Though it somehow seems longer, it has only been five years — actually a little less — since I sat down for an interview with Willie Herenton, who was about to take voluntary leave of the job of mayor of Memphis after holding it for more than 17 years.
Herenton had requested the interview and clearly had some things to get off his chest. It was the Flyer issue of July 2, 2009, and we called the result, appropriately enough, "The Exit Interview."
One of the several hot-button things the outgoing mayor wanted to talk about was his relationship with the man considered by Herenton and most other political observers — correctly, as it turned out — to be the likely winner of the right to succeed him in the special mayoral election that would follow that year. This was A C Wharton, the amiable former public defender who was in the latter half of his second four-year term as Shelby County mayor.
Only two years before, in the run-up to the regular 2007 city election, Wharton had been actively recruited by an ad hoc citizens' group to run against Herenton, who was about to seek a fifth consecutive term, further expanding on what was already a record length of mayoral tenure.
Wharton was clearly tempted, and in the midst of rampant public speculation as to his intentions, the two chief executives met for a well-publicized but confidential conversation at Overton Square's Le Chardonnay restaurant, after which the county mayor announced he would not be seeking the city job. Not just yet.
Only in the Flyer's "Exit Interview" was the substance of that conversation finally revealed. From the interview:
"'We didn't have dinner.' That was the first revelation about what the mayor described as a 'cleansing conversation between A C Wharton and Willie Herenton.' But more were to come. 'A C and I did not make a deal,' Herenton insisted. 'People who know me know I'm not a dealmaker. ... We were both honest and candid with each other about some issues surrounding his flirtation with running for city mayor.
"'I gave him my straight, pretty hard feelings about that. I had deep resentment for that. I felt he should not have flirted with that. It was a character flaw. I resented it. I felt he should not have entertained it for a moment.' Herenton said he thought Wharton, by considering the issue of running, had yielded to 'divide-and-conquer' forces in the community.
"The county mayor, too, had vented some complaints at Le Chardonnay, Herenton said: 'He felt my style was divisive, while his was unifying. He thought I should tone down my leadership role. He felt I should avoid a lot of the skirmishes I got involved in and stick to issues. He did not care for my temperament in the office and my style.' Herenton smiled thinly as he recalled what his response to his mayoral counterpart had been. 'My style is me.'"
And if Wharton had entered the mayor's race against Herenton in 2007? The article continued:
"Another thin smile. 'We would have beat him. It would not have been nice. We would have won, but it would have been ugly. It would have been real ugly.' Why? 'Because I would have described him. I don't have to describe him now.'"