Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal
After serving 18 years as mayor, Willie Herenton announces his resignation Thursday and reaffirms his intention to seek the 9th Congressional District seat held by Steve Cohen.
By Amos Maki
Thursday, June 25, 2009
For the second time, Willie Herenton announced his resignation Thursday as Memphis mayor.
This time, from all indications, Herenton is serious and will leave his City Hall office July 10 -- nearly 18 years after he became the city's first elected black mayor -- to devote his energy to a run for Congress.
Herenton's departure will leave City Council chairman Myron Lowery to serve as mayor until a special election in October, which could lead to yet another major empty chair in politics if Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton is elected.
All of this will unfold as city government wrestles with serious financial challenges, crime problems and major redevelopment projects, and as a grand jury continues a yearlong criminal investigation exploring Herenton's connections between his private business and public duties.
Surrounded by supporters and city workers at a news conference in the Hall of Mayors on Thursday, the 69-year-old Herenton said he was tired of the job and wanted to leave the office on a high note.
"This is getting routine for me," said Herenton. "You don't have the zeal to face it every day, and I'm the kind of guy, I got to climb mountains."
On March 20, 2008, Herenton -- in a shock to supporters -- said he would resign, effective July 31. Later, he tied the move to his return as schools superintendent, which did not occur, and he stayed on.
In addition to his campaign to unseat Rep. Steve Cohen in the 9th Congressional District, Herenton said Thursday he would join his son Rodney's financial business.
Herenton will receive a yearly pension of about $75,000.
Lowery said the Shelby County Election Commission would not set a firm date for the special election until he, as council chairman, sends a letter notifying the commission of a vacancy in the office of the mayor and until the council approves a resolution recognizing a vacancy.
Lowery said he will send the letter today, and the council will vote on the resolution July 7. The Election Commission plans to meet July 9 to set a date for the special election.
Although Herenton could change his mind up until his replacement is sworn in, Lowery said he and Herenton discussed the transition Thursday and agreed Lowery would take the oath of office at noon July 10.
"Our city will move through this transition in a good, fine way," said Lowery, who was shopping at Home Depot for yard supplies when he learned Herenton was holding a news conference.
Herenton's resignation will have a huge ripple effect that could reach all the way to the Shelby County mayor's office and will include a long line of candidates who have aspired to reach the city's highest office but never wanted to challenge Herenton.
Since city Chief Administrative Officer Keith McGee suddenly announced his retirement last week, speculation about a Herenton retirement reached extreme heights. A large number of high-level city division directors and other appointees are expected to follow, promising a large turnover in the the city's leadership and operations.
Under federal scrutiny and with city work still left to be done, Herenton said some supporters had urged him to remain in the mayor's office.
"I am convinced that serving as mayor while pursuing a seat in Congress is not a good idea and would only become a distraction and take the focus from the campaign I intend to run," he said.
Herenton, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion, said he wanted to focus his time and energy on his next political fight: unseating Cohen in the August primary.
"It will be a beat-down," Herenton said. "I'm pumped up."
Herenton wouldn't be the first Memphis mayor to step down. In 1982, Wyeth Chandler resigned to take a judgeship, with council member J.O. Patterson Jr. replacing him to become the city's first black mayor.
Herenton, who had been the first black City Schools superintendent, assumed the mayor's post in 1992 after a historic election that saw him defeat incumbent Dick Hackett by 142 votes.
"That's what my career has been about, defying the odds to make progress," said Herenton.
Surrounded by portraits of white former city leaders in the Hall of Mayors, Herenton said that when he took office there were very few black Memphians working in city government and he was proud to make City Hall a more diverse place, helping propel more black families into the middle class.
With a bold and brash style that angered critics and often endeared him to supporters, Herenton oversaw a revival of moribund Downtown Memphis and the remaking of the city's crumbling public housing with a focus on leveraging private investment.
Herenton said he had been a good steward of the city's assets, building the reserves to a record $89 million from the $3 million the city had in the bank when he first grasped the levers of power.
"The city of Memphis has grown and prospered for all the citizens, and I will leave behind a much better and stronger city government than I inherited," he said.
But Herenton was also roundly criticized for cronyism, pervasive crime problems, higher taxes, mixing personal business with his public office and a personal style that some said aggravated racial divisions. In his later years in office, Herenton oversaw the flight of the middle class -- black and white -- from the city to the surrounding suburbs.
-- Amos Maki: 529-2351