By John Semien, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
As the incumbent talks about accelerating momentum, and a first-term Shelby County Commissioner rides an out-of-the-gate buzz about “we can’t wait,” former mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton is putting things in place to “do it again.”
It’s been almost a year since Herenton, who has been elected Memphis mayor five times, declared that he wanted back in. Since then, incumbent Jim Strickland has formally launched his reelection bid. And last week, District 7 Commissioner Tami Sawyer staked her mayoral claim, one that would make her the first woman to serve, if she navigated a path to victory. Lesser-known announced candidates include Pam Moses and Lemichael Wilson.
The New Tri-State Defender hooked up with Herenton at his campaign headquarters on Third St. on Tuesday afternoon. The exchange lasted about an hour and came to a close with Memphis’ longest serving mayor choosing not to supply individual answers to a series of questions drawn from an informal survey of TSD readers.
“My team is developing position papers on all of these issues and others that are in the minds of Memphians,” Herenton said. “And as the campaign moves along our plans will be revealed to the public.”
The interview was in a conference room. An office administrator that has been aligned with Herenton for years was setting up her office. Others involved in the campaign were putting pictures on the walls. The first question was why he was running.
“To make a long story short, I left (public office) before completing the agenda,” Herenton said. “You are going to hear me talk in this campaign about how I left an unfinished agenda. If you notice I didn’t have a clear succession pattern…”
The first African American elected mayor, Herenton served from 1992 until 2009, resigning about a year into his fifth term. He made reference to the resignation, which came amid a federal investigation into a real estate deal involving him. The probe didn’t yield any charges against him but took its toll.
“It weighed very heavily on my family and my ability to perform my duties as a mayor in the manner that I wanted to do,” Herenton said. “If you will recall, I submitted my resignation in the second half of my fifth term as mayor.’’
He has since determined that his life’s purpose is still public service and that he has more to contribute as mayor of Memphis. He noted that his candidacy was announced on April 5, 2018, the day after the 50th commemoration of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Going back into public service as the mayor of Memphis, given this historical significance to the life and the legacy of Dr. King, I felt a sense of rededication to Dr. King’s mission and my own personal mission,” Herenton said. “I marched with him… I participated in the Black Mondays at a very young age.”
Without calling any names, Herenton said today’s “so-called activists” don’t know “a damned thing about activism.” Marching with Dr. King meant “putting my job on the line,” he said. “We were real activists. I put everything on the line when I was very young.”
“At the age of 78, I’m still here,” Herenton said. “I still have the passion and the energy…to go back and finished the unfinished agenda.”
That unfinished agenda includes economic empowerment for “people who have been left out of the economic growth of this community,” he said.
“The current administration keeps boasting about momentum, and you’ve heard the old adage about a rising tide lifts all boats. There are boats in Memphis that are not being lifted. In fact, there are some people who don’t even have a boat.”
Never mentioning Strickland by name, Herenton said the current administration talks about the billions of dollars in construction within the city limits of Memphis.
“We will focus on building strong families. That’s going to differentiate us,’’ he said. “We want to get at the root causes of poverty and crime.”
Herenton said he has seen three generations of poor people and “90 percent didn’t make it.” Success, he said, has more to do with instilling the right values in children than making sure there is a father in every household. He grew up with a strong mother and grandmother, who stressed the importance of education, hard work and going to church.
“This generational poverty, we’ve got to break (it), and I think it starts by identifying the root causes of the poverty and putting together a plan of action that gets at those root causes.”
He also wants to address what he sees as the city’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“It wasn’t like that during my tenure. Something happened,” he said. “All you have to do is drive the streets of Memphis.”
Herenton said crime is worse now than it was when he was mayor.
“When I was mayor we aggressively fought the crime problem. …We had aggressive police programs; Blue Crush did a phenomenal job. … I don’t see that aggressive crime fighting today. We’re going to aggressively fight crime while addressing the causes of crime.”
Saying his administration would invest in the youth of Memphis,” Herenton said a lot of people received their first job in summer youth programs sponsored by his office.
“…My life continues to be a purpose-driven life…and I wanted people to know I resigned with a cloud that was not of my own choosing,” Herenton said. “I know history will be somewhat kind to me but I’m still not through with the legacy and history.”