VOL. 125 | NO. 26 | Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Herenton’s Campaign Tactics Familiar Ground
By Bill Dries
After months of silence, Willie Herenton is back.
But he’s back in a local political environment that’s very different.
The former Memphis mayor opened his campaign for the 9th Congressional District Democratic primary Saturday in East Memphis before a crowd of 300 people. The speech was heavy with the verbal hooks that characterized the last years of Herenton’s 18 years as mayor.
But there were also indications Herenton’s challenge of Democratic incumbent Steve Cohen in the August primary might reflect a change in his usual rhetoric.
In the seven months since he left City Hall, many have examined Herenton’s later years as mayor, and have found them lacking.
Days before the campaign kickoff, Herenton’s choice to lead the troubled Memphis Animal Shelter, Ernest Alexander, and two other shelter managers were indicted by a Shelby County grand jury on felony animal cruelty charges.
The same day Alexander’s indictment was announced, the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Tennessee sued the city in federal court for discharging pollutants into the Mississippi and Wolf rivers during the past six years.
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. rolled out his transition team report a week ago. It criticized Herenton’s Human Resources division for having technology better than some Fortune 500 companies, but not using it.
In the process, Wharton took a jab at Herenton’s approach to city finances.
“When y’all have jumped me about salaries, you’ve never heard me say, ‘That’s nickel and dime. That’s nothing,’” Wharton told reporters. “I tend to view that differently.”
The “nickel and dime” reference was a direct quote Herenton used on several occasions when asked about city expenditures and salaries paid to division directors and leaders of programs under his watch.
Wharton emerged the winner from a 25-candidate field in the Oct. 15 special election to fill the rest of Herenton’s term of office. No candidate in the race ran as Herenton’s successor or on a platform of continuing Herenton’s leadership approach.
“God is for us. God is on our side,” Herenton began Saturday as he talked about his record as Memphis mayor, touting the city’s fiscal condition and healthy reserves, Downtown development and the transition of public housing projects to mixed use-mixed income housing.
Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton kicks off his campaign Saturday for the 9th District U.S. congressional seat currently occupied by incumbent Steve Cohen. Photo: Lance Murphey
He also said he has been the victim of criminal investigations by political opponents who want to dismantle the work he started as mayor. That was the unscripted part of his remarks. And Herenton is known more by what he has said in those moments than what he and his advisers have written in his prepared remarks.
“In a racist society, being a man can be a crime,” he continued.
Herenton’s private financial dealings were the subject of a federal grand jury investigation that lasted more than a year.
When the grand jury disbanded in December, no one had been indicted in the probe believed to center on an option Herenton had to buy the Greyhound bus station Downtown. The bus station remains on the land and the option Herenton sold for $91,000 has expired.
Herenton referred generally to the investigation. He referred specifically to Friday’s indictments in the Animal Shelter investigation.
“This so-called justice system of ours – they are about to send three black people to jail about some dogs,” Herenton said. “But we’ve got a white man involved in Beale Street that a forensic analysis has revealed $6 million is missing – $6 million of your money is missing.”
Herenton was referring to Beale Street developer John Elkington. The audit results have been hotly disputed in a civil lawsuit filed by Elkington and others, who contend the audit improperly counted money that was never due the city under the lease arrangement for the entertainment district.
Herenton also said former Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout’s business dealings were investigated differently than his own were.
“I thought criminal intent was a crime,” Herenton said. “It is for black folk, but it ain’t for white folk.”
This point is a personal one Herenton is not likely to forget or stop making even if it’s not in his prepared remarks.
Herenton, like Rout and Elkington, has never been charged with any wrongdoing. Like them, he had to hire and pay attorneys because of the questions. Unlike them, a federal grand jury investigated the allegations and Herenton got a target letter last October indicating he was the target of the probe.
About half the crowd at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis waved red Herenton signs. Others farther back were curious about Herenton’s latest political venture. Still others were candidates or their campaign workers in county races, handing out campaign literature and stumping for support of their own.
Sprinkled throughout the crowd were names and faces of people involved in the Herenton investigation and City Hall controversies toward the end of his 18-year tenure.
Among them was Los Angeles businessman Elvin Moon. Moon said he showed up to support Herenton. He also was vocally critical of media coverage of the Greyhound option he bought from Herenton.
“It ruined my business over nothing,” he told The Daily News.
Away from the podium, Herenton supporters also backed off earlier criticism of Cohen, saying Cohen has a good record in his two terms in Congress that Herenton will have to work hard to counter.
In place of the criticism is the volatile argument that Tennessee’s eight House representatives are all white and that because of its majority black population, Memphis should be represented by a black congressman.
Herenton campaign chairman Ricky E. Wilkins said Herenton will begin fundraising immediately. He faces an incumbent who has raised approximately $1 million.