Democrats ‘Roast’ Herenton, Look Ahead to 2014

By Bill Dries

Divisions within the local Democratic party took a backseat over the weekend as the Shelby County Democratic Party held the first of two large fundraisers for the 2014 election year.


But the look back for the party came with some advice for the future.

The roast of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton drew a crowd of 300 at Colonial Country Club in Cordova at $100 a head.

Some of the stories passed along in the roast, which was more of a toast, were exaggerated or were fill-in-the-blank fictional stories that are a staple of such political gatherings.

But there were also some peeks behind the scenes at key political junctures in Herenton’s 17 years as Memphis mayor – the longest tenure of any mayor in the city’s history.

Attorney Charles Carpenter, who was manager of Herenton’s historic 142-vote victory upset of Dick Hackett 22 years ago this month, talked about Herenton’s sometimes-volatile relationship with then-U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr.

Ford’s support in the last weeks of the race was crucial to Herenton’s narrow victory, but there was already considerable tension between the two camps, even though they were on the same side. Herenton and his forces insisted it was their campaign and didn’t want their plan and campaign methods to be overwhelmed by and identified as a Ford-driven effort.

“Harold Ford Sr. is one of the best politicians I have ever met, read about, seen in my life. This man was dynamic. He was a hard worker and he was nonstop. He was relentless,” Carpenter recalled. “But the problem with these guys – Harold was a Taurus the bull, and Willie Herenton is Taurus the bull. Them boys hit and bumped heads and they just did not like each other, but they respected each other. That took them a long way. … They had a mutual respect.”

The personality differences came to the surface after the election several times, most notably in a heated phone exchange about a summer jobs program, during which Herenton cursed Ford and hung up on him.

But Carpenter said the relationship, as tempestuous as it was and remained, is a lesson in what the divided local party needs going into the 2014 county elections. The elections are for the same group of countywide offices that Republicans swept four years ago.

“These guys did a lot for the city of Memphis, notwithstanding their personal issues, because of their respect and love for the community,” Carpenter said. “That’s what we are missing now. We need to come together to do more for the community. We may be all right today. Tomorrow is not promised.”

Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery, in a video speech, said Herenton had eclipsed Ford’s political machine through holding the mayor’s office for 17 years.

Meanwhile, Ford was in town last week for the opening of the new Harold Ford Funeral Home on Sycamore View, a third act in Ford’s long public life that will see him phasing out his lobbying efforts in Washington over several years.

The Ford family continues to hold seats on the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission and the Tennessee Senate. And next week, the special Democratic primary election for state House District 91 will feature Kemba Ford, Ford’s niece, among the contenders.

Between the dinner and speeches Saturday night, prospective Democratic contenders in the crowd dropped a few hints about who will be in the party’s 2014 primaries for county offices.

Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon speculated about his own possible bid for Juvenile Court judge but didn’t rule it in or out.

Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks is in the race for Juvenile Court clerk, getting vocal backing from former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, who was the evening’s host and who also backed Sugarmon.

The party’s standard bearer for Shelby County sheriff in 2010, Randy Wade, was warmly welcomed in a room that included more than a few opponents and critics of Wade’s one-time political ally, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen. Cohen, who bested Herenton in the 2010 Democratic congressional primary, was not among those present.

Attorney Ricky E. Wilkins, who is mulling a challenge of Cohen in next year’s Democratic congressional primary, was circumspect about the possible challenge, saying nothing at the event about the possibility.