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VOL. 124 | NO. 89 | Thursday, May 7, 2009

Life After City Hall: The story behind Herenton’s Washington surprise

By Bill Dries

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You would think that Mayor Willie Herenton’s “resignation” last spring as he thought about trying out for Memphis City Schools superintendent would be difficult to top.

After all, the only thing worse than being surprised in politics is being surprised twice by the same person.

But Herenton did just that after delivering his annual budget message to the City Council on a busy Tuesday late last month. It came after his very basic speech that some might argue was overshadowed by FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s earlier appearance at City Hall. Smith spoke to the council about government consolidation and other issues.

As Herenton walked out of the council chambers to a waiting gaggle of reporters, a group of friends, political allies and even some family members accompanied him. Such an entourage seemed unusual for a routine budget address.

The group headed for Herenton’s upstairs office as he stepped over to the Hall of Mayors on the other side of the lobby.

“If you’ve got some kind of global questions you want to ask me about the budget, I’ll respond to them,” Herenton said to reporters. “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.”

A reporter asked Herenton if he would be getting a 3 percent raise along with other city employees.

“Sir, you haven’t been here long. Do your research,” Herenton replied as he pointed out that the mayor’s pay is set by the City Council and a pay raise only takes effect after the next city election, not during the current mayor’s term of office.

Shortly after that, Herenton said a written statement about his political future would be handed out, and he headed for the elevator. He was already on his way upstairs as reporters looked up in disbelief from the three-paragraph document.

As he finished delivering his budget address to the City Council last month, there were few indications Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton was about to launch another political surprise. Some politicos say they believe Herenton doesn’t fit the role of congressman. “He’s always been a my-way-or-the-highway kind of mayor,” said Shelby County Commissioner Matt Kuhn, a former local Democratic Party chairman. “I don’t know if that works in Congress.” -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

“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 began as it talked of a possible run for the 9th District Congressional seat in 2010. “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.”

But first, some background

In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether Herenton makes the race. The structure and nature of local government is already changing, even if he rides off into the political sunset as he might at the end of 2011.

In other ways, a Herenton candidacy would have an impact on what is already a watershed period in local politics.

Here’s how it could work:

Herenton runs for Congress and wins in the November 2010 general election. He resigns as mayor and takes his new office in January 2011 with one year left in his four-year mayoral term. For up to 180 days, under terms of a charter amendment approved by Memphis voters in the November 2008 elections, the chairman of the Memphis City Council becomes mayor.

But since there is not a regularly scheduled election during that six-month period, the council has 90 days to put a special election on the ballot and open up the polling places in the city. This could mean two interim mayors.

A slightly different scenario surfaced in 1982 when Wyeth Chandler resigned as mayor to accept an appointment as a Circuit Court judge. He had a little more than a year left in his term of office. City Council chairman J.O. Patterson Jr. and chief administrative officer Wallace Madewell each served stints as interim mayor.

The recent charter change eliminated the line of succession to the city’s chief administrative officer and lengthened the council chairman’s stay in the mayor’s office. Some of the Charter Commission’s discussion before approving the item for the ballot centered on Madewell’s crucial decision during his brief tenure to sign the 52-year lease that still governs how the Beale Street Entertainment District is operated.

Dick Hackett won the special election in 1982. Hackett ran in the regularly scheduled 1983 city election and won again. The field in the 1982 special election formed rapidly once a Chancery Court ruling did away with the prevailing thought at City Hall that there was no time for a special election.

Aside from Hackett, the candidates for the 1982 and 1983 elections were completely different.

‘The hereafter’

Minutes after Herenton’s budget address, City Council members were in recess and most were talking with members of a school funding protest group.

Council members read Herenton’s statement several times as their eyes grew wider and they reacted with words like “no” and “wow” and groaned or laughed or both.

“I guess you could call us the hereafter,” council member Shea Flinn said. “We’re going to be here after the mayor.”

“Wow, I’m shocked,” said council member Jim Strickland after reading the written statement. “I’d heard the rumor that he was considering quitting the mayor’s job early. But I had no clue that he was looking at running for Congress.”

Strickland was particularly impressed with Herenton’s formation of an exploratory committee.

“It’s a serious step for actually running,” said the former chairman of the local Democratic Party.

While some exploratory committees result in a prospective candidate deciding to pass on a bid for elected office, no serious bid for citywide, countywide or statewide office gets under way without such a committee. The committee itself creates momentum for a campaign as it quickly gauges the impetus to start raising money.

“What is this?” council chairman Myron Lowery said as he began reading. “What?” he continued as he read further. “I don’t believe what I’m reading.”

With that, council member Reid Hedgepeth came over and read over Lowery’s shoulder with equal amazement as other council members saw the huddle and gathered around.

Lowery had copies made for all 13 council members.

Wanda Halbert, the council’s most prolific Internet presence, tweeted on Twitter the first word of the bombshell outside City Hall.

Welcome back

In Washington, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, was just settling in after a congressional recess trip to the Balkans and Eastern Europe when he got word of the Herenton announcement.

A week later, Cohen told The Memphis News he still had no idea what prompted Herenton’s action. The two had talked three to four weeks ago about federal legislation for the city. They had also encountered each other at several Memphis events, including a funeral.

“He was cordial – maybe a bit more distant, in retrospect, than I normally had seen him. But it was cordial,” Cohen said. “I saw him at the NAACP (Freedom Fund Dinner) and made a point of saying hello to him.”

The morning after Herenton’s written statement, during a previously scheduled interview on the “Drake & Zeke” show on 98.1 The Max FM, Cohen’s first words about the possibility went directly to the man who held the congressional seat for 22 years and became the most powerful political leader in Memphis since E.H. Crump.

Congressman Steve Cohen, left, said Mayor Willie Herenton is being used by political adversaries who backed Nikki Tinker, right, over him in the 2006 and 2008 Democratic congressional primaries. “It’s not about Congress. It’s not about votes. It’s not even about political power. It’s about, ‘We lost with Tinker.’ And they have a vendetta to beat me.” -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

“(Herenton) might think that he would like it because Harold Ford Sr. had the job and Harold Ford Sr. made the job,” Cohen said. “He made it into a powerhouse and a machine of politics way beyond what a congressman normally is almost anywhere in the country. He made it into something different.

“And Mayor Herenton is not going to do that – cannot do that – would not do that. The trappings of Harold Ford may be attractive to (Herenton), but Harold Ford worked and made the job. I don’t know where he’s coming from.”

Past grievances

As Herenton was running for an unprecedented fifth term in 2007, Cohen was setting up shop in Washington and was not involved in the three-way mayoral race among Herenton, City Council member Carol Chumney and attorney Herman Morris.

Matt Kuhn, former local Democratic Party chairman, said he believes that might be where some of Herenton’s motivation began.

“I am sure that it might have a little to do with the fact that Cohen didn’t support him in his last re-election (bid) for mayor,” Kuhn said. “That’s not an issue that you can run on. … So, he’s going to have to explore and find an issue.”

Herenton’s legacy as mayor is tied to federal funding. The most visible part of his legacy is replacing all but two of the city’s major public housing projects with mixed-income communities. With hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding through the HOPE VI program, public housing sites have been demolished and replaced with private developments in which the federal money has been leveraged with private money.

Cohen has helped secure that funding. But the Herenton administration’s version of the story is that U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alfonso Jackson, who served under President George W. Bush, made direct contact with the city about the possibility of more HOPE VI money after seeing what had been done with other developments. It was that contact and the promise of getting unused HOPE VI funding from other cities that led to the most ambitious transition to date – the Triangle Noir project.

Latent ambitions

The decade-long, $1 billion project would kick off with millions in HOPE VI money to demolish the last two public housing projects left – Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes, just south of Downtown.

The city administration as late as March believed the possibility of getting HOPE VI money was over with the Obama administration moving into the White House and rethinking Bush-era programs. But weeks later the city found out HOPE VI money was still in the pipeline.

Shelby County commissioner Sidney Chism discounts the idea that Herenton’s congressional ambitions began that late. The retired Teamster Union leader was a key backer of Herenton’s 1991 upset bid to become mayor. Chism remains a close friend and political ally.

“He’s always had a desire to go to Congress,” Chism said of Herenton.

Chism told The Memphis News that as Herenton was on the fence about running for a fifth term in 2007, a congressional race did come up.

E.H.Crump, top, was another Memphis mayor with an interest in serving in Congress. The political boss was elected to Congress at the height of the Great Depression, 20 years after he lost the mayor’s office because he refused to enforce state laws on prohibition. His successor in Congress, Walter Chandler, bottom, left Congress to serve as mayor at Crump’s request.

“(Herenton) said, “You know, Sidney, I might run one more time for mayor, but I’d really like to go to Congress for a while,’” Chism recalled. “I said, ‘You got a lot more work to do in the city.’”

Chism, too, had more to do in 2008 when he went to work for Tinker’s second bid for the congressional seat in the Democratic primary. It was a wild ride in which Tinker proved to be a marginally better candidate than expected, but her judgment remained questionable.

Cohen supporters rankled at any mention of Tinker. Even comments about the improvement of her campaigning ability were likely to draw sharp criticism for her even daring to run in the primary.

Tinker supporters were equally adamant in their visible distaste for Cohen. To them, Cohen was all symbolism and no real commitment.

The attack began to take on speed when Cohen sponsored and succeeded in winning U.S. House passage of a resolution condemning the practice of slavery as primary Election Day neared. Cohen insisted the timing was a surprise to him.

In a post-primary campaign op-ed for the Washington Beltway publication Roll Call, Cohen said, “While I considered postponing the bill to avert politicization of the issue, I feared that should I not take advantage of the chance to pass the bill, there might not be another opportunity this year.”

Cohen was replying to a Tinker apology in Roll Call for the conduct of her campaign, including television ads that linked Cohen to the Ku Klux Klan. They involved his vote as an ex oficio member of the Center City Commission board against a resolution expressing support for renaming Memphis’ Forrest Park.

The medical center park is named in honor of Confederate general, slave trader and first Ku Klux Klan grand wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest. Lending heft to the ad was the presence of former county commissioner Walter Bailey, a member of the city’s black political establishment and the most vocal advocate of the park name change. The ad drew a rebuke from Barack Obama’s campaign, among others on the national political scene

Cohen was in no mood for an apology, especially one in a political forum after all the votes had been counted. “The mud cannot be unslung,” he wrote.

He termed Tinker’s apology a “faux mea culpa” in which she repeated her “scurrilous campaign attacks.”

This time, it’s personal

Chism is blunt in his belief that an African-American should hold at least one of the nine Congressional seats from Tennessee, and that it should probably be the one covering the area that has the largest black population.

“I don’t think there’s discontent with Steve,” Chism told The Memphis News. “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.”

In his radio interview, Cohen said Herenton is being used by those with similar sentiments. And he insisted it is personal.

“They are so angry that they lost that they’re looking for a way to win,” Cohen said. “It’s not about Congress. It’s not about votes. It’s not even about political power. It’s about, ‘We lost with Tinker’ and they have a vendetta to beat me. And they are behind this move by Herenton.”

Cohen is back in election mode and taking campaign contributions, and was receiving them unsolicited within hours of Herenton’s statement.

“He’s given me a little shot in the rear,” Cohen said. “I was not contemplating much of a re-election (bid) in 2010 and nobody in Washington was for me either. … It’s got me up. I’m going to start working on the politics side of it.”

Members of the House of Representatives live in a sort of perpetual election mode because of their two-year terms. That is more acute during the first term because the conventional political wisdom is they are most vulnerable when seeking a second term of office.

Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and Democratic U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen have established a working relationship in recent years despite some serious differences when Cohen was a state senator and Alexander was governor and later president of the University of Tennessee. Cohen remains a colorful political figure, as he has made important connections across party lines during his three years in Congress. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

After the second term, the same wisdom suggests it gets easier, but it’s a good idea to continue to look over your shoulder. Even Harold Ford Sr. faced more serious challenges from other Democrats during his 11 elections to Congress than he did from Republicans.

Cohen has kept his political guard up in the time-honored manner of his predecessors – frequent press releases about federal funding secured for Memphis through his office and when credit is due, giving proper kudos to other members of the Tennessee delegation and the state’s two U.S. senators.

Cohen has even forged a working relationship with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, which had been especially prickly when Cohen was a Democratic state senator and Alexander, a Republican, was governor and later president of the University of Tennessee.

Cohen was among the first and the most vocal Memphis supporters of Obama for president at a time when the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was still a contest between Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Exploring options

There are two ways to look at Herenton’s formation of an exploratory committee.

One is that Herenton is being erratic and unpredictable. The other is Herenton is being completely consistent with his earlier expression of restlessness on the top floor of City Hall.

Herenton thought he would have a chance to name his successor last year when he talked of retiring. He got bad advice about how the mayoral line of succession works. It turned out not to be true. And by the end of the Easter weekend, he had reversed his stance on retiring.

But he left a trail of clues to his intent.

This time around, the written statement seemed to have been an attempt at a kind of rhetorical discipline that has eluded Herenton in the past. This time there was no freelance elaboration and straying to other points that might overshadow Herenton’s basic intent – until three days later.

That’s when Herenton issued another written statement. This one went to the City Council. And it scolded them for cutting city funding to the Memphis school system in 2008, which led to a Chancery Court lawsuit that is still playing out in an appeals court.

Cutting $66 million in school funding was a conscious decision by the council to test the school system’s belief that the city had to maintain a certain level of funding. It was also an opportunity for the council to roll back the city’s property tax rate as unprecedented economic storm clouds were gathering over the nation.

Herenton did weigh in against the funding cut for fear the city would lose and have to suddenly come up with tens of millions of dollars in funding after a budget was set and a tax rate in place. The recent judgment against the city by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong came to $57 million, but it has been stayed pending the appeal, which both sides expect to go all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

“You ignored my advice and some council members are threatening to undo a balanced 2010 operating budget to hedge your mistake,” Herenton wrote the council. “My advice to the council is to reinstate the previous 0.82 tax rate allocated for schools and let’s move on to other priorities for the city. In the final analysis, we need to do what is best for children.”

In three days and three more paragraphs and without taking a single question, Herenton had again dangled a departure from the mayor’s office and again changed the subject. He had also thrown into doubt his own carefully prepared budget assertion that there would be no property tax hike.

Lowery, who is among those considering a bid for city mayor in 2011 or earlier, responded quickly with a legal opinion from council attorney Allan Wade, the lead attorney for the city of Memphis in the school funding lawsuit.

Wade’s opinion responded to a query from council budget committee chair Wanda Halbert. Halbert opened budget hearings the day before Herenton’s second letter and some council members were beginning to question their decision.

Halbert’s question for Wade was whether a city operating budget would be illegal or unbalanced if the council did not include the $57 million Armstrong ordered paid or any funding for the school system.

“It is our opinion that the failure to include either item in the city’s operating budget for FY (fiscal year) ’09-’10, which is presently before your budget committee, does not make that budget unbalanced or illegal,” Wade wrote.

Consolidating power

Whether Herenton follows through and runs for Congress – and whether he wins or loses – big changes are under way in the local political sandbox. And the school funding question demonstrates that the changes aren’t all centered on personalities or who is running when. Elections won’t settle all of the political assumptions that are being questioned.

The early start in the 2010 race for governor is par for the course.

But the other early activity – some of it appearing to be coordinated – is not.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. is campaigning for city mayor, and held his first fundraiser of the year this month at The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. All of the campaign literature says he’s running in the 2011 elections. But Wharton’s early start and now Herenton’s interest in Congress turned that into a questionable formality.

Days before the Wharton fundraiser, County Commission chairwoman Deidre Malone held a fundraiser for her 2010 campaign for county mayor. Wharton was among those on the host committee.

Herenton, Wharton and Malone have some common political goals. The most important one is a desire to see government consolidation, or at least a reordering of how city and county governments operate without dragging a merging of the two public school systems into the discussion for now.

They argue that Memphis taxpayers bear an inequitable tax burden with two governments. Leaders of the county’s six suburban municipalities have been quick to question what a change in that tax burden would mean for county taxpayers within the boundaries of their towns and cities.

Herenton, Wharton and Malone agree that adding school consolidation would not help what is already an uphill struggle to win some kind of understanding with voters outside Memphis. Herenton has said his personal belief is still that everything, including the school systems, should be consolidated, but he withdrew from the fray last year, conceding that he had become a lightning rod consolidation opponents had used to rally their troops.

Wharton intends to put a plan to voters in a late 2010 pair of referenda – one inside the city of Memphis and the other in the parts of the county outside of it. Wharton is already holding town hall meetings, but so far has not proposed a specific plan.

Wharton has said his entry in the city mayoral race is not a plan he worked out with Herenton. He told those at his first fundraiser in late 2008 that Herenton had made no assurances to him that he might not seek a sixth term in 2011.

The 2011 city elections will be the last in an odd year, and those running for mayor will be running for an abbreviated one-time-only, three-year term. It’s part of the adjustment to the same four-year, even-numbered cycle used for most county offices. It was another City Charter change approved by Memphis voters in the November 2008 elections.

Stay tuned

Temperament is a political factor that is usually associated with how voters might want to assess candidates for judge. Apply it to a Herenton and Cohen matchup and it might not work.

There are simply a lot of colorful stories about each. That may say more about what voters are looking for in a congressional representative or a mayor than the potential candidates.

“It’s a grueling schedule. Not that he couldn’t do it,” Kuhn said of Herenton’s temperament. “I just don’t think you can divorce yourself from a personality. … He’s always been a ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ kind of mayor. I don’t know if that works in Congress.”    

For now the decision is not with voters. It is with Willie Herenton.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 124 481 17,865
MORTGAGES 127 530 20,565
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 4 48 2,693
BUILDING PERMITS 195 891 36,836
BANKRUPTCIES 52 262 11,426
BUSINESS LICENSES 24 139 5,848
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 26 116 6,830
MARRIAGE LICENSES 26 133 4,049