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VOL. 124 | NO. 79 | Thursday, April 23, 2009

Political Theater Big Part Of Herenton Bombshell

By BILL DRIES & ANDY MEEK | The Daily News

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Comments ()
SNEAK ATTACK: Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton has again surprised the local political scene with word that he has formed an exploratory committee to consider running for Congress in 2010. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

In hindsight, there was just something about the way Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton walked out of the City Council chambers Tuesday.

He had delivered a budget address that included no layoffs, no tax hike and a 3 percent raise for city employees. It went well.

All of his division directors were present, as they usually are for the annual budget address.

But so were some family members and political allies.

Then came the normal media bustle outside the council chambers.

Herenton said he would take a few questions, but wasn’t interested in giving too many details about the budget numbers.

“All of you will get a copy of the budget. If you’ve got some kind of global questions you want to ask me about the budget, I’ll respond to them,” he began. “But what I’d like to do is take this opportunity to speak to some of the rumors that have been floating around concerning what my plans are. I’d like to share that with you if I could, but let’s get your budget stuff out of the way first.”


After four questions, Herenton said his press aide, Toni Holman Turner, would hand out a written copy of his plans for the future.

As she handed out the three-paragraph document with a picture of the U.S. Capitol as its background, Herenton headed for the elevator with his entourage, presumably on the way to his seventh-floor office.

By the time reporters looked up in astonishment, Herenton was gone. The statement said Herenton had formed a committee to run for Congress in 2010.

“The transition from public service to the private sector has been contemplated by me for a considerable time after retirement from my current office,” the statement read. “However, after receiving considerable encouragement from citizens to become a candidate in 2010 for the U.S. House of Representatives Ninth Congressional District, I am seriously evaluating the opportunity to represent the Memphis community at the federal level.

“My 30 years of public service has uniquely prepared me to represent Memphis at the federal level as our national leadership faces some very difficult challenges. I am forming an exploratory committee and anticipate making a decision in the near future.”

Double wham!

If Herenton were to run, it presumably would be in the Democratic primary and probably against incumbent Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, judging by Cohen’s written statement from Washington an hour later.

In the statement, Cohen expressed surprise. His voicemail box was full an hour after Herenton’s statement was handed to reporters.

“I have an excellent working relationship with the city of Memphis, as evidenced by the number of projects that received federal funding under the last budget,” Cohen’s statement read. “I believe that the overwhelming margin of victory during my re-election campaign last year showed that the people of the 9th District of Tennessee enthusiastically approve of the job I’ve been doing in Washington, D.C. 

“In my nearly 30 years of public service as a legislator, I have always fought for the people of Memphis, and I plan to continue to do so in the U.S. House of Representatives for the foreseeable future.”

Herenton could run for Congress without giving up his position as mayor. His current four-year term runs out at the end of 2011.

But Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has already started a campaign for Memphis mayor in 2011, prompting rumors that Herenton might resign before completing his term.

Word of the possible congressional bid comes a year and month after Herenton talked of resigning the mayor’s office to pursue other interests, including possibly becoming superintendent of the Memphis City Schools system. Herenton reconsidered almost immediately. 

Race card

Among those not surprised by Herenton’s latest public pondering of life after City Hall was Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism. Chism is a close friend and political adviser to Herenton as well as a former chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party and a Tennessee Democratic Party committeeman.

“He’s always had a desire to go to Congress,” Chism told The Daily News.

In 2007 when Herenton decided to launch his re-election bid for a fifth term as mayor, Chism recalled Herenton hesitating and then saying, “I might run one more time for mayor, but I’d really like to go to Congress for a while.”

“I said, ‘Well, you got a lot more work to do in the city,’” Chism said. “I knew he was sincere, because he never says anything to me he’s not sincere about.”

Chism predicted a Cohen-Herenton matchup wouldn’t be much of a contest.

“If (Herenton) runs in the 9th Congressional District, if you go back and pull the numbers, if he doesn’t get but 50 percent of the people that normally vote for him, he’d beat Steve,” Chism said. “I don’t think there’s discontent with Steve. I think that in the 9th Congressional District ­– that seat was set aside for an African-American.

“Now, I don’t want to go black on you, but that’s the truth of the matter. We don’t have any representation as far as ethinicity in concerned in the state of Tennessee and the only place we can get that is in the 9th Congressional District.”

Chism’s statement is not new. Cohen drew intense opposition during his 2006 bid for the open seat from some black ministers who said they believed the district should continue to be represented by an African-American as it had for more than 30 years by Harold Ford Sr. and Ford Jr.

Cohen was just as vigorous in defending his record as a state senator representing the interests of black citizens. He even sought, unsuccessfully, to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

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