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VOL. 124 | NO. 124 | Friday, June 26, 2009

Herenton Resigns

Job became ‘routine,’ mayor says

By Bill Dries

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END OF AN ERA: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton announced his resignation at a Thursday morning press conference at City Hall. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

It’s over.

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is resigning effective July 10 to devote all of his time to a bid for Congress in the 2010 election and to join his son, Rodney, in a financial investment business, the mayor announced Thursday.

After a day of intense speculation at City Hall sparked by Herenton telling his division directors to get any lingering paperwork ready for him to sign, Herenton ended a historic 18-year tenure.

When he leaves office next month, he will leave as the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. Herenton is also the city’s first elected African-American mayor, changing the city’s political DNA starting with his historic defeat of incumbent Dick Hackett in 1991 by a 142-vote margin.

Herenton quoted Ecclesiastes Thursday as he confirmed what had been speculated about intensely for the past day and generally for more than a year.

“‘To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven,’” Herenton quoted from the third chapter. “There’s a season and there is a time.”

He also uncharacteristically confirmed that reporters had accurately picked up on signals that he had grown weary of the job.

“All people have to do is listen to me. … You’ve seen the signals,” Herenton said.

Although before Thursday morning’s announcement when reporters attempted to read a purpose into such signals, Herenton has usually denied such motives. He talked over the weekend of taking a vacation, something Herenton hasn’t done during his 18 years in office.

No distractions

Like his predecessors in the office, Herenton has been a political loner – an independent with a political organization capable of winning re-election but without any political coattails for a Herenton slate of candidates in other races. He tried that in the 1995 city elections. Although he won handily, the council slate of candidates he backed failed.

Some of Herenton’s supporters in the bid to unseat Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen in the 2010 congressional primary have urged him to remain mayor as he campaigned in the primary. Some of those same supporters had succeeded in talking him into running for a fifth term in 2007 as he wavered.

But Herenton said that staying while running for Congress would create the appearance of a conflict of interest and would be a distraction to the campaign.

“I have always been opposed to such behavior by public officials,” he said. “And if I follow the same course of conduct that I have criticized in the past, it would subject me to the same criticisms that I have publicly stated about others.”

Under questioning, Herenton also conceded that in recent years the job had lost its luster.

“I kind of lost, I lost my zeal,” Herenton said. “I’m the kind of guy – I’ve got to climb mountains. … And this was getting to be routine for me.”

But Herenton is handing his political legacy to someone not of his political camp.

NEW LEADER: City Council Chairman Myron Lowery, with Mayor Willie Herenton lingering in the background, said his first action as interim mayor will be to set up a special election for mayor. Lowery becomes interim mayor next month when Herenton’s resignation takes effect. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Under terms of the City Charter, City Council Chairman Myron Lowery will become mayor and a special election is to be held within 90 days of the resignation, since there is no regularly scheduled general election, city or county, within 180 days.

“The first order of business will be for me … to talk to the Shelby County Election Commission about a special election,” Lowery said.

When Herenton briefly considered resigning in the spring of 2008, it was because he mistakenly thought city Chief Administrative Officer Keith McGee would assume the mayor’s office until the regularly scheduled 2011 city elections. Once he realized that wouldn’t be the case, he took it back and pretended he had never broached the subject.

Herenton considers a major part of his legacy to be what he calls the “urban agenda,” the transformation of the city’s public housing projects into mixed-use, mixed-income subdivisions intended to be a catalyst for other economic development in those areas of the city.

“I was concerned about who is going to succeed me. I still am concerned,” Herenton said. “But I have to move on. This is another season in my life. I can’t stay here and continue to guide this ship.”

‘Capable hands’

Herenton’s personal finances have been the subject of a federal grand jury probe for at least a year – a secret investigation that has included testimony from some of his closest aides, but which also has appeared to wander to various topics based on who has been seen going into the grand jury room to testify. Herenton brushed off questions about the probe, saying reporters who asked about it were “preoccupied.”

“I’m just a victim,” he remarked, refusing to elaborate on the comment.

Lowery was told a half hour before the press conference that Herenton would make an announcement and was given Herenton’s letter of resignation.

“There will be no major changes,” Lowery said of the coming transition. “I’ve served on the council for as long as Dr. Willie Herenton has been mayor. So, he’s leaving our city in good capable hands – the capable hands of a strong leadership team with the Memphis City Council and the capable hands of a city administration and directors.”

Herenton’s resignation sets in motion a political scramble the city hasn’t seen since 1982, when Wyeth Chandler resigned as mayor to become a Circuit Court judge.

Lowery, however, may have a different experience than J. O. Patterson Jr. and Wallace Madewell had when they assumed the office on an interim basis. Chandler’s team of division directors remained intact for the most part.

Herenton told reporters that between now and July 11 several of his division directors also will resign. He wouldn’t specify. McGee announced earlier this month that he would retire effective July 1.

Looking ahead

Adding to the political intensity is the short campaign time frame of possibly as little as three months depending on various legal interpretations of the charter language approved by city voters in a referendum just last year.

Lowery has said he is interested in running in a special election and confirmed that Thursday, just minutes after Herenton’s announcement.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is already raising money for a 2011 bid for mayor that is expected to become a campaign for the job on an interim basis. And former City Council member Carol Chumney, who was among Herenton’s challengers in the 2007 city election, is also interested in running.

Whoever wins the special election will have an advantage if he or she runs in the 2011 contest.

Although in the 1982 special election that followed Chandler’s resignation, the only candidate who ran again in the 1983 regular election was the winning candidate – Dick Hackett.

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