It was not exactly a bunker — except perhaps metaphorically — but what may turn out to be Willie Herenton’s climactic appearance before a group of political supporters took place Saturday in a smallish enclosed space in North Memphis — the meeting room of city councilman Joe Brown’s district office at Jackson and Watkins.
More than anything else, it was the intense hundred-degree heat outdoors that forced the 40-odd backers of the former mayor into such a crammed, though blissfully air-conditioned, venue. Nate Jackson and other Teamsters members had set up an area for food and drink and dancing outside in the parking lot and heroically continued to toil at their posts throughout the event inside.
There was another sense besides the weather in which the meeting — billed in advance as a “North Memphis rally” — suggested a refuge for survivors. The meeting was held in the face of polls, pundits’ predictions, and a seemingly nonstop string of endorsements for Herenton’s opponent, incumbent congressman Steve Cohen, by African-American personages and institutions. And consequently the feeling of “us against the world” was palpable.
After Sidney Chism, the former Teamster head and current county commissioner who may be Herenton’s oldest and most loyal supporter, addressed the group with one of his patented over-the edge barn-burners, Herenton arrived and entered to the kind of tumultuous welcome that compensated somewhat for the size of the crowd.
And Herenton’s remarks hit some middle between the tempered and the extreme, between a show of confidence and resignation to the inevitable.
He began moderately but with a promise, appropriately cheered, “that we are going to win this election.” In its dire projections as to his electoral fate, the disbelieving media, he said, is confusing likely countywide totals with those of the9th District, which, “always remember…is a subset of the county.” And thus all those reports of higher-than-usual turnouts from white and Republican voters should be disregarded.
He promised to release the details of a poll on Tuesday, which would show, “data-wise with high predictability value of how large our margin will be.” That putative margin over Cohen could be estimated as between 3 to 1 and 4 to 1, Herenton said, “I’d like to beat him so bad I like the 4 to 1.”
Cohen’s well-documented financial edge? “I’ve never seen a dollar vote.” Nor could President Obama and the members of the Congressional Black Caucus who’ve endorsed Cohen vote. “But you can vote. And you’re going to vote.” Another cheer. “The black voters are going to determine who’s going to Congress.”
“To even make this race comfortably close,” Herenton said, Cohen would have to get “six out of ten of us.” And with “our folks …voting like mad,” that was not going to happen. “You got to watch these white folks,” he warned, speaking of alleged “irregularities” that occurred during the 2006 election. “Anything goes down, you got to watch white folks counting.” That was one of the lessons learned on the slave ships, Herenton said, somewhat incongruously.
“It will not be close. Look at the demographics of the 9th Congressional District,” Herenton said. Those Democratic candidates who stayed away from him, “the same way Gore stayed away from Clinton” were going to be in trouble. “The way they win is heavily dependent on the black vote. [But] they treat me like I’ve got a plague. But see, I don’t need them. All I need is you.”
Again, he promised to release a poll with “factual information” on the probable outcome on August 5. He ridiculed pollsters “Yacoubian, Ethridge, and Bakke,” and said, “Put all of them together, and they won’t come up with one good poll.”
Herenton also mocked the figure of 35 percent that I had given WREG’s Mike Matthews in an interview as a possible high-water mark for the ex-mayor. I could not resist interjecting aloud that that number was higher than any given him in a scientific survey so far. In fact, my actual estimate of his final vote — “out of the air,” as he put it — has for some time been 33 percent, and that, I concede, is likely too high.
His “victory party” would be held at the Botanic Gardens, he said. And his final words? “It’s all good.”