Anybody looking for evidence of grandiosity on Mayor Willie Herentons part need have done no more than to attend the two events featuring His Honor on New Years Day.
In the first of these, a prayer brunch at the Convention Center, the mayor: (a) proclaimed himself a chosen of God; (b)suggested that the city charter authorized awesome mayoral powers that he hadnt yet begun to employ; (c) sternly insisted that enemies were plotting against him , promising to answer mess with mess; and (d) was the recipient of straight-armed salutations from the ministers in his audience.
In fairness, that last piece of imagery -- though it prompted a stunned television newsman to liken it to sieg heils -- was based on an accepted Christian form of testimony and was in response, not to any command from Herenton himself, but to a request from the dais by the Rev. Frank Ray, who had asked the ministers present to rise and to extend their blessings to the mayor by the aforesaid method of outstretched arms.
"The God we serve does not give everybody a vision. Everybody cannot see what I see," the Mayor said. Acknowledging that he had been called arrogant by some (including members of the city council, quite recently), Herenton allowed as how, Im not arrogant. Im a little confident! I'm confident. But if you're a leader, you must have some ego."
The confidence and the ego expanded even more in remarks made to members of the media following the noon swearing-in ceremony for the mayor and other city officials.
At the brunch, a video had been shown featuring highlights of the mayors first four electoral campaigns, beginning with the watershed year of 1991, when Herenton became the first elected African-American mayor in Memphis history. Herenton had observed wistfully how much hed aged in the preceding twelve years and wondered out loud how hed look after being elected four more times.
Asked to elaborate on that after the swearing-in, Herenon affirmed that, in fact, he was quite likely to run again. There are no other public officials capable of doing this job, he averred. Did that include county officials as well as city officials? he was asked. The mayor merely repeated, There are no other public officials capable of doing this job.
It was an extraordinary performance, even for a chief executive who has traditionally used a New Years Day forum to launch bombshells. Indeed, this years performance involved a change of venue that was itself something of a shock. Since 1992, Herenton has been content to be the featured guest at the annual New Years Day Prayer Breakfast of councilman Myron Lowery, who has used the affairs for fund-raising purposes.
This year, Lowery had to go without his star attraction, for reasons that remained mysterious but which begat much speculation about a feud between the two long-time political allies. In any case, Lowerys breakfast at the Peabody, which started an hour earlier than the mayoral brunch, received minimal media attention and was attended by some 170 people rather than the normal 300. (That was the thrust of an estimate by Gale Jones Carson, Herentons public affairs assistant, who said later that in supplying the number, based on the number of early tables sold by Lowery, she had only meant to suggest that she was impressed by the councilman's efforts and results.)
Whatever the situation with Lowery, it was clear that Herenton had his problems with several other council members, two of whom -- Jack Sammons and Brent Taylor -- stayed away from the swearing-in ceremony because, suggested a colleague, they didnt want to have to hear any of that stuff from the mayor.
Councilman E.C. Jones, who did attend the ceremony, had been targeted -- though not directly named -- by Herenton at the prayer brunch, where the mayor angrily denounced the dropout who had dared criticize Herentons designation of longtime aide Joseph Lee to succeed the fired Herman Morris as CEO of Memphis Light Gas & Water.
(Jones said later he intended to keep on challenging Herenton's actions when he thought a challenge was in order and to "return attack for attack." The councilman said, "We have to respect balance of powers. We can't let a chief executive run roughshod over us. Nobody is irreplaceable -- not Clinton, not Bush, not Reagan, and not Herenton.")
Without naming anybody in particular, Herenton had suggested that members of both the council and the Shelby County Commission were involved in behind-the-scenes activities aimed at himself. "They plot. They want to challenge the mayor in his prerogatives," he said.
(And, in fact, an attendee at the swearing-in who is well-acquainted with anti-Herenton dissidents acknowledged that the city chareter is being carefully perused in search of a means to curtail, control, or even oust the mayor under certain unspecified circumstances.)
Almost overlooked in the fireworks at the prayer brunch were two policy statements of interest: In one, Herenton conceded he had been antagonistic toward mayors of Shelby Countys suburban municipalities and promised to extend the olive branch, announcing that he would ask Millington Mayor George Harvell to convene the mayors for a summit, including Herenton, that would discuss matters of common interest. (Primary among these matters was that of the city and county schools, the mayor later confided.)
The other statement was to the effect that the University of Memphis Tigers should be induced (actually, his tone suggested a firmer verb) to remain in The Pyramid following the completion this year of the FedEx Forum. And to that end he proposed a joint public/private commission to raise funds allowing the total renovation of the facility, specifically including the installation of improved seating.