Politics » Politics Feature

Herenton: A Winner Again -- But Still in Need of Unity




Willie Herenton, Memphis' African-American mayor, easily won reelection to an unprecedented fifth term Thursday in a city election whose outcome was strangely anti-climactic given advance hoopla from recent polls that seemed to promise a tight three-way race.

Sorely tested for the first time for the first time since his first mayoral race in 1991, the ex-Golden Glover, who was undefeated in the ring as a youth, maintained his unblemished record as a political campaigner, as well.

With all precincts in, Herenton had 70,177 votes, or 42 percent of the total. He was followed by city councilwoman Carol Chumney, with 57,180 votes, or 35 percent, and former Memphis Light Gas & Water head Herman Morris, who garnered 35, 158 votes, or 21 percent.

In the end, Herenton - whose vote came almost exclusively from the city's black voters - seemed to have made the case that the race was between himself and Chumney, a white who had played scourge and gadfly to his administration for the last four years.

A rush to the polls of some 75,000 voters, a record, in the two-week early-voting period was oddly counter-pointed by a smaller-than-expected turnout on Election Day. Ultimately, the same demographic inner-city base that prevailed for Herenton in his historic 1991 win over an entrenched white incumbent, Dick Hackett, was at his disposal again. Demographic trends have since accelerated, and an estimated 65 percent of Thursday's voters in a city now firmly majority-black were African-American.

A Head Start in the Early Vote

Late in the campaign, as polls showed her within a percentage point or two of Herenton, a confident Chumney had proclaimed, "We're winning early voting, with fifty percent of the vote," That turned out to be well short of the mark (Herenton netted an estimated 41 percent of early votes). Chumney's expectations were as unrealistic in their way as the consistent claims of former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham, the most prominent of the also-rans in a 14-strong field, that he had a dual base among Republicans and black Memphians that would propel him to victory.

Willingham, a white, a maverick, and a conservative, proved to have no base at all, finishing with less than 1 percent of the vote. His possession of an endorsement from the Shelby County Republican Party gained him virtually nothing, as Chumney, who served 13 years in the legislature as a Democratic state representative, captured most Republican votes in a city where the terms "Republican" and "white" have a significant overlap.

It seemed clear that the latter of those two descriptors played a profound role in the outcome of this election, as it had in Herenton's first race in 1991. Third-place finisher Morris, the mustachioed, reserved former head of Memphis Light Gas & Water, the city utility, spent most of his time competing with Chumney for white voters and, though African-American himself and, for that matter, a stalwart of the NAACP and a veteran of the civil rights struggle, fared no better among black voters than she did. His failure to gain traction in the inner city was owing to several factors - ranging from his decidedly bourgeois image to an apparent reluctance among black voters to let themselves be divided.

The Ford No-Show

An interesting sidelight to the campaign was an all-out publicity campaign by the Herenton campaign last weekend promising reconciliation between the mayor and his longtime inner-city adversary, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., now a well-paid consultant living in Florida. Ford, said a variety of well-circulated handbills, had joined "Team Herenton '07" and would appear with Herenton at a giant rally at the mayor's South Memphis church. That would have been a reprise of the ad hoc collaboration between the two rivals that most observers credit for Herenton's bare 162-vote margin of victory in 1991.

In the event, Ford was a no-show at the Tuesday night rally, and the eleventh-hour embarrassment for the mayor was doubled by the former congressman's disinclination, when contacted by the media, even to make a public statement endorsing Herenton. The whole affair lent an air of desperation to the Herenton campaign effort but turned out to be no big deal. If anything, it reinforced the general impression of precipitant decline for the once legendary Ford-family political organization - beset by convictions, indictments, and other tarnish and with its current star, Harold Ford Jr., having decamped for Nashville and the Democratic Leadership Council.

David Cocke, a former Democratic Party chairman and a longtime ally of the Ford political clan, supported Chumney but foresaw the Herenton victory, putting it this way late in the campaign: "Most people do not vote on the basis of ideas or issues. They vote from the standpoint of a common cultural experience." And from that standpoint Willie Herenton, a onetime Golden Gloves boxing champion who contemptuously dismissed the visibly mature Morris as a "boy" trying to do a man's job, had first dibs on the street cred.

Still, the former schools superintendent is also a seasoned executive who in his four terms to date had brought about extensive downtown redevelopment and earned a good working relationship with the Memphis business establishment - one, however, that had begun to fray around the edges in the last year or so due to a rising crime rate (only last week FBI statistics showed the city to be Number One in that regard in the nation) and fluctuating economic indicators.

At some point in 2008, either on the August general ballot for two countywide offices or on the November ballot for state and federal offices, the Charter Commission impaneled by Memphis voters last year will almost certainly include a provision limiting the mayor and members of the city council to two four-year terms each. A similar provision in a county referendum more than a decade ago prevailed by a whopping 84 percent majority, and results of that sort can be anticipated from next year's city vote.

But in the meantime Willie Herenton, who had earned the unofficial title "Mayor for Life" from friends and foes alike until doubt crept into that consensus toward the end of his latest term, will be grandfathered in. He may indeed end up serving indefinitely or may, as many expect, quit his new term midway, making way for his longtime friend and sometime campaign manager, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton, also an African American. Wharton's easygoing presence and appeal across both racial and political lines made him the subject of a widely based draft movement in the weeks leading up to last July's withdrawal deadline.

The two mayors had dinner together on the eve of that deadline, after which Wharton, who had made a show of considering a run, withdrew from consideration - diffidently but conclusively. That outcome has given rise to persistent rumors of a deal between the two chief executives, in which an early exit by Herenton would permit not only Wharton's succession in a special election but some sort of stratagem to create a de facto consolidation between city and county governments. Herenton had served notice in this campaign year that he intended one last major push for his long-held goal of consolidation if reelected.

Consolidation Still on His Plate?

When then Nashville mayor Bill Purcell addressed the Memphis Rotary Club this past summer, he provided some backup for his Memphis counterpart, who had introduced him, telling the assembled business and civic leaders that Metropolitan government had been "the smartest thing that Nashville ever did" and that, if Memphians wanted a government that was too big, too expensive, and too political, they should keep things just the way they are. Acknowledging the rivalry between the two Tennessee metropolises, Purcell quipped that the status quo suited him just fine.

In his victory speech Thursday night, Herenton was ambivalent on the matter of unity. Even while savoring his victory and counting his blessings, he expressed what appeared to be sincere hurt over his unpopularity among white voters - a source of tut-tutting to some Herenton detractors, a redeeming sign of vulnerability to others. "I'm going to be nice tonight," Herenton he had said early on, "but there are some mean, mean-spirited people in Memphis. These are the haters. I know how to shake them off,"

Maybe so, maybe no. In any case, he made a pass at being conciliatory. Looking ahead to restoring relations with the business community and stemming white resentment (and population flow outward), and perhaps also reflecting on a newly elected city council which will have a majority of new members, the mayor said, "Memphis has some major decisions to make. We have to decide if we want to be one city...or if we want to be a divided city."

Thursday's election results reinforced a sense of division. "This city is still highly racially polarized," said John Ryder, a longtime Memphis Republican figure who co-chaired the campaign of third-place finisher Morris. "The man in the middle got squeezed," Ryder said. He was referring to his candidate, but his remark clearly had more general application.

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