Willie Herenton won’t be, as Gail Floyd-Tyree called him on Saturday, “the first boss to go back in that chair.” Several others, including three-time Mayor Ed Crump (who once literally owned the name “Boss”) have managed to get back into the
Herenton at his Saturday rally
office of mayor after serving in it previously.
But Herenton — who, as several speakers (including himself) noted at a jam-packed “Women for Herenton” rally, was there from 1991 through 2009 — agrees with Tyree, the executive director of Local 1377 of the AFSCME union, who gave him a rousing introduction. He, too, believes strongly that he can get back into City Hall in the role of mayor.
And there was much about Saturday’s rally, held in a cavernous warehouse-sized space on South Third Street, that could just about convince anybody.
First, there were the numbers, upwards of a thousand women, all patently excited and happy to be there. Then there was the enthusiasm, simmering to begin with, and periodically fired into high decibels in the course of the event. Finally, there were the obvious signs of organization and preparation — a forest of large-sized “HERENTON” signs handed out by helpers at appropriate moments, much in the manner of a national political convention.
And, perhaps most convincingly, there were the several voter-registration tables around the sides of the hall, staffed by teams of women supporters who, from time to time, appeared deluged by new applicants.
Women supporters came out en masse.
The event was so emotionally rousing as to remind onlookers of the first Herenton campaign in 1991, the one that, by a razor-thin margin of 142 votes over incumbent Dick Hackett, made Herenton the first elected black mayor in Memphis history. And it more or less overpowered the more recent memory of the half-hearted Herenton run for Congress against incumbent Steve Cohen in 2010, a Democratic primary race Herenton lost by a margin of 4 to 1.
Both Herenton’s campaign manager, Robert Spence, and AFSCME’s Floyd-Tyree, generated some abundant advance energy on behalf of Herenton. Said Spence: “I heard our opponent’s theme” (meaning current Mayor Jim Strickland, running for reelection).
“‘Good at the basics.’ What is that? When did somebody come to office saying the best they could do was mediocre? ... We can do better than that,” said Spence. “And the basics don’t even get good. Trash on the streets. Potholes. Crime. ... We know who ran the city in an exceptional and extraordinary way. ... The Lion is walking in the jungle, and they can't stop it.”
Spence was outdone and then some by Floyd-Tyree, whose union is one of several that have endorsed the former mayor. Saying that she was “confirmed in my soul that this is divine intervention,” Tyree concluded a passionate speech thusly: “You can’t be in the presence of Willie Herenton and not know he’s a boss. Walks like a boss, talks like a boss. He’s the boss!” And: “Where we taking our boss?” The answer came back: “City Hall!”
Expectations in the hall were so high that it would have been virtually impossible for Herenton himself not to deliver. And he did.
After some pro forma early praise for his volunteer workers and an expression of his belief in the power of the spiritual realm, Herenton said, “There’s power in the vote of women, too. We made history in 1991 when you elected Willie Herenton as the first African-American mayor. You didn’t stop there. You reelected me in 1994, you reelected me 1997, in 2000, in 2004, and 2007. And guess what, you’re going to elect me in 2019!”
Herenton was wrong. The actual reelection sequence was 1995, 1999, 2003, and 2007. But it hardly mattered. The women roared their agreement.
Herenton continued. “Someone asked me a question: Willie, can you do it? I took them to the book: Philippians 4:13.” There was a roar. “I see we’ve got some church folks in here,” said Herenton, who then quoted the scripture: “‘’You can do all things through Christ!’
“Sometimes the Lord makes the lowly overcome the highly,” Herenton said. He made note of opponent Strickland’s much-touted $1 million campaign budget. “They’ve got the money power. But we’ve got people power. That’s what’s going to take us over the top on October 3rd.
“This crime problem is deep. It bothers me, this present administration is weak on crime. A lot of people in our community, they have no hope. They’ve given up. They have no inspiration. We’ve got to embrace the values that our parents gave us.” With a nod to his sister in the audience, he said, “Our mother taught us: Work. Education. Church. Work hard and you can be successful. Somehow or another we’ve got to bring those values back. ... There's so much hatred, so much jealousy, so much envy among our people.
“I want you to know that this election is very critical to the future of our city. You’ve asked the question of why am I going back into public service. Because it's late in the evening for me. I want to tell you. I want you to hear me. It’s late in the evening, but the God I serve is still using me.”
The whoop from the crowd was so great as to befit one who had freshly emerged from Sinai with brand new tablets.
And indeed, Herenton had a revelation of sorts for the women. But first there was another Biblical reference, one that might not have gone down well amid a group of feminists but one that scored well with this audience.
“When I look in the Bible,” Herenton said, “I see that first God made man, and he made women, the helpmate. There were great women in the Bible. Esther, Ruth ... I could go on and on. ... Since the beginning of Biblical times, there have been women of value, women of courage, women who nurtured civilization. And today women are still relevant.
“I am appealing to you. You have been there for me in every election. Women have voted overwhelmingly for me. And I’m asking you to do it again.”
The women shouted their assent. Then Herenton favored them with the great revelation:
“Before I take my seat, let me tell you what we’re going to ask you to do. This is real strategic. Early voting starts September 13th. We have you guys in our database, and we’re going to reach out to you, because I don't mind telling you part of what our strategy is. We’re going to win this election in early voting. We going to have a caravan of buses. We’re going to have vans called the Herenton Express. We’ll do an early voting like they have never seen before.”
And there was a warning: “Let me tell you why we have to overwhelm in early voting. In Memphis, with technology, they can steal the election. We’re going to win so overwhelmingly that they can’t steal this election. We need to come out in record numbers.”
Apologizing “for my emotionalism,” Herenton said, “I don't know how to do a fake. I’ve just got to be real.” And, with another exhortation to “go back to our values,” he proclaimed, in the words of “that old church song we used to sing, ‘Victory is ours!’”
Altogether, a boffo performance. If Herenton can continue to generate energy on this scale, Strickland, opponent Tami Sawyer, and the rest of the 11-candidate field will have something to take very seriously.