There are times when the relationship between former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton and the media seems like one of mutual need and mutual hostility.
Almost a year after Herenton left City Hall, the relationship resumed this week at Herenton’s Southgate campaign headquarters.
As Mayor, Herenton often used such events to talk directly to supporters, detractors and everyone inbetween. A Herenton press event during that time could include plenty of give and take with the press.
This week, it was at times more conversation than “free for all” press conference – as it was billed.
Some of that may be because he’s not mayor anymore. Whatever the reason, it also seemed insular — like a conversation between the press and Herenton that matters to both parties but seems to have less and less consequence beyond the press and Herenton.
There is still some consequence because Herenton is running for an important elected office. And Herenton is an important political figure who although he maintains he is not a politician has held his own with the political titans of post-Crump Memphis politics.
But there is less consequence in these encounters because Herenton is not holding elected office. The mayor’s office has its own heft. It’s own sense of urgency that goes to whoever occupies it and stays when that person leaves and is replaced by another mayor.
And local politics has changed some since his departure at the end of July. How much is still an open question that won’t be settled for several more election cycles.
“Come at me as hard as you want,” Herenton said by way of setting “ground rules.”
It began with a question about whether Herenton was looking for free publicity for what some judge as a virtually non-existent candidacy in the Aug. 5 Democratic Congressional primary.
“You’re here, right?” Herenton responded.
For Herenton, the most important part of the encounter was at the end when he unveiled the new “Just One” campaign slogan for the Congressional race.
He dutifully posed for cameras wearing a hat with the slogan and holding a sign without a trace of the combativeness before the display and which resumed immediately after the display.
Herenton cautioned reporters against trying to isolate parts of his record as mayor for over 17 years – a record that is his claim to being worthy of a seat in Congress. He cautioned reporters after he was asked pointed questions about his administration’s mismanagement of the city Animal Shelter and the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC).
“Who gives a damn about those peripheral issues when we are in one of the deepest recessions that this country has ever seen?” he said. “I would hope that you would respect the role of a United States Congressman.”
“I’m responsible. We dropped the ball on it. Are you happy?” Herenton said when pressed further by News Channel 3 reporter Mike Matthews.
“Is that how you feel?” Matthews asked.
“No, I just want to make you happy,” Herenton replied. “I told you that. I don’t give a damn about all of that. It ain’t important in the whole scheme of things.”
Before unveiling his new campaign theme, Herenton repeated his vow to answer all questions.
“Did I fulfill that?” he asked the group of reporters. No one answered. “Thank you. Your silence tells me yes.”