Just One Herenton: On the Ex-Mayor's Bizarre "Free- for-All" Extravaganza



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  • JB
  • specially autographed for the author
At almost exactly the one-hour mark of Willie Herenton’s marathon hour-and-a-half “free-for-all” session with print and broadcast reporters on Wednesday, Jenny DiPrizio of WPTY, Channel 24, asked the former mayor a key question concerning the way he is attempting to run for Congress in Memphis’ 9th District.

“So the strategy then, until now, has been not to really campaign?”

To which Herenton replied, “Obviously, that has been my strategy.”

Indeed, that has been his strategy. Oh so obviously that has been his strategy, and, though Herenton was gentle to the point of being courtly in the way he affirmed the point to DiPrizio, he had been combative to the point of churlishness in disputing earlier suggestions of that sort, including some by this reporter.

To be sure, I had asked a provocative — perhaps too provocative — first question at the press conference (if that is the right term for the ex-mayor’s self-serving extravaganza): “Isn’t this really an attempt to get free media? Are you not asking us to provide free coverage for a campaign you’re not running?”

The question was almost rhetorical, even self-evident, and in one sense I can understand why Herenton took offense — to the point that he launched several gratuitous insults my way in the course of the session Wednesday, held in a sparsely furnished office suite on South Third that may or may not constitute an actual headquarters.

Yet his reaction belied his earlier promise, in soliciting “any question,” not to “lose my cool” in answering. For whatever reason, Herenton was comparatively benign in his response to several decidedly more challenging, even bellicose, questions from worthies like Mike Matthews of WREG, News Channel 3, and Les Smith of WHBQ, Channel 13.

At one point, after Matthews had pressed Herenton hard, and properly so, on his cavalier attitude toward scandals in his last mayoral term at the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center — MSARC — and at the Memphis Animal Shelter, Herenton made a peculiarly tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement of having “dropped the ball” because “I just want to make you happy.”

Herenton played that one for laughs, and it was almost possible to forget how contemptuous he had been in stating his indifference to what had been genuinely tragic circumstances at both MSARC and the Animal Shelter.

“Who gives a damn about those peripheral issues?” Herenton had thundered. “I say it’s trivial. I never made one visit. I didn’t even know where MSARC was located until you guys covered it.” He went so far as to condemn his mayoral successor, A C Wharton, whom earlier he had called a “disaster,” for turning up at the Animal Shelter to actually see what was going on there.

For a man who would go on to boast that he had been “the best mayor Memphis ever had,” that was rather an odd way to go about defining the quality of his stewardship.

More Giveaway Moments

There were many more such giveaway moments in Herenton’s session with the media. And some of them shall be accounted for here. But I rove. I had meant to provide a background for the ex-mayor’s persistently hostile and intermittently belittling attitude toward me.

Logic played little part in it. At one point, the admirable Kontji Anthony of WMC-TV, Action News 5, had asked Herenton about accusations of indifference toward encouragement of black entrepreneurship made against him by African-American businessman Anthony “Amp” Elmore. After some muttering about “haters,” Herenton went on to claim, “If the guy hadn’t been opposed to me, Jackson wouldn’t have written one word about Elmore.”

Aside from coupling me with the odious and inapplicable term “haters,” Herenton was suggesting that I had broken the story. In fact, though Elmore had importuned me to deal with his charges weeks ago, I had wondered about special pleading on his part (as Herenton, too, did) and held back on reporting them until, first, Anthony, and then blogger Thaddeus Matthews (“FORMER KICKBOXING CHAMP READY TO KNOCK HERENTON OUT”) had.

Herenton’s on again/off again manner of relating to people in the media is perhaps best typified by his history with Matthews, whom he once publicly denounced, after being targeted for criticism, as a “social degenerate” but now enjoys cordial, even mutually supportive, relations with.

As I reminded Herenton on Wednesday, in the 20 years that I have covered him, I had often written about him favorably, even admiringly, and above all, fairly. It was no accident that, upon his leavetaking of office last year, he had favored me with an exclusive “exit interview,” featured in several Flyer issues, beginning with the July 2, 2009 edition.

The source of my own recent difficulties with Herenton appears to be twofold. I had presumed to ask him, on the occasion of his recent impromptu press conference in front of the headquarters of his congressional rival, incumbent Steve Cohen, how he could claim not to have known that the Commercial Appeal 's Otis Sanford and Channel 3’s Norm Brewer would be panelists for the scheduled TV debate which he had agreed to but would subsequently cancel out. His stated reason for opting out was his seeming discovery that the “biased” Sanford and Brewer, who had done every Channel 3 debate since 2002, would take part.

My question on that score had led to a Herenton outburst concerning matter-of-fact statements I had made in print and in interviews to the effect that his campaign against Cohen had, up to that point, been largely non-existent. As I would put it in a new column a day or two later: “No money, no events, no paraphernalia, no organization, no campaign — unless you count the occasional stab at getting some free media….”

"How do you have the audacity to talk about the campaign organization of the longest-serving mayor in this city, who beat an entrenched Republican and had no money, who dismantled the Ford political machine?" Herenton had expostulated on that occasion. (He made similar statements Wednesday, juxtaposed with the snide aside, “Consider the source.”)

The Herenton “Campaign”

To take these points in turn:

*”No money”: Herenton’s last reported financial disclosure showed $5,604 in expenditures on his congressional campaign, and campaign treasurer Rickey Wilkins said the ex-mayor had not yet reached the $5,000 threshold in new contributions.

*”No events”: Herenton had a small fundraiser on April 12. That’s all, folks, except for the aforesaid “free media” events like the one Wednesday and the previous one at Cohen’s HQ.

*”No paraphernalia”: As his answer to this one, Herenton trotted out Wednesday yet more copies of his “What’s Wrong With This Picture”” page showing pictures of the white-only 11 members of the state’s congressional delegation. That plus a few caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Just One — Herenton.” More about all that anon.

“No organization.” Oh, okay, the former mayor sometimes has in tow his chief political ally, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, and almost always Michael Gray, the former bodyguard whom he appointed to be assistant director of the city library system. Both were there on Wednesday, evidently an all-hands-on-deck day, since he also had standing by Tony Elion, another former bodyguard, whom Herenton had made Deputy Director of Public Works in the waning days of his administration. The ex-mayor could presumably have conducted a full-out staff meeting.

“No campaign”: That point was spoken to in the first paragraphs of this article.

On the score of money, by the way, Herenton acknowledged as unobtrusively as he could on Wednesday that his attorney — presumably Rickey Wilkins — would be settling up with the city some $10,000 in legal fees owed for his private defense during the curse of an FBI investigation into possible conflict-of-interest charges against him.

As for that investigation — which related to the intersection of his business dealings with the public sector, notably in his profiting from the sale and relocation of a Greyhound bus-terminal property — Herenton declined to be forthcoming, pleading advice of attorney, presumably he same attorney he said had okayed his involvement in the transaction.

Herenton seemed to blame his legal woes on The Commercial Appeal, which he said tried “to portray me as a crook” after filing to “beat me at the polls," complaining further, “Man, they wanted me badder’n they wanted a cure for AIDs.”

He accused CA reporter Mark Perrusquia of “lying to win an award,” and he characterized the newspaper itself as “this racist backwater Commercial Appeal.” (Un-stingy with his favors, he also lumped the Flyer and several local TV stations in with “this southern backwater type of mentality.”)

Again on the subject of money, Herenton begrudged the $10,000 he was having to pony up in comparison with the “$6 million” he charged John Elkington and Performa with failing to account for in the company'ss Beale Street management contract with the city. He had opened Wednesday’s session with a denunciation of Mayor A C Wharton’s decision to settle the long-standing legal dispute with Elkington begun under Herenton’s administration (and one which had cost the city several million dollars in legal fees to pursue).

It was that opening salvo that made the most immediate news, since Herenton unhandsomely referred to his mayoral successor as a “disaster” — continuing, “That’s what he’s proven to be. I also knew he had no courage or strength of convictions.”

“Race Matters”

Oddly, Herenton’s invective against opponent Cohen was subdued by comparison, though he reiterated his recent allegation that the congressman, chairman of a House subcommittee and sponsor of several pieces of legislation which he documents in weekly newsletters and almost daily press releases, had “no record.”

Though almost by definition and specific avowal Herenton’s campaign against Cohen is a hypothetical and future-tense affair, the tenor of it has long since been made clear and was repeated again Wednesday. “Race matters in this particular election,” he said (along with, apparently, religion; in a brief discussion of demographics, Herenton made sure to note aloud that Cohen was Jewish).

Herenton also chided me that if I was any good I would have pronounced the race over with as soon as he, Herenton, had become the only African American Democrat to file against Cohen.

He had taken pains earlier to dismiss as “nonsensical” the only scientific poll whose results have been published to date — the one released last week, conducted by John Bakke with Ethridge and Associates, showing Cohen favored by 9th District voters over Herenton by a margin of 62 percent to 9 percent, with the rest undecided.

The climactic moment of the ex-mayor’s moment in the spotlight Wednesday came with his final act — the revelation of what he called his “P.R.” strategy for pursuing the contest.

As indicated, the piece de resistance of this campaign was a new, improved version of the “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” page — the one distributed previously, showing the nine Tennessee members of the U.S. House of Representatives plus the state’s two U.S. Senators, the idea being that everybody in the picture is white, and that proper representation called for a black congressman: namely, himself

Herenton’s first two tries with the picture page had been replete with misidentifications and misspellings, even of his own name. This third time has proved the charm, and in that respect his campaign really is getting ship-shape. . The Tennesseans on the page he passed out were all correctly identified by name and by party, and the ex-mayor’s own name this time appeared without error. H-e-r-e-n-t-o-n.

The name was also spelled properly on the T-shirts, caps, and campaign signs displayed on Wednesday to the gathered media: “JUST ONE, “they all said, following up with the word “HERENTON.” Presumably that meant that just one member of Congress from Tennessee should be African American, and that one should be none other than Willie Herenton.

Unfortunately, perhaps, the message was somewhat confusing graphically, with the line separating the words “JUST ONE” and “HERENTON” being so indistinct that the slogan could easily be read as saying “Just One Herenton.”

As the exhibition he put on Wednesday demonstrated all over again, politically speaking, there is only one Herenton, and few there are who would dispute that this is exactly as it should be.

Herenton Mimics Norm Brewer, Dismisses MSARC, Animal Shelter Issues


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