A smaller crowd than expected -- in more than one important sense -- turned out at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in South Memphis Tuesday night for a pro-Willie Herenton "unity" rally that lacked the heavily ballyhooed guest of honor, former congressman Harold Ford Sr.
Though the mayor made an effort to blame the media for the no-show, the fact is that it was Herenton's own campaign that put out word of Ford's appearance at the rally, and it was Ford himself, no one else, who decided not to be there.
A few hundred people - not nearly enough to fill up the church's medium-sized sanctuary - were on hand for what was clearly intended to be a reprise of the triumphant Ford-Herenton partnership that, coming together in that campaign's last week or two, won the day for the city's first elected black mayor in 1991.
There were several late rallies for Herenton in that historic year -- involving such personages as Ford, Martin Luther King III, and Jesse Jackson -- each of them filling every seat in the cavernous churches in which they were held.
"They can't control me!"
Tuesday night's affair could boast a few city officials - including five members of the current city council - and other local luminaries, and, aided by a student choir and by stirring remarks from the Revs. James Netters, Kenneth Whalum Jr., and Gina Stewart, among others, the mayor managed to churn up a fair amount of enthusiasm and energy.
Through rhetoric that was, by turns, arch, dramatic, and scathing, the mayor was able to demonstrate that he is a crowd-pleaser of the sort that neither of his main opponents, councilwoman Carol Chumney or former MLGW head Herman Morris, can aspire to being.
All the same, he could not deliver on the major personage that his campaign had promised, and the rally at Mount Vernon was small as such things go - especially at this stage of a campaign that Herenton insisted Tuesday night was "already won."
As at previous campaign appearances when the mayor had addressed a predominantly African-American crowd, he expressed scorn of a white power establishment that, he said Tuesday night, had founded the city in 1826 and ruled it until 1991 but now had "the audacity to suggest that I've been here too long." A further audacity was the selfsame establishment's attempt to make him, "the victim," into a "villain."
Commented Herenton, his voice dripping with sarcasm: "They say I 'don't listen." What they mean is they can't control me!"
'We're going to have a rally'.
At another point, the mayor invoked the fact that today's African Americans, including himself, were the descendants of slaves who had been brought to this country "in chains."
The only explanation for the absence of Ford Sr. came late in the mayor's remarks, when he spoke scornfully of the media for even wondering about the matter, then proceeded to spin a confusing tale of conversations between himself and the former congressman that dated from the recent dedication of the Harold Ford Sr. Villas development in Memphis.
The congressman had not attended that ceremony, but, said the mayor, he and Ford had talked via long-distance telephone when Ford, from his current home in Florida, expressed his gratitude for the honor of the dedication.
At some point Ford had professed support for his reelection bid, Herenton said, and suggested to the mayor that he "'wanted to come to Memphis to help [me]'."
Herenton said he assured Ford that his campaign was in good shape but responded with this thought: "'We're going to have a rally. If you come in, and the African-American community could see Harold Ford St. and Willie Herenton in one accord, it would be powerful for our people, because they know we've had a split politically. But it would be good for the body politic and for African Americans to see their leaders come together. And...conversely, it would be good for the other group to see that we can come together.' That's all the invitation was."
A shaggy-dog explanation
That was it. That bit of shaggy-dog explanation was all the crowd and the larger electorate were going to get. No further elaboration as to the no-show. The fact remained: Herenton had acknowledged that he "invited Harold Ford here tonight," and there was no Harold Ford there.
The fact remained also that several of the former congressman's intimates, when queried in the last day or two, said Ford had confided to them his disinclination to get involved in this year's mayoral campaign, still less to make a special trip to Memphis to do so.
And the prospect of a Ford-Herenton entente that could have been a huge coup for the mayor's reelection campaign - perhaps enough to insure his victory - had become just another in a series of questionable and exaggerated claims. One had been Herenton's shocking - but still unproven -- allegation back in June of a sexual-blackmail plot against him; another was his contention two weeks ago -- also unproven -- that early-voting results were being skewed by faulty machines.
Now, with only two days to go before Election Day, and with various polls suggesting he is anything but certain to win, Willie Herenton will, for better or for worse, just have to go it alone the rest of the way.