Willie Herenton, like the hero in a frontier melodrama, walked unarmed under a flag of truce into the enemy's camp this week and made his case that Memphis and Shelby County should become one big Ponderosa.
Pretty good theater, not bad politics, and probably no lasting effects.
Herenton looks more and more like a man alone on the consolidation issue. His political allies, such as they are, are nearly all in the "yes, but" category. As in, "Yes, consolidation has some interesting points, but we must all come together and communicate with each other before doing anything rash."
Herenton's closest aides seemed not to have been told of his plans to speak to the Shelby County Commission (as "Citizen Herenton") until Monday -- though advance word had sneaked through to some media outlets. The mayor sat near the back of the auditorium and seemed prepared to wait his turn to speak until Chairman Walter Bailey insisted that he lead off the meeting. Herenton said little that he has not said before, except that he had just presented Trustee Bob Patterson with a check for his property taxes that morning and was smarting a bit from the county component.
Herenton attempted to let County mayor A C Wharton off the hook by blaming, without naming him, Wharton's Republican predecessor Jim Rout for the need for a tax increase. But some commissioners, notably Democrat Cleo Kirk, took offense. That's a bad omen for consolidation getting beyond the talking stage.
Might as well say it -- some suburban mayors and county officials go to bed at night swearing allegiance to the idea of separate school systems and separate governments. If they could build a Great Wall of China between Memphis and the rest of the county they would do it. Typical are Shelby County schools superintendent Bobby Webb and county school board president David Pickler, who were on hand for Herenton's presentation and suggested later that his criticism of a proposed new Arlington high school as "unnecessary" was a cover for a Herenton busing agenda. (Webb, it will be remembered, proclaimed out loud some months ago that new county schools should be built as far as possible from the city of Memphis annexation reserve.)
Other than the Memphis mayor himself, consolidation proponents are either wishy-washy or they have no more political clout than a newspaper editorial writer. Or both.
Herenton has made his point. No one can deny that he was perfectly clear about his goal and unafraid to state his case before hostile forces.
But consolidation looks like a loser. If Herenton intends to run for another four-year term as mayor, as he has said he does, he might as well turn his attention in his next term to the issue of underused schools -- alluded to directly in his remarks to the commission on Monday -- by putting pressure on the city school board to forthwith close as many of them as is feasible. Wasted construction costs and underused schools account for the majority of the potential savings in the recent outside audit of the Memphis City Schools system. That's a battle Herenton can win, and his voice needs to be heard as often as possible.