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The Testament of Willie Herenton

Memphis' embattled mayor reflects on his New Year's Day bombshells, his fight with the City Council, and the prospects for more conflict ahead.



"Well, Mayor, you've been in this job 12 years. I remember we sat around just before you started your third term, and you said something about 'I'm getting old and tired,' and here you are embarking on a fourth term. And you've had great achievements, and where do you see yourself going in your political career? Do you think you'll try this thing again? Or is this the last term? You started off with a bang, and, tell me, Mayor, what was behind that New Year's Day speech? ... You've got this far and your relationship with the council over the years has been tolerable, why are you at this point now, and where do you think this is going to end? And you made a statement that there was no one else in the political establishment Uh, what was that all about? And do you really think that you caused the furor that we're seeing here today? And what was behind all that, Mayor? And what do you hope to accomplish, and how do you think, and what do you think?"

Then Willie Herenton paused for breath and said, "Jackson, that's pretty good, right?"

You see, all of the foregoing was Mayor Herenton vocalizing the line of questioning he anticipated he would get in a conversation with the Flyer last Friday afternoon, at the end of an unprecedentedly stormy news week at City Hall. And it was pretty good. In fact, once I stopped guffawing at this tour de force, I said the obvious: "Well, Mayor, all we need now are the answers."

And to get them, we started over.


First, I wanted to know whether he really meant to include his counterpart chief executive, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, in his blanket disparagement of other local officials as being unfit to do his job. His answer, like many of the rest he gave, was both coy and head-on:

"I'm not trying to draw A C into this current state of affairs, or any other particular individuals," the mayor said. "I made a broad all-inclusive statement. I said 'the political establishment.' And all the individuals in the political establishment are those elected by the people." In other words, yep.

He continued: "Now, let me be candid with you and tell you that when I made that statement, I didn't see anyone in the political establishment that had the managerial skills and the courage. I was hoping that when I made those statements there would be some elected officials that would say, 'Well, maybe Herenton is speaking to me, and in the future, I'm going to be more like Willie Herenton and have the courage to tackle tough issues, to not look at my political future and not try to do things politically but do the right things.' But it didn't work that way. What it did was irritate many members of the political establishment I understand. I'm a big boy."

"[I]n the future, I'm going to be more like Willie Herenton." Okay, boys and girls, you can't say he hasn't set the bar for you.

"I haven't seen an elected official who wasn't for sale."

"I've always said that when this mayoral tenure is over there'll be a wild shooting match for the next officeholder. They're not satisfied to have a legislative role, they all want to be mayor. And I'll reiterate, I haven't seen a single one -- now, granted, my standards are very high. I have yet to see one of them who meets it.

"Let me tell you what a mayor's got to do. I know this seems self-serving. If I left here, who is the guy or woman who has the necessary ingredients to do this job effectively? To do this job in Memphis, you've got to be tough, real tough. You've got to have some convictions and some integrity, and you've got to be able to stand a hell of a lot of pressures and stress. And you've got to be able to tell powerful people no when it's appropriate. Tell Democrats no, tells Republicans no, tell Independents no. You have to be so independent that nobody can buy you off."

Then came a bombshell: "See, I haven't seen an elected official who wasn't for sale." He reflected, impersonally appraising the echo of his own phrasing. "Maybe I'm being too broad. Let me just say this: I've seen very few, if any, that there wasn't a price." In his 12 years as mayor, said Herenton, "No one has ever approached me in an unprofessional manner to influence me on a decision. Now I like that. I like the fact that people respect me and my integrity. Because the mayor of Memphis is the sole contracting authority."


"When I look around and see all these other ladies and gentlemen, who, if they were not in those elective offices, as I said the other day, they have no sense of importance.

"I do this job of mayor, hopefully, because I think I can make a contribution to my city. You don't make any money; it doesn't allow you to pursue business opportunities and you end up with a little pension, so you don't do this for money. If you're honest, you don't. If you'll notice me and my whole style, the reason I'm so hard on some of these other people is that I don't see any damn courage. I don't see people with any real convictions or integrity or principle and things that they stand for, that are in political office.

"I say this to you not as one who is being portrayed as arrogant or egotistical. I have high standards for leadership. I really believe that if you're in a leadership position, you ought to lead. Some people think I'm on the right track. Some think I'm an egomaniac. But when I go home tonight, I sleep.

"Some of these people, you called their names [the only names mentioned at this point had been those of councilmen Rickey Peete and Myron Lowery (see below), and Wharton], I'll tell you, I'd hate to be in a fight and have one of them be in it with me. The wind blows one way, they go that way; the wind blows the other way, they go that way. I'm steady. I'm on course."


The mayor had declared on New Year's Day that "enemies" on both the City Council and the Shelby County Commission were "plotting" against him. He elaborated on that: "What I had referenced to in my speech was that I was aware there were clandestine meetings among councilmen to get strategy to railroad some of my nominees. Didn't you find it interesting that blacks, whites, Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, moderates, liberals, they were all unified the other day? This thing was all worked up. I knew all of that was taking place. They executed it well. They were united. They've got a well-oiled machine. There were many meetings.

"Let me tell you what your enemies will do. Enemies can be enemies among themselves, unless they have a common enemy. They think, The mayor looks down on us. He's arrogant and doesn't respect us. We've got to teach him a lesson.

"I was really in church at 1:30 [New Year's] morning. I knew about all those clandestine meetings. I worked on different versions of my speech. Believe me, I toned it down."

The God Thing

"If you knew my life and the way I've traveled up until now, where I come from -- I'm 63 years old, right? -- and you had any religious foundation, you would come to the inescapable conclusion that God has blessed you. Because there was no [other] way you could have come through the obstacles of life, and how your life was engineered, that you were in the right place at the right time. Now you're either a very faithful person or you look at me and you think I'm crazy and weird.

"I'm very comfortable with who I am, and I'm comfortable in my relationship with God. ... [T]here were about 75 people there, and when I talked about Jehosaphat, Bishop G.E. Patterson told me the story about the Amorites. He knew exactly what I was talking about when he said, 'Stand still. The fight is not yours. It is the Lord's.' He told Jehosaphat to stand still. He knew what I was talking about.

"The preachers there were connecting, or should have connected. The reference to 'He shall make your enemies your footstool.' That's in the Bible. I can't help it if they [anybody who was offended] don't know it. The Bible says that."

The End Run

Why did Mayor Herenton choose to publicize his nominee list before cueing the council in?

"I'm surprised that [Tom] Marshall didn't tell people what happened. I talked to Tom that day and told Tom that I wanted the council to have my nominees, because it was going to come out in the press the following day. I had given an interview to The Commercial Appeal, and if we had given the documents to the council that same evening, then it would have been on the 10 o'clock news. We put all the documents in Tom Marshall's office by 10 o'clock that night so it wouldn't be on the 10 o'clock news."

Leaking news to prevent a leak?

"Yes. We have had bad experiences with members of the council leaking information to the media. So we're trying to protect it, yet place it in their domain at a particular time."

"We're in a different situation now."

Could he have done something to avert the showdown?

"Obviously, I could have. But what good does it do to go back and say what I could have done? I could have given a different speech. But we're in a different situation now.

"That was a lot of really small crap [about how the nominees' names were released]. Why be so offended about the time you get some information? The resume's the thing. If you get it the night before or in the morning, who gives a damn?"

The God Thing (cont'd)

"When pastors tell you they were called to preach, do you believe that God calls people to preach? Are leaders born or are they made? Do you believe that life circumstances present to certain people in certain time and space an opportunity that allows them to do certain things? That's all I'm talking about. Now if you're going to ask me literally if God, whom I've never seen, says, 'Now there's Willie Herenton, who was born at 149 E.H. Crump. Now when he grows up to be 51, he'll be the mayor of Memphis,' I don't get into that kind of stuff."

MLGW: The "Real Story"

I had heard from several state legislators that the real story behind Herenton's firing of MLGW CEO Herman Morris hadn't been told, that it concerned the mayor's dissatisfaction with Morris' handling of the giant utility's historic prepayment bond deal with TVA, which ended with Herenton dictating how the deal was done and with the mayor's son Rodney (employed by a First Tennessee affiliate) allegedly having a role.

"Let me tell you what the truth is," Herenton responded. "The culture of MLGW under Herman Morris' leadership was alien to what we needed here in city government. Now, let's go back to the prepayment thing. It's partially true, except for the part about Rodney. When I saw the participants in this transaction, which was the largest bond-interest deal in the history of Tennessee, when I saw it was heavily Wall Street -- I believe it was 65 percent Wall Street, 35 percent local -- it had one minority person involved in the deal, and a black attorney brought it to my attention, I couldn't believe it.

"I called Herman, wrote him a letter, said, I can't believe the largest and ... representatives, not from First Tennessee, from Morgan Keegan, came to me, and said, 'Mayor, did you know this deal was 65 percent Wall Street?' I said no. First Tennessee never came to me. Morgan Keegan came to me. I got with Herm and I said, 'Look, what is this?' J.P. Morgan was driving this. I said, You can't do this. We've got leading local companies here and minorities. How did this get to be like it is? It's not inclusive -- not local or minority.

"And I began to take control of that. That's the fact. For the record, my son was not even involved in that sort of thing. My son does not get involved in any transactions of a financial-service nature that involve the city of Memphis or any of its agencies. [I did] get Joseph Lee involved in the transaction."

(Asked last week to comment on this and other aspects of his firing, the deposed Morris pondered for some time -- like a man reflecting long and hard on his parachute [see City Beat, page 9], it seemed -- and said only, "The mayor has the right to do what he did. It's his prerogative.")

Rivals and Plotters (cont'd)

There has been much speculation concerning the obvious rift between Herenton and two of his former allies, councilmen Rickey Peete and Myron Lowery, both rumored to have long-term mayoral ambitions. Herenton shocked many with an unexpected decision to schedule his now-famous (or infamous) New Year's Day prayer breakfast at roughly the same time as Lowery's, a fund-raising affair at which the mayor had, every year until now, delivered a widely heeded state-of-the-city address. "I've never been in a political situation where I wanted an office and I couldn't have it. Some of these guys have aspirations that they're never going to realize."

The now-you-see-it-now-you-don't-now-you-do mayoral pay raise? "It's very clear that Rickey mismanaged that. He talks a good game, but he doesn't deliver. Let me just tell you what happened: During the budget time, Rickey and Tom Marshall -- you know I had salary proposals on the table for management -- they asked me to take them back. This was an election year. 'Bring 'em back after the election.' Rickey had worked this out with Tom Marshall. They never told the other council members or the public that. That's why the mayor's salary was not voted on earlier, because of the agreement between Rickey and Tom Marshall, and they never stood up and told the rest of the council the truth. That's why they didn't vote on the mayor's salary earlier, because they thought they were going to lose votes if they voted for the pay raise before the election. A lot of them are afraid of their shadows, especially during an election year. And they never told anybody."

The mayor elaborated further on the estrangement he felt from Peete and Lowery: "I'm not without my flaws and frailties, but there are some principles that are important to me. I grew up when a man's word was his bond. If a man's word is not shit, he's not shit. If I give you my word, you can bank on it. That's what I expect from a man -- his word. That's all I'm saying about one case. The other case was about loyalty. To friends, especially people who help you. If you're disloyal to friends, that's another flaw. I've given you two examples. You can match them up whichever way you want."

"Don't you like a guy like me?"

"Don't you like a guy like me? You can say that Willie Herenton said it to me and that's his word. I don't forget friendship, people who help me. I'm not looking for friendship on the council. I'm looking for a cooperative working relationship to move this city forward and respect. I don't need no damn friends on the council. We're going to have a few more squabbles. The feuding is not over. The fight is not over."

Would he consult with the council in the process of finding new nominees, some through national searches?

"Nope. I'm not going to do that. I don't talk to the council to try to get votes. I expect everybody to vote a measure up or down. We'll just let things play out. ... Any attempts to violate the charter and erode the authority of the mayor I'm going to vigorously fight in a court of law. That's the bottom line. Other little skirmishes will be fought, and that's fine. But not adhering to the charter, I'm going to draw serious battle lines on that."

"Awesome Powers"

Herenton had created a stir with his New Year's statement that the city charter contained "awesome powers" for a mayor -- as yet unused. He gave hints as to how that might change.

"Did you know that if a council member interferes with the administrative operations of city government, I could bring charges, and if convicted in a court of law, the seat becomes vacant? In the past there have been clear examples. If I'd filed in Chancery Court, the seats would have become vacant. I've never vetoed any ordinance. Never exercised a veto. I've been very respectful of this council."

This mayor, who by anybody's definition is an alpha male, has not only never lost an election, he has come out on the short end of very few showdowns in his life -- if any. But had he not lost -- quite visibly and publicly -- a round to the council? He seemed taken aback with the realization, struggling to be philosophical: "It's not important. It wasn't an important round."


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