Some people say the recent behavior of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton is crazy. To many of his supporters, he’s crazy as a fox.

Those who currently underestimate him do so at their peril, because they don’t understand how calculated his behavior is, as proven in Friday’s appearance on WDIA’s Bobby O’Jay Fun Morning Show.

The cultural divide in Memphis leads many observers, particularly white ones, to dismiss the mayor’s comments as outrageous and irrational. In truth, they were anything but, as members of his base in hardscrabble areas of Memphis can attest.

Shots Across The Bow

In truth, the two things reported by the news media as examples of how out of control the mayor is are actually proof of how clever he can be in playing hardball politics.

The comments:

1) “There’s a man up in here in City Hall. If they’re looking for a boy, they identified one in Herman Morris…”

2) “I think there is something going on wrong at MLGW with regard to the billing system and the meter reading. It makes no sense, so that’s the issue that we need to get at.”

As The Commercial Appeal pointed out, boy has long been an in-your-face insult to African-American men, because of its history as a racist epithet used by whites to put blacks in their places. But, like some other words, it doesn’t necessarily mean the same when used by African-Americans. It’s still an insult, but more akin to being called an Uncle Tom.

Lost In Translation

As a result, the emotional message that Mayor Herenton was sending was two-dimensional. The most obvious was in dismissing Mr. Morris as inexperienced and unprepared for the city’s top job, but the other was much more devastating – the suggestion that Mr. Morris is the pawn – or boy – of white people trying to get Mayor Herenton out of office.

In other words, boy was used to advance the impression left by the photograph on the front page of The Commercial Appeal that showed Mr. Morris surrounded by white people at his announcement for mayor, including those who led the failed effort to recall Mayor Herenton as mayor and those who ran failed races for Memphis Charter Commission.

Then again, Mayor Herenton’s comments about MLGW bills also carried a subliminal and special meaning to Memphians living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It’s widely believed there that their electricity rates are higher than those paid by people in wealthier (read: white) parts of Memphis.

It’s All About Context

Within this context, Mayor Herenton was allying himself with these suspicions of preferential treatment in billing, and in the process, he was sending a more subtle message – white people are railing against the special treatment for Councilman Edmund Ford, but many of them may be getting preferential treatment themselves. By extension, there’s the implication that this is why MLGW President Joseph Lee is being hounded our of his job.

All in all, it was an effective performance by Mayor Herenton in communicating to his base, and all the while, under the radar of the mainstream news media. But the loudest message that he was sending was the one he was sending to opponents – this campaign will be a street fight and nobody fights better than me.

In response to being called a boy, the Morris campaign relied on its main theme of returning dignity to the mayor’s office, and in the coming weeks, it surely will broaden its message, recognizing that leadership is about much more than mere dignity.

Game Of Volleys

But there was another target for Mayor Herenton’s volleys. They were also directed at those working to convince Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton to enter the race for city mayor. There was a time when Mayor Wharton was the lawyer for Mayor Herenton with the issues involving his relationship with a city school teacher while he was school superintendent. In addition, Mayor Wharton served as campaign manager for Mayor Herenton in early mayoral elections.

Polls indicate that Mayor Wharton has the highest approval rating of any elected official in Memphis, and if he could be convinced to run, the closeness of the past relationship between the mayors portends a campaign that would be especially personal and hostile. Polling show Mayor Wharton besting Mayor Herenton in a theoretical campaign, but it’s much too early for these kinds of straw polls to mean much.

These days, there is a distance between the two most powerful political camps in the city, and the prospects of such a race between them enlivens political junkies. Whether it takes place or not, Mayor Herenton has already signaled that this year, he’s in a fight to the death.