Willie Herenton’s first political loss likely his last

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Willie W. Herenton, a charismatic, combative public figure who has towered over the Memphis political landscape since he became the city’s first black elected mayor in 1991, is letting the curtain drop on his long career in public office.

Herenton lost the first race in his 30-plus year political career Thursday, receiving 21 percent of the vote in the Democratic congressional primary against incumbent Steve Cohen. The result was an anticlimactic end to a contentious battle that became a referendum on race in the majority-black 9th District.

Standing before about 85 fiercely loyal supporters Thursday night, the 6-foot-6 former Golden Gloves boxer said he has no desire to return to the political ring, despite urging from friends to run again for mayor.

“I’m just going to relax, retire, go to the beach, and write my book,” Herenton said. “There’s nothing more for me to prove.”

Herenton, 70, wouldn’t discuss his legacy, but there’s no doubt he’s a pivotal political figure. His career began near the end of institutionalized segregation, when many issues were viewed through the prism of race. Herenton moved confidently and successfully as Memphis began to integrate.

Herenton grew up in Memphis and graduated from historically black LeMoyne College. He did graduate work at Memphis State University after it desegregated and earned a doctorate from Southern Illinois University.

He returned home and moved up the educational ranks, from classroom teacher to principal to deputy school superintendent. As Memphis’ first black school superintendent, he managed 12,000 employees and a huge budget during his 12-year stint — a fitting launching pad for a historic run for mayor.

The 1991 race saw Herenton defeat white incumbent Dick Hackett by a mere 142 votes — the closest mayoral contest in the city’s history.

Herenton galvanized support from whites in a city that had been divided along racial lines. Memphis was not a major civil rights battleground, yet it held the ignominious distinction as the site of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968.

Herenton appointed several whites to city government positions, engendering political goodwill across racial lines, Marcus Pohlmann, political science professor at Rhodes College, said. Herenton also backed some of the state’s white politicians, including Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

Herenton’s early terms were marked by growth in the city’s economy and school system. Herenton built the city’s reserves to $89 million from $3 million. He provided millions for school construction and installation of air conditioners in classrooms, while improving the city’s parks and bolstering minority-owned businesses.

Herenton also made the city attractive for corporate investment, helping keep the global headquarters of companies like FedEx and International Paper — and the thousands of jobs they provide — in Memphis.

During his 18-year reign, historic Beale Street went from a tattered remnant to tourist destination. He led the revitalization of downtown and the Riverfront, and helped lure the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies to Memphis.

Still, Herenton remained a man of the people. Reginald Porter, pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church, says Herenton would regularly come to a shop in his neighborhood to get a shoe shine.

“It wasn’t so much that he was holding court there,” Porter said. “He was there as one of the guys, not as mayor. It was not only political. He was very much a part of the community.”

But Herenton became a polarizing figure in recent years.

He made racially charged moves that alienated white supporters, like giving Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan a key to the city and accusing white political enemies of conspiring to involve him in a sex scandal. He also began aiming vitriol at black city leaders.

Questions of public corruption began to follow him. He resigned last year amid a federal corruption investigation into whether he used his city office to help his private real estate deals, but the probe has gone dormant and likely is over after a Supreme Court ruling last month making it tougher to prosecute public corruption cases.

He took another divisive step with a congressional campaign strategy stressing that Tennessee needed “just one” black representative in its all-white congressional delegation. He accused Cohen of “trying to act black” and told voters they “need to come off that Cohen plantation and get on the Herenton freedom train.”

The strategy failed spectacularly, but Herenton said he still believes it’s “unacceptable that the Tennessee delegation is just one race.”

“It seems to have been a referendum on me,” Herenton said of the primary results.

Despite the loss, Herenton said he will continue to work, just not as a public servant. Many of his supporters want him to stay involved in politics.

Pohlmann said Herenton’s legacy may suffer in the near-term and people may be “anxious to dance on his grave.” But, as time passes, Memphis will remember Herenton as one of the two or three most significant figures in its political history.

“During his first two and even maybe three mayoral administrations, he did a lot to bring the city together racially in a way that gave corporate interests confidence enough to invest sizable amounts of money,” Pohlmann said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press