mayor's race

Walking with Willie Herenton as he makes another bid for mayor

By , Daily Memphian Updated: August 31, 2023 9:02 AM CT | Published: August 31, 2023 4:00 AM CT

Willie Herenton walked up the bluff. The 83-year-old former Memphis mayor spoke without breaking stride in the July heat.

Well into his ninth decade, the fluidity of Herenton’s long strides — not to mention his combative political style — could still be confused for a much younger man. Residents still recognize him as he walks up the bluff, doing a double take when they see the six-foot-six former mayor striding along the sidewalk.

Herenton remains certain that voters will propel him back into the office he held for five terms between 1992 and 2009 and that his hold on the electorate is still near complete. Four years ago, in 2019, at 79, he was saying the same things.

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He said then he had never lost the mayor’s office. He had only left it. Then he lost by almost 40 percentage points to Mayor Jim Strickland.

Despite that defeat, Herenton’s confidence, never in short supply, still shines through.

What remains to be seen is whether the old boxer, who still occasionally runs up the bluff for exercise, is the champion who believed in himself when others were doubting him, or if he’s the fighter who is the last to realize his hands and feet are gone.

A handful of recent polls show some reasons for Herenton’s continued confidence — he’s leading or near the top of the 17-person field. In fact, one poll by Emerson College for WREG News Channel 3 had him first with 16% of the sample favoring Herenton.

Herenton concedes he was not perfect in the mayor’s office before his resignation in 2009 amid a federal probe into his business dealings in which he was never charged. After he left office, he ran a controversial campaign for Congress and had an unsuccessful run starting a chain of charter schools, which closed amid poor performance. 

In a July interview, he said running charter schools was a difficult business model. 

The former mayor acknowledges that he became complacent late in his term but grows irritated about questions about his tenure and argues questions about what has gone wrong improperly focus on a handful of years. He repeats a line he’s said many times about former President Donald Trump — “I know about fake news.”

Like four years ago, Herenton sees a city in decline that he is called to fix. He is once again the man for the job. His speeches, interviews and even street signs say he brings a track record of “proven leadership.”

“When I look at all of the candidates, it is very clear that my background. … makes me literally and figuratively head and shoulders above any of the other candidates,” Herenton said. “What I bring to the table and to the challenge is a wealth of experience that no other candidate running for mayor in the year 2023 can cite.”

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A city he loves ‘tarnished’ in eyes of world

Herenton, born in 1940, grew up in a very different Memphis. It was a segregated city where he entered the movie theater and sat in the balcony. He did not trust the police.

A youth boxer, Herenton recounted running home with a friend one night to keep in shape. They were stopped by a Memphis police officer who told them to keep running and racked back a shotgun. Herenton said he ran and ran, fully expecting shots to ring out.

It is memories such as that one that still inform Herenton’s perspective. It is part of the reason he was not surprised when Tyre Nichols died this past January, though he was shocked by the brutality of Nichols’ treatment. 

In the wake of Nichols’ death at the hands of Memphis police officers, Herenton has used the word “tarnished” on the campaign trail to describe the city’s national image. He has said the death and the ensuing Department of Justice investigation reflect the erosion of leadership within the Memphis Police Department.

“We had a group of officers that were not adequately trained. They were not suitable for that specialized unit in my opinion. When I was there, we were selective and we had layers of accountability,” Herenton said.

During his tenure, Herenton said the police department was better trained and had higher hiring standards.

“I took a deep interest in police training. When I got to be mayor, I would go out to the training academy and I would watch how they train police officers,” Herenton said. “Believe me, in the old days, it was much more professional, it was rigorous… While I didn’t run the police department, I knew the police department.”

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Herenton said there remains a need for special units to combat organized crime and auto thefts, problems that existed in the city when he was mayor and persist today.

Breaking the cycle

The issues that persist in Memphis are not new to Herenton. To him, he is living proof that these American problems — people of color being trapped in a cycle of poverty — can be overcome.

“We are suffering from generational poverty, failing school systems, deteriorating families and deterioration of the work ethic that I knew growing up. The influence of the Black church is not what it was years ago,” Herenton said.

“The American culture is undergoing tremendous changes… It’s because of demographic shifts. It’s because of economic stratification. It’s because of deteriorating families, work ethics and academic achievements…. This is the reckoning period for this nation.”

Herenton, the city’s first Black elected mayor and first Black superintendent of what was then Memphis City Schools, speaks about crime in starkly racial terms, much to the chagrin of some activists. He says Black-on-Black crime is the issue facing the city.

His solutions to deal with it — special police units and reversing changes to cash bail — aren’t too different from what Strickland has advocated. He has proposed a new boarding school for youths accused of crimes. He has said he will get the state to pay for it.

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Herenton also criticizes the state of families and a Black community he says has declined.

“What I have seen in the last three decades is a deterioration in the core values that undergirded our resiliency as a people. We no longer, and this is just my opinion, hold in high esteem the resiliency to fight, to be treated equal. I don’t think we value education the way we did years ago,” Herenton said.

As he walks down the bluff, Herenton notes that cycle of poverty. He went to college, became superintendent and then mayor. His kids and their kids have college degrees. One son manages hundreds of millions of dollars for an investment group.

“We broke the cycle,” Herenton, nimbly leaping across a storm drain on the grassy bluff. “Far too many who don’t break the cycle become marginalized.”

‘Did I stay too long?’

Herenton resigned his office in 2009, during his fifth term, amid a federal investigation into his purchase and sale of an option to buy the old Greyhound bus station. The site, directly across Union Avenue from AutoZone Park, is now the Hilton Garden Inn. There’s a Greyhound bar. 

The former mayor was never indicted for the Greyhound deal, a fact he talks about on the trail today. The lack of indictment followed a years-long investigation and after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling narrowed the prosecutorial use of the wire fraud statute under which he was being investigated.

That turmoil — and the pain that it inflicted on his family, particularly his late mother — is what Herenton says drove him to quit.

“I never violated the oath of office that I took,” Herenton said. “There were perceptions and there was a media assassination … that caused me all sorts of agony and stress.”

He said if he regained his old office, there would be no conflict of interest between his personal real estate business and his mayoral administration, irked that the question is still trailing all those years later.

That hot July day, Herenton sat on a bench and thought about it once again. Tears came to his eyes.

“My mother won’t be here to stand on that stage,” he said of his current run before addressing the past again. “I would not violate that oath of office that I took next to my mother.”

“Did I stay too long?” Herenton said, musing over the next question. “I was not a perfect human being in my public life.”

He said he became complacent in his fourth and fifth terms and had pondered quitting before running for reelection in 2007.

“I don’t need to be mayor to have a sense of self-worth and value as a human being,” Herenton said. “I’m the kind of guy who is motivated by a challenge. You have to have a mountain to climb every day.”

And, like the boxer he still is, Herenton pivoted and poked at Strickland and his opponent, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. He said Strickland has gotten off easy in the wake of the Department of Justice investigation.

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He said the lack of scrutiny and accountability for Bonner after the number of deaths at 201 Poplar is “utterly ridiculous.”

As he spoke, he walked up the bluff as it rose from the river. The next challenge was on his mind.

“The Black community will not be divided,” he said of the electorate and dismissed the idea that he is past his prime and that this bid could end in another defeat.

Herenton broke into a run and jogged up the bluff. He challenged his companion to do the same. 

“You’ll see a big kick from us down the stretch,” he said.


Willie Herenton 2023 Memphis Mayor's race
Samuel Hardiman

Samuel Hardiman

Samuel Hardiman is an enterprise and investigative reporter who focuses on local government and politics. A native Rhode Islander who lives in Midtown, he enjoys tennis, golf and reading.


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