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VOL. 122 | NO. 183 | Thursday, September 27, 2007

Gloves On, Gloves Off

Herenton sticks to 'charm offensive' instead of debating competitors

By Bill Dries

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FROM THE HQ: Mayor Willie Herenton, who still refuses to debate his rivals in the mayor's race, is shown at a recent campaign
gathering at his South Memphis headquarters.
-- Photo By Andy Meek

Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton has run for the same elected office five times.

He's won four and he'll know about the fifth try one week from today.

Herenton said he'll be glad when the week is over. He's been on a charm offensive for about the last month, which has included submitting to a series of one-on-one television interviews that have replaced the home-stretch candidates forums of past election seasons.

He has refused to debate his top three challengers - former County Commissioner John Willingham, City Council member Carol Chumney and former Memphis Light, Gas & Water Division president Herman Morris Jr. And that refusal has been questioned in every interview.

Takin' it like a man

"I'm the new anchor," Herenton deadpanned Tuesday evening as he walked into the Fox 13 television newsroom near the end of another long day on the campaign trail. Herenton showed no signs of fatigue as he waited to be escorted onto a nearby set for a live half-hour interview.

It was an interview that featured the latest trend in such television political events, with citizens posing questions from around the city. Herenton fielded nine of the taped questions, including one about his refusal to debate that seemed to test the limits of the charm offensive.

"I want to know when he's going to be a man and step up and debate the other candidates. ... It looks like he can't defend himself, so he avoids the confrontation," caller Bill Gay said more than asked.

Herenton, who has been known to judge questions and questioners harshly, didn't react to the part of the question that dealt with his manhood. Instead, he went back to the 1999 mayor's race in which he faced a record field of challengers.

"They had 14 candidates and I found myself sitting on the stage with all of these guys - everybody shooting at me because I was the incumbent," Herenton said. "I said, 'Never will I do that again.' If I'm the incumbent, I have a record. I should be judged on my record."

A 'lackluster' bloodbath

In this campaign, Herenton faces a field of 13 challengers, but unlike 1999, there is no member of the Ford family among his challengers, no professional wrestlers ala Jerry Lawler with decent political skills and a constituency fresh to city politics. The head count may be almost the same, but Herenton said after the broadcast that it doesn't feel the same.

"I think this has been, thus far, a lackluster mayoral race," Herenton said. "It's been an uneventful campaign from my perspective. It hasn't generated a lot of excitement."

The comment belies the party line of his campaign that has been zealously fighting any signs of complacency by supporters.

"This has been a very bloody campaign," said Herenton campaign manager Charles Carpenter last week. "It started off nasty and it's just gotten worse."

Herenton also admitted that in some ways he is running against the idea that he's stayed too long. No other Memphis mayor has served 16 consecutive years. Watkins Overton served 16 years, but there was an eight-year gap in his tenure.

"I'm facing probably the challenge of convincing a certain segment of the community that my vision is still fresh, that I still have a passion for this job and the energy to take the city to a new level," Herenton said. "I think the longer an incumbent is in a position, perhaps the more difficult it is to convince people that you are still focused on the job."


Crime and punishment

Chumney and Morris have been quick to criticize Herenton for not focusing enough on crime as mayor. Herenton is willing to concede that until recently he hasn't focused enough on the issue as a candidate.

Among his public appearances this campaign season have been several press conferences outside alleged drug houses police have boarded up as part of Operation Blue Crush - the statistics-driven, high-visibility police effort that targets crime hotspots.

They are the kind of photo ops Herenton purposely has avoided before. Even with the higher law and order profile, Herenton still repeated what he has said countless times in the last 16 years - the mayor has little control over crime. Morris has used the video of Herenton in one of his television ads.

"I've been misunderstood," Herenton said in the Fox 13 interview. "I have never stated that government did not have a responsibility - or the mayor - to make the community safe. That is a major responsibility . ... The crime rate, it's volatile. It's up and it's down."

He also chided Morris for his pledge to lower the city's crime rate by 10 percent for each of the next four years if elected.

"We're not going to give you a 10 percent number, because we've already exceeded that. In each of the last two years, we've had a 12 percent decrease in crime in some categories. We're going to make this city safer."

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