The reelection of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton moves with an inevitability these days that belies the need that exists for a serious discussion about the future of our city.

If nothing shakes up the campaign for mayor, he will take the oath of office in January for the fifth time as chief elected leader for a city whose dominant characteristic is the chasm that splits it down the middle – with one side considering him the embodiment of all that is wrong with Memphis and with the other treating him as a heroic figure fighting for them.

As a result, the question asked frequently these days is whether his divisive rhetoric is the stuff of campaign strategy or whether it is a persona that will carry over into his fourth term. It appears more and more to be the latter.

Redneck Politics

His campaign strategy is reminiscent of the days when former Memphis Mayor Wyeth Chandler described his success this way: “You give me the rednecks and you take every one else, and I’ll beat you every day of the week.”

To his base, Chandler could do no wrong despite a city economy in freefall and a downtown whose icons, the Peabody Hotel and Beale Street, were boarded up. In the face of some harsh realities, Mayor Chandler displayed a perceptible disdain for those who sounded the alarm about the direction of the city and his administration’s role in its drift.

Underlying his political organization was the largely unspoken – except in code words – covenant with his base that sent the message that he would stand up to the calls by African-Americans for more power and a greater voice in city decisions.

Those People

While the times have certainly changed, the political strategy still works. The covenant with the voters is still about standing up to “those people,” but in demonizing white power brokers, Mayor Herenton taps into an anger that always seems to be percolating just below the surface of Memphis.

But, to many who know him best, Mayor Herenton is doing more than channeling his constituents’ emotions; he is clearly venting his own. In the process, he seems to be doing nothing as much as removing the veneer of politspeak that garnered the support of the white business community over the years, speaking these days with an emotional conviction that is at times frightening in its ferocity but revealing in its sincerity.

Along the way, it’s been an opportunity to come face-to-face with the way that many African-Americans see their places in their city.

Circling Power

The widespread distance that the business community has put between itself and Mayor Herenton gives special emphasis to his comments. While the business community – always pragmatic about the vagaries of the political environment – says it’s concerned about the perceived erratic nature of Mayor Herenton’s behavior, most remain quiet, fearful of being the object of the mayor’s scorn.

On the other hand, Mayor Herenton has embraced a “you need me more than I need you” attitude, defiant in his criticisms of some one-time allies (whose friendships with him were once the source of charges that he was “too close” to the white business community). Despite his service on some prominent local corporate boards and his broad business support in the past, the mayor can’t shake the feeling that he’s always had to play a role to get ahead in these circles.

No longer. When seen through Mayor Herenton’s eyes, his general lack of support from the business community has been liberating. He can say what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. And in doing it, he tells his base that African-Americans are always welcomed into the circles of power as long as they live up to the expectations of the white community and as long as they aren’t completely honest about their opinions and the challenges to black Memphians.

The Ford Difference

It’s this seminal difference in perspective that will make healing so difficult after the coming election. In recent months, emotions have been laid bare and rubbed raw, and it’s unlikely that in its wake, the honesty will become the foundation for more racial understanding.

There have been many factors responsible for the shifts in the Herenton political organization, but nothing has been more important than one: former U.S. Congressman Harold Ford. For years, the close relationship between Mayor Herenton and business leaders was fueled as much by their mutual interest in keeping the former congressman out of the mayor’s office than a clear political agenda.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way, because most of the business elite opposed the former school superintendent in his first race 16 years ago against then-Mayor Dick Hackett.

Coming Full Circle

That’s why Mayor Herenton often feels these days that things have come full circle. Once again, the white business establishment disdains his candidacy, and once again, he is chiefly motivated to run for election to simply prove that he can do it and on his own terms.

With Mr. Ford in self-imposed exile in an upscale Miami suburb, Memphis lost the fulcrum that created the strong relationship between Mayor Herenton and the private sector. Suddenly, Mayor Herenton stood on his own, rather than on the “at least he’s not Harold Ford” grading scale.

Without the former congressman, many powerful Memphians were less inclined to give Mayor Herenton a pass when his rhetoric turned bombastic, his leadership grew disengaged and his behavior turned unpredictable.

Changing Times

From his side, with Mr. Ford out of the way and with demographic trends moving to his benefit, Mayor Herenton was less inclined to “kiss the ring of the white community,” as a close aide put it. He became a frequent no-show at prominent events that he had previously attended, preferring to spend his time in the neighborhoods of his political base.

“The white community thinks that just because they don’t see him, he’s not out in the community,” said the adviser. “Whites thought he dropped out of sight, but the folks in Whitehaven were seeing him all the time, and so were black people in other parts of Memphis.”

There’s no argument that Memphis has not had a more dominating political figure since Boss Crump. The most convincing evidence is the fact that he is able to define the political discourse and to crowd out every one else when he speaks (and to do it while refusing to appear in debates with his opponents, a widely criticized decision but adroit political strategy nonetheless).

Falling Short

Of course, this ability to suck all the political oxygen out of the room is magnified by the inability of his major opponents to elbow their way into the conversation about political controversies of recent months. Offered chance after chance to differentiate themselves from Mayor Herenton, both Herman Morris and Council Member Carol Chumney have fallen short.

The latest example is Mayor Herenton’s charges about voting machine irregularities. In the midst of the controversy, Councilwoman Chumney declined comment and Mr. Morris came up with a weak football metaphor about a “misdirection play.”

With two weeks left in the campaign, it seems axiomatic that they would let no opportunity pass to deliver the message that Mayor Herenton is out of touch and can’t separate his personal and political interests. In other words, neither candidate seems able to turn events in ways that reinforce their primary campaign messages. At a time when the coin of the realm is hammering your campaign message until voters are almost sick of hearing it, both Mr. Morris and Ms. Chumney almost seem off-balance when these opportunities arise.

The Obvious

For example, we wondered why neither of the candidates said the following about the voting machine dust-up:

* City Attorney Elbert Jefferson has no place in this controversy. He’s not the attorney for the Herenton campaign; he’s the attorney for city government. It is not appropriate or proper for him to be speaking with the force of his office about the mayor’s allegations. In fact, as the city attorney, he would actually have the responsibility of defending the city ballot against any voter’s legal complaint, including his boss’s. Doesn’t Mayor Herenton know it’s improper for the city attorney to be acting in ways that are politically motivated?

* The mayor made many complaints about the ballot, such as the font is too small for older voters. Doesn’t he know that each voter has the option of making the font larger on voting machines?

* The mayor complained about the ballot format. Doesn’t he know that it was sent by the Election Commission to City Hall for review and approval?

* The mayor complained that the ballot is confusing, and yet, his campaign was invited to training (and apparently did not attend) on the voting machines so its campaign workers could advise supporters.

Tenth Round

And yet, once again, the questions weren’t just left unanswered. They were left unasked, and a productive debate was avoided.

In the end, the fact that neither candidate could lay a glove on the mayor may be ultimate metaphor for this entire campaign and testament to the larger-than-life political stature that Mayor Herenton still exerts in his city.