The signs that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was going to be a short-timer began almost immediately after his reelection.

At his swearing in, he seemed almost detached and the ceremony certainly lacked the fire in the belly passion that characterized the previous times that he had taken the oaths of office.

Always a detached manager, he seemed even less connected and less interested as he launched his five term. On his best days, he seemed bored. On his worst days, he just didn’t seem to care.

Fatigue Factor

He began to hint to close confidantes that he would never serve out his full four years. He began to suggest that other things – such as Memphis City Schools – ignited more passion in him than city government.

The truth was obvious. After 16 years, he’d seen it all and done it all before.

Despite all proud public statements to the contrary, he even tired of being a lightning rod and the constant political turmoil that welcomed most of his positions, regardless of their merit.


More than ever, it was obvious to his friends that he just wasn’t having fun. The gleam in his eye was gone, the joy in igniting political short fuses was gone and the sense that he was accomplishing something profound was long gone.

As he considered a life outside City Hall, his mind repeatedly turned to education once again. At an age when elected officials consider their legacies, he discovered that his greatest pride centered on his years in Memphis City Schools, rising through the ranks to become one of the youngest principals and the first African-American superintendent.

In those days, he was considered as a hot property with various districts romanced him to take their superintendents’ jobs – including Chicago and Atlanta – but each time, his ties to Memphis proved too strong, and he stayed here.

About Attitude

Eventually, his superintendency would be marred somewhat by controversy, notably the sexual harassment complaint that was settled out of court and sealed. It was in the midst of that turbulent, troubling time in his life that he decided on the ultimate “I’ll show you” strategy: He would run for mayor.

Truthfully, he was almost surprised as every one else when he beat popular incumbent Richard Hackett by a razor-thin 142 votes. One early supporter recalled finding him sitting in his office following his oath of office, asking: “Now what do I do?”

It was the same motivation that led him to run for a fifth term last year. It wasn’t because he had a clear political agenda or a pressing political program. It was personal. It was to show certain people that he wouldn’t be pushed around.

Finest Hour

It’s hard now after more than six years of unfocused leadership by Mayor Herenton to understand the sense of excitement that greeted his election. It is equally difficult to remember the good work that he did in those early years and the inspiration that he created among people traditionally disenfranchised in the political process.

Unquestionably, his finest hour was in 1998 when he fought back the incorporation of a ring of suburban towns around Memphis. His battle against “tiny town” legislation pitted him against some powerful political forces and in the end, defeating them was the crowning achievement of his 16 years in office.

He was equally decisive when it came to public facilities and public improvements – such as the riverfront or FedEx Forum – but on other policy fronts, he often laid out bold visions followed by little action, a tendency that followed him from the school district where it was said that each new year brought a new vision for Memphis’ schools.

Love It Or Leave It

While it is impossible to doubt his deep love for his city, his rhetoric on several occasions hastened its decline, particularly when he invited people to love it or leave it. It was a time when we almost thought we could hear the stampede, as Memphis took its place as one of the nation’s most hollowed out cities.

As a result, the Memphis that was created during the Herenton years became one that was largely polarized and populated by the rich who could afford to live anywhere and the poor who have no options but to stay.

It’s left to history to be the ultimate judge about the Herenton years. At this point, it seems probable that he will be cited as a historic figure and a larger-than-life leader whose promise always seem to remain just out of his grasp.

It’s The Schools, Stupid

With his announcement that he will exit the mayor’s office in four months, Mayor Herenton looks to other options, including lobbying to be the next superintendent of Memphis City Schools. It was only a few months ago that he said that he favored a mayor-led school district, which conjured up images for us of the Washington, Chicago and Boston districts where the mayor directs their operations and appoints superintendents.

Apparently, Mayor Herenton had an idea of something totally different. His version of a mayor-led district was for the mayor to quite literally step down to take up the superintendent’s job himself. While there will undoubtedly be some who will oppose such a move, it is worth remembering that there was a time when he was considered one of the U.S. most innovative urban district superintendents, and he pioneered decentralized and site-based management.

Because of it, it’s an idea worth considering, and one that deserves a departure from the normal response to a Herenton idea – lines quickly drawn and sides formed before all the facts are out.

May You Live In Interesting Times

Clearly, the possibility of the superintendent’s job is driving his early exit from the mayor’s office. He was expecting to depart later, but the schedule announced by the city schools’ board of commissioners forced him to step up his timing if he’s serious about the appointment. It’s worth noting that the school board said they want to appoint a superintendent by July, and Mayor Herenton set his last day as July 31.

In the end, as Mayor Herenton looked to his legacy, his attention repeatedly went to Memphis City Schools. It remains to be seen if he is appointed superintendent, but people who know him best said that the topic elicits an enthusiasm in him that they haven’t seen for years.