I moved to Memphis — fresh out of college in Boston, packed with naïveté — in June 1991. Willie W. Herenton was elected mayor — by those famous 142 votes — four months later. In some respects, you could say the third Frank Murtaugh (my grandfather ran a business here and my dad was born here) and first African-American mayor arrived in Memphis at the same time. Sixteen years later, it appears we're both here to stay.
Memphis is a better place now than it was in 1991. From the astronomical growth of downtown (my first job was in a real-estate office on Harbor Town) to the ever-expanding suburbs, from AutoZone Park to FedExForum, from the Cannon Center to the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, greater Memphis would not be recognizable to a modern Rip Van Winkle awakened from a 16-year slumber. But the face of Memphis — for good or ill — remains precisely the same. And that face — the often glaring, sometimes gloating mug of now-five-term Mayor Willie Herenton — is holding this city back.
There's a famous, if anonymous, quote from the days shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945: "I didn't know President Roosevelt, but he knew me." I happen to have met Mayor Herenton on a couple of informal occasions, though he certainly wouldn't remember me as I remember him. And while he may not know me — the inverse of that powerful quote — I've come to know him more than I feel I should. Here at the dawn of his fifth term at City Hall, Herenton is as much a part of this city's landscape as The Pyramid. And just as vexing when it comes to measuring his value.
The mayor's charisma is undeniable. The combination of his height, his demeanor, and his comfort in a crowd makes Herenton "mayoral" to a degree most men and women might only imagine. But it's a mayor's acts — and, importantly, words — that should define "mayoral" for his citizenry. Here are a few disturbing bones of contention I have with this city's chief executive:
• His distasteful use of the word "boy" in describing political rivals. Particularly for a black man of Herenton's age, this is about as egregious an insult as a person in his office will be allowed. And it's more demeaning to the individual who utters it than it is to any target. (Take this to the bank: The measure of one's manhood is in inverse proportion to the frequency one uses the word "man" in describing oneself.)
• His invoking the authority of God, no less, in validating his role as mayor, and his decision-making process. Those New Year's Day prayer breakfasts have become a mockery. Here's another great quote for you: "Beware the man of one book."
• His fathering a child out of wedlock with a woman he has no intention of marrying. If Herenton is the face of Memphis, he is certainly an example to young Memphians. And in a city where the absence of a father in the lives of children is a plague, Herenton has made himself a — quite public — part of the problem.
George Washington's last great act of leadership was refusing a third term as president in 1797. Our first commander-in-chief recognized that an overextended stay atop our executive branch would blur the distinction between a republic and a monarchy, diminishing the achievements of a young country that rose in rebellion to escape the latter. There's considerable irony in the fact that it took another century-and-a-half — and 12 years of FDR in office — for Congress to limit an American president (no matter how great) to two terms.
If eight years is long enough for a person to lead our country, 16 years(!) is certainly well beyond a mayor's right to the authority and privileges of the office. Just as a diverse gene pool is critical to the health of a species, so is a variety in leadership essential to the progress of a nation, state, or, yes, city.
By the time Mayor Herenton decides about running for a sixth term, he'll be 71 years old. Should I still be in Memphis, I will have two full decades under my belt on the banks of Ol' Man River. Familiarity with a community you love is endearing, necessary even for a place to be called "home." But the familiarity I've come to feel with the only Memphis mayor I've ever really known has bred something entirely different. It's hardly endearing.
In closing his victory speech on October 4th, Herenton summarized by saying, "This past election has been very disappointing to me." I couldn't agree with you more, Mister Mayor.