Politics » Politics Feature

Herenton and Others Look to Challenge for Mayor

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It would seem to be a fact that former Mayor Willie Herenton, who headed city government from his election in 1991 as Memphis' first elected black chief executive until his retirement in 2009, amid a fifth term, will make another try for the office in 2019.

Earlier this month, Herenton, who first announced he was considering another mayoral race in the wake of the MLK commemorations of April 4th, made things semi-official with a formal statement of candidacy on Facebook. The venue was modish for a political figure of Herenton's vintage, who made a point of saying, in his online announcement, that "age is just a number, and I am physically fit, mentally sharp, and quite healthy."

Willie Herenton - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Willie Herenton

Still, circumstances beyond those of age would not seem exactly propitious for the former mayor, who just learned that three of his remaining four charter schools will be forced to close, having landed on the Priority List of schools unable to meet state standards for two years running. Two other Herenton-operated schools were closed earlier, and the net result of it all would seem a crippling omen for the onetime city school superintendent's desire to rekindle his educationist's vocation.

The school closures give a sense of irony to the statement, "My record of achievement speaks for itself," Herenton made in his announcement remarks. Indeed, Herenton had much to boast of from his 17 years of ascendancy in government, although much of the positive aura attaching to his tenure had dissipated toward the end of his mayoralty, and a run for Congress in 2010 against incumbent 9th District U.S. Representative Steve Cohen ended disastrously.

Aside from other factors, that loss, in which Herenton's share of the vote was only 20 percent, owed much to Herenton's painfully obvious lack of resources, and it is difficult to see where his money would come from in a challenge to Mayor Jim Strickland, who is sure to be well-funded. (The current mayor has not yet declared for reelection, but no one seriously doubts his intentions to run again.)

The chief effect of a Herenton candidacy — should it come to pass — would be to inhibit the likelihood of another serious opponent to Strickland's reelection. As of now, the only known challengers are Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams, a 2015 candidate who has indicated he will run again, and a relative unknown named Lemichael Wilson.

Others who have received at least tangential mention as possible mayoral contenders in 2010 include Harold Collins, director of community engagement for the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission; City Councilman Martavius Jones; and the Rev. Keith Norman, a prominent clergyman with numerous civic and political connections, including the past chairmanship of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

Collins, however, has just accepted an appointment by county Mayor Lee Harris to become Director of Re-entry for Shelby County government. Jones seems satisfied to explore the potential of his council career, and Norman would presumably have to vacate a well-paid position with Baptist Hospital to make a run.

Two other local figures with acknowledged interest in the mayoralty are, almost by definition, future-tense in their ambitions. They would be Van Turner, chairman of the Shelby County Commission, and uber-activist Tami Sawyer, a newly installed member of the commission.

Turner, who at 43 has the right balance of seasoning and relative youth to make a race, acknowledged to the Flyer that a mayoral run has crossed his mind, but says his candidacy is more likely to occur in 2023, when he will have concluded his permitted two terms on the commission. At the moment, he is still classified as a Strickland supporter and, as head of Memphis Greenspace, which purchased and removed the city's downtown Confederate monuments, is an effective partner of the mayor.

Sawyer, who, as Turner notes, "has a great following among millenials," is also apparently looking down the road to 2023, when the mayor's race will seemingly be wide open.

Meanwhile, for Herenton and whoever else might be thinking about running in 2019, Strickland's camp is floating a recent poll showing the incumbent mayor's favorable rating among whites to be 66 percent, and that among African Americans to be 68 percent.

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