree really make a sound?

Something quite dramatic and noisy happened Saturday, and there were plenty of ears to hear it -- but some of the listeners would just as soon they hadn't heard what they heard.

That might even include the principals in the drama -- Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, Shelby County commissioner Joyce Avery, and the commissioner's husband, retired homebuilder Charles Avery.

It began as a simple difference of opinion between Herenton and Charles Avery over such public issues as city/county consolidation and the FedExForum. It escalated into one of those running dialogues between a speaker and a heckler that take on a life and a momentum of their own. And it finally became a verbal duel so serious that it ended with sexagenarian Herenton's telling septuagenarian Avery, "You know, the world gets better when people like you leave here!"

The remark brought a collective gasp and several load groans from the audience of some 40 people who had gathered at the Piccadilly Restaurant on Mt. Moriah for the monthly Dutch Treat Luncheon, which featured Herenton as speaker.

The miracle is that the meeting was able to resume, with the mayor fielding more questions and even somehow reestablishing a rapport with the largely conservative audience.

Herenton, who is running for reelection this year to a fourth term and so far has no serious challenger, well knew the ideological tenor of his listeners and early on in his remarks paid homage to themes that could be expected to resonate with them -- including patriotism, religious devotion, and fiscal solvency. Toasting his achievements at building a substantial fiscal reserve for the city and holding the property-tax line over the years, the mayor even said at one point, "Now that calls for a round of applause!"

That and other such levities resonated with the audience, and Herenton's encounter with Avery at first seemed consistent with the general mood. But the commissioner's husband was plainly not amused as, speaking in a low and barely discernible voice, he uttered a series of criticisms of the mayor -- some of them evidently focused on a disagreement as to whether Herenton had forwarded to Commissioner Avery, as he'd promised, a breakdown on fiscal economies that city/county consolidation could bring about. The mayor is a strong proponent of consolidation, which the commissioner opposes.

"I know where you're coming from," said the mayor, who, as Charles Avery kept up his commentaries in a low, almost muttered rumble, said, "I can tell from your body language." Herenton then suggested that Avery -- whose wife was busily, and in vain, trying to quiet him -- "can't stand even to look at me." At some point, Charles Avery said, "No, I don't give a damn about you." Or words to that effect.

It was then that Herenton loosed his verbal thunderbolt.

Even though the meeting got back on an even keel, a buzz started among several different groups of attendees almost as soon as it ended. The thrust of most of the remarks was, "Can you believe he really said that!?" One or two supporters of city council candidate Jim Strickland even worried out loud that their man could be adversely affected, since Herenton has announced his support of Strickland.

Strickland himself, who spoke at both the Dutch Treat Luncheon and at a simultaneous meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Women at the opposite end of the Piccadilly, was unconcerned about that. Indeed, he seemed as intrigued by the turn of events as any other listener.

After the event, Herenton expressed surprise at learning that his conversational opponent had been Commissioner Avery's husband. But he said, "I don't give a damn who he was," insisting that Charles Avery had been confrontational and contemptuous. Gale Jones Carson, the mayor's press secretary, said this week that Herenton had been convinced that Charles Avery's attitude was "racist" -- though no one could remember any remarks that were explicitly racial, and Commissioner Avery denied that her husband nursed such attitudes. She did say, "He's got some strong opinions of his own."

Commissioner Avery, in any case, was doing her best to get beyond the incident, offering assurances that she would not hold it against Herenton, whom she would continue to deal with amicably and professionally. "I won't have any trouble shaking his hand," she said. (Charles Avery had left Saturday's meeting some minutes after his encounter with Herenton; his wife delayed her own departure for at least another 15 minutes.)

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, however, the incident left an aftershock among those who were there. It remains to be seen how much structural damage, if any, was inflicted on the surrounding political landscape. n

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