Mayor Willie Herenton used his New Year's Day prayer breakfast to nip at his critics, cast himself - again - as a leader with a divine calling, and set the stage for a long and divisive public debate about a new 50,000-seat football stadium.
Using as his theme "On The Wall," which he said was taken from Nehemiah building a wall around Jerusalem in the Bible, Herenton spoke to about 400 people at Cook Convention Center. Many of them were ministers of the black churches that are the backbone of Herenton's political support. With the city election ten months away, Herenton evoked the religious revival spirit of his historic 1991 mayoral campaign.
He ended the speech by asking the audience to "stand up and say to the mayor, 'mayor, stay on the wall.'" Which is what most of those in the audience did, although it was notable that only one member of the Memphis City Council - Barbara Swearengen Holt - was in attendance.
He said he plans to run for a fifth term in 2007, and he
repeatedly used the phrase "I'm on the wall" in the way others might say "I'm on
the job" of building a better city. But after touching briefly on plans to
eliminate urban blight and add 500 new police officers, he turned to one
specific building project that is likely to overshadow all others - replacing
the 41-year-old Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium with a new stadium, with
construction starting in 2009.
Granted that it is "Bowl Day" and the nation is celebrating college football, but the proposal, as Herenton admitted, took even some of his own division directors by surprise. At a press conference following his wide-ranging speech, he insisted on taking questions only about the stadium, even though there were no sportswriters around.
He said his earlier speech was "not a kickoff for my campaign" and had "nothing to do with (my) reelection." Briefly breaking his own ground rules, he said, "I want to make it clear I'm running right now," and specifically asked that the message be conveyed to Memphis Flyer politics editor Jackson Baker, who wondered in an end-of-year column about how firm the mayor's plans were. (Baker attended the breakfast but not the press conference.)
The stadium question is likely to garner headlines for a few days and lead the city's wish list of items before the Tennessee General Assembly in 2007 and 2008. Herenton said he would present financing details within 45 days, but in his speech he said "We're going to support this government with economic growth and not taxation."
The so-called State of the City speech, which Herenton gave to a secular audience last year, was vintage Herenton. It combined politics, prayer, public policy, patronage (there was published tribute on the tables to Rev. James Netters, Herenton's pastor and former interim head of MLGW) and gospel fever.
"Some of you are very nervous about what I'm going to say today, but I want you to know I'm in a good mood," Herenton said after being introduced by his friend Kevin Kane, head of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau. There was a bit of laughter as Herenton continued, "Let me tell you why I'm in a good mood."
He then said "I love the Lord" and quoted some scripture. Then he went to "the wall" and Nehemiah and reminded the audience of his 1991 victory that "broke historic barriers." This, remember, was not a campaign kickoff.
He took a shot at The Commercial Appeal and columnist Wendi Thomas or "Wendi whats-her-name" as he called her for having the audacity to make criticisms and public policy suggestions in editorials.
He then returned to the wall and Nehemiah and 1991, pointing out that only about 3,000 white people voted for him that year. (Since he brought it up, it should be pointed out that the audience Monday was overwhelmingly black.) Turning religious, he said that in 1991 God asked "who will go?" and Herenton responded, "Lord, I'll go."
Returning to a secular mode, he claimed credit (giving the City Council its due) for a downtown revival, racial healing, improved public housing, and keeping the city fiscally solvent despite what he characterized as a minor and short-lived downswing. Memphis, he said, had a "desolate, barren, and dead downtown 15 years ago," which may come as news to former mayor Dick Hackett and developers such as Jack Belz and Henry Turley as well as commercial real estate agents familiar with the vacancy rates in downtown office towers, which are higher today than they were in 1991.
He said he is sometimes asked why he wants to run for a fifth term as mayor.
"It's real simple," he said. "I'm on a wall."
He said he would make three announcements. The first was his intention to seek $50 million in bonds over four years for blight removal. Second was the new stadium. Third was public safety and 500 new police officers.
Asked after his press conference if the emphasis on the stadium and the presence of the city's leading stadium boosters on stage with him indicated that it is a higher priority than blight removal, he said that is not the case.
"We'll get it all done," he said.