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VOL. 124 | NO. 154 | Friday, August 7, 2009

One Week Later: Historic Mayoral Era Turns to New Beginnings

By Bill Dries

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PASSING PARADE: Former Memphis Mayors Willie Herenton (from left), J.O. Patterson Jr. and Dick Hackett share memories after the swearing-in ceremony last week of Mayor Pro Tempore Myron Lowery. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Just more than a week ago, Methodist minister Frank McRae opened a gathering at City Hall that was Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s farewell.

McRae talked about what he termed the “passing parade of politicians.”

“It’s fascinating,” McRae said as he and others were surrounded by four walls of mayoral portraits.

July 30 marked the farewell of Herenton, the first black elected mayor in city history, and longest tenured mayor, first elected in 1991. The next day was a changing of the guard of sorts, as City Council Chairman Myron Lowery became mayor pro tempore until a special election is held in October.

‘Tallest, longest and first’

McRae was present at the moment two of the most controversial mayors of the 20th century took the oath of office and began their tenures – Henry Loeb in the 1960s and Willie Herenton.

McRae looked past the crowd to the other end of the room at a portrait of Mayor William B. Ingram and recalled some city leaders “were so afraid of what Ingram might do” between Loeb’s election in 1967 and the end of Ingram’s term of office that Loeb took the oath of office at the earliest moment possible – midnight on the first day of 1968.

“His campaign slogan was ‘Be Proud Again.’ And everyone knows – and Henry was my good friend – when Henry left office, Memphis was in its darkest days Memphis has seen since the 1870s when the Yellow Fever epidemic was here,” McRae recalled, referring to the sanitation workers’ strike that hit in the second month of Loeb’s term and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly thereafter. “That’s the way it happens when you observe the passing parade of politicians.”

Herenton, to the end, rejected being labeled a politician – even a successful politician.

“I don’t think I’m a politician. … I don’t make decisions on the basis of politics,” he told The Daily News. “Most politicians will always make a decision that gets them votes. I don’t do that. … I don’t do things to get votes. I just don’t behave politically.”

And as suddenly as the moment of introspection came, it vanished.

EARLY CONTROVERSY: Less than a week after taking office, Mayor Pro Tempore Myron Lowery, right, is locked in a dispute with city attorney Elbert Jefferson, left, who sued Lowery in the name of the city of Memphis the day Lowery took office and in his first act, attempted to fire Jefferson. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

“The reason you’re asking me that is because I win elections,” he said. “I’m a real competitive guy. I’m a fierce competitor. I don’t believe in losing anything.”

From there he began boasting about how easily he would win next year’s Democratic congressional primary.

Win or lose that contest, McRae said Herenton won’t be forgotten by historians.

“They won’t step over the Herenton years. He’s been the tallest, the longest and the first African-American mayor.”

The next day in the same Hall of Mayors where McRae spoke, there was more of the parade that he talked about as Lowery became mayor pro tempore. Herenton was present as an invited guest – although tension was still palpable between the two.

But also there was Dick Hackett, who lost to Herenton by 142 votes in 1991. He and Hackett chatted amiably and joked with each other.

J.O. Patterson Jr., the first African-American mayor of Memphis by virtue of Wyeth Chandler’s resignation in 1982, talked with Lowery. Patterson, like Lowery plans to do, ran in the special election and received the most votes. But he didn’t get a majority, so he and Hackett moved to a runoff, which Hackett won.

Making a mark

As three of the former mayors talked about old times, the parade McRae referred to was on the move again.

Minutes after Lowery took the oath of office, he signed papers signifying he had taken the oath of office in one corner of the hall. He then walked to the other side of the room and went into a stairwell with city attorney Elbert Jefferson.

By then, there already were rumors Lowery wanted Jefferson out of the post. The two had clashed over legal expenses and strategy as well as Jefferson’s use of outside legal counsel. Jefferson had offered to resign just a few weeks earlier to Herenton but Herenton refused to accept.

Lowery may have thought he would have a chance to accept Jefferson’s resignation. But Jefferson said he wouldn’t quit.

Lowery and Jefferson agree on what happened next, to a point. Lowery handed Jefferson a letter saying Jefferson was fired effective immediately. Jefferson put the letter in his coat pocket without reading it. Lowery immediately said he should read it then and there and took Jefferson’s access card to the City Hall garage.

Jefferson said Lowery couldn’t fire him. Lowery said he could with a majority vote of the City Council. And Jefferson agreed.

Jefferson was escorted to his car. As that was happening, Lowery held his first press conference as mayor and the first question was about Jefferson’s status. Lowery responded that he had fired Jefferson and that he had the power to do so.

By the end of the day, Jefferson had filed a lawsuit against Lowery on behalf of the city of Memphis, which had been headed by Lowery for fewer than 24 hours. He also had a court order from Chancellor Walter Evans allowing him continued status at least for now as city attorney.

The lawsuit is still pending. Lowery called off a planned City Council vote on his choice for city attorney, former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis, until a Wednesday hearing before Evans on continuing the injunction that keeps Jefferson in his job.

“It would appear to the court that the actions taken by Mayor Pro Tempore Lowery was not an act of termination, but merely his expression of a desire to terminate the relationship with Mr. Jefferson,” Evans ruled from the bench after citing specific language from the City Charter. “The ultimate decision has to rest with a majority vote of the City Council.”

Evans settled one question about the procedure for replacing Jefferson. He ruled a council vote confirming Coleman-Davis as city attorney would serve the same purpose as a vote to concur in Lowery’s removal of Jefferson.

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