"North side, east side
Little Willy, Willy wears the crown/
He's the king around town...
'Cos little Willy, Willy won't go home/
But you can't push Willy round/
Willy won't go."
"Little Willy" The Sweet, 1973
There are occasions in the life of Memphis city politics when you just have to stand back and stare in awe. In 1968, Mayor Henry Loeb's patronizing, pigheaded position concerning city employees virtually forced a confrontation with sanitation workers. Then there was the memorable evening back in the mid-seventies when a disgruntled bar patron grew tired of hard-drinking Mayor Wyeth Chandler attempting to grope his date and kicked his ass in the parking lot behind Overton Square. Now, we have the on-again, off-again resignation of Mayor Willie Herenton, supposedly set for July 30, depending on how spiteful he's feeling at the time. But the bellicose rhetoric and the contempt the Mayor has shown for those citizens outside of his loyal voter base has made it open season for Herenton's critics, and they are legion.
If Chicago is "The City of Big Shoulders," then Memphis must surely be "The City With a Chip On Its Shoulder." It's true enough that African-American citizens have been disenfranchised, underrepresented, and used as pawns in city politics in the not-so-distant past, but most Memphians long for the time when those days can be considered ancient history. It's just that some politicians who shoulder the largest chips won't allow us to move beyond it. Race is just too good of a political wedge issue to leave alone. City Council votes fall routinely along racial lines with many agenda-driven Councilpersons seemingly in it for self-aggrandizement or personal advancement. There is the rare, well-meaning, public servant, but John Vergos retired in frustration over trying to deal with the half-wits, even if he denies it. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin each City Council meeting with a brief group therapy session, or a 12-step program to see how everyone's doing with their respective dependencies. Meanwhile, the mayor's utter contempt for the Council does not make for good government, nor do his take-it-or-leave-it pronouncements from on high.
The most common term describing the mayor that I have seen lately, from professional editorialists to letters to the editor, is "egomaniac." He has become George Bush-like in his opinion of his subjects; you're either with him, or you're against him. And if you're not beholden to the mayor for your job or other "city services," you're considered by Herenton as just another "hater." The Mayor has been playing defense so long now, he has forgotten how to inspire. But it wasn't that way always. I voted for Herenton three times, and three out of five ain't bad. But he lost me around the "Don't bring no mess" phase, when his speeches became increasingly angry, paranoid, and racially tinged. Recalling Herenton's election as Memphis' first black mayor and the tremendous elation that came with the hope that this city might finally transcend its' racially divisive past seems like a very long time ago. Eighteen years of waiting for a renaissance that never arrived has made me Willy weary in the extreme. Especially since he ran for his fifth term just to prove he could be re-elected.
Mayor Herenton's admirable place in the revitalization of downtown during his first two terms has decayed along with the city. The combined efforts of government and business have overseen the opening and closing of Peabody Place, the pending destruction of the Coliseum, the Mid-South Fair moving to Mississippi, and questionable construction issues concerning the FedEx Forum. And as far as our big, empty Pyramid, it is way past time for Bass Pro Shops to fish or cut bait. Remember when a consortium of businessmen wanted to put a first-rate aquarium in the Pyramid? The mayor blew that one off before he even examined how similar facilities in Chattanooga and New Orleans have become major attractions. The thought of coming over the Memphis-Arkansas bridge and envisioning the architecturally beautiful Pyramid with a giant, hooked fish on its facade would be enough to make the project's founder, John Tigrett, spin in his grave, had he not purchased the "Fair and Square" casket he descibed in his autobiography that leaves him no wiggle room.
So now Herenton wants to run for Congress against Steve Cohen to restore African-American representation to the majority black 9th District. As reported in the Flyer, the Mayor thinks Cohen is "an asshole," but he's wrong. Maybe Cohen used to be an asshole as a young, ambitious County Commissioner, but thirty years in the state legislature taught him the humility needed to compromise with others for the common good. The difference between Cohen and Herenton is that Cohen is running for re-election to serve his constituents; Herenton just wants to win. It was heartening to see Rep. Cohen get a position on the prestigious House Judiciary Committee, where as a freshman, he was taken under the wing of legendary Michigan legislator John Conyers. Cohen was wise enough to know that he had a lot to learn and humble enough to allow himself to be mentored by the elder Conyers. Herenton has no such humility. I'm certain that if Herenton knows John Conyers, he considers himself every bit his equal. After all, what has John Conyers ever run? In the U.S. Congress, you must wait your turn; not the best job for a 70-year-old man used to getting what he wants when he wants it. Herenton has already said he plans to win the election with black votes alone, so we can expect a particularly ugly and race-based campaign.
I think Herenton feels under appreciated. After 18 years, the Mayor is crying out for recognition as the historical politician that he is, only he has stayed at the dance too long and the guests have all gone home. This late-life, vanity run for Congress is an attempt to prove that nobody stops Willie Herenton. Except, the Mayor may first want to check the last election returns to see that Cohen captured 60% of the African-American vote, and in the age of Obama, racial politics takes a back seat to the competence of the candidate. My unsolicited advice is for Dr. Herenton to make good on his retirement of July 30, go out a winner, and forsake further political ambition. Either that, or learn how it feels to lose, badly. Mayor Herenton has become an angry man who no longer receives praise or thanks for his work and feels persecuted by those around him. I think what he really needs is a big hug. So, how about this? For your decades of service to this community, thank you Willie Herenton. During your tenure as Mayor, you did many good things. May you enjoy your golden years in tranquility. Now, was that so hard?