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Willie Herenton's Political Rebirth in Memphis

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Memphis, Tenn.

The last time most people in the education world had reason to hear from Willie W. Herenton, he was on his way out as the superintendent of schools here amid controversy.

So it is surprising to walk down historic Beale Street and see that in the hometown of Elvis Presley, the king of rock 'n' roll, and the breeding ground of the Delta blues, Mr. Herenton's name is now pasted on the side of a city bus.

Stretching the length of a midsize Chevrolet, there it is: Mayor Herenton.

As the Oct. 5 local elections approach, Mr. Herenton is a huge favorite to win a second term in that office. And after entering the mayor's race four years ago as a long shot and winning by only 142 votes, he is on the verge of confirming an improbable political rebirth--from the depths of a tarnished school administrator to the heights of a popular city executive.

"He's just great," said Magnolia Bass, a retired 8th- and 9th-grade English teacher who showed up at a question-and-answer election forum in north Memphis last week to express her concerns to Mr. Herenton. "He's tried to do for the best of the community, and this time around he has some big people supporting him."

Indeed, many of the top business leaders here have financed Mr. Herenton's re-election campaign and worked closely with him over the past four years. He is credited with deftly managing race relations and improving the city's financial standing while pursuing an active agenda.

As the election nears, Mr. Herenton has stepped up his campaigning mostly to remind people to get out and vote, asking for a decisive victory that will hand him a mandate to push his policies.

He talks of development on the riverfront and renovation of the downtown train station. And he says he hopes to have more low-income housing built.

Great Expectations

Taking the microphone at last week's assembly here in an old United Rubber Workers union hall, Mr. Herenton looks like he is standing on a chair. At 6-foot-6, the 55-year-old mayor exudes an air of authority.

Still, few of the 100 or so residents of the poor neighborhoods surrounding the union hall are willing to let Mr. Herenton rest on his laurels. They want roads paved, weeds pulled, and police presence improved.

One man compliments the mayor for installing a water fountain at a nearby park's tennis courts, but adds that, with all the drinking, the place now needs restrooms. Without them, "we've already killed one tree," the man says to great laughter.

The meeting reminds Mr. Herenton how difficult his job is. He has gone from a $109,000-a-year schools superintendency that meant overseeing a $450 million budget and 110,000 students to the $100,000-a-year mayor's post. He now manages a $444 million budget and a city of 610,000, but it has hardly been a lateral move.

"I've always been convinced that if you can manage a large urban school system, you can perform almost any job in our society," Mr. Herenton said in an interview at the hall. "But this job is much more complex."

Memphis continues to have its share of problems. But observers have been impressed by Mr. Herenton, as much for his ability to make the most of being the city's first black mayor as anything.

"He has done a lot to heal racial divisions in this city," said Kenneth M. Holland, a political science professor at the University of Memphis. The mayor has increased the ranks of blacks and women in posts at every level of city government. The city is roughly 40 percent black, with Asian-Americans, American Indians, and Hispanics combined making up less than 2 percent of the population.

Throughout his term, he has stressed that he is trying to be the mayor "for all of Memphis."

"I hope all of you realize that being a mayor is difficult," Mr. Herenton told the audience at the north Memphis hall. "A lot of black people may think that a black mayor will solve all of our problems. And a lot of white people may think that black leadership is not going to be fair. In many cases you have to walk the tightrope and do the balancing act."

From Boxing to City Hall

Stressing his ability to overcome his mistakes has been a big part of the political resurrection of this former civil-rights activist who was best known for his amateur boxing titles before starting work as an elementary school teacher.

After rising through the ranks of the city's schools over his nearly 30-year career, he was chosen superintendent in 1979.

But in 1988, Mr. Herenton became the center of controversy after a city teacher filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexual harassment by initiating an affair with her with the promise of a promotion. After a divorce from his wife and a public admission of the affair, Mr. Herenton settled the case with the teacher out of court.

In 1989, Mr. Herenton proposed the centerpiece of his tenure in the district's top job. A comprehensive reform plan called in part for site-based decisionmaking and deregulation at certain inner-city schools. The National Education Association backed the superintendent's efforts, eventually designating the district's program as an nea "Learning Lab." (See Education Week, Feb. 6, 1991.)

That same year, however, a consultant's report criticized the district's management, and Mr. Herenton retired the next year.

His candidacy for mayor grew out of an effort by the city's black leaders to find a candidate they could all support. Mr. Herenton took on the job and narrowly won the 1991 election.

This year, Republican John Baker, a local salesman running without his party's backing, is his chief opponent.

Observers say Mr. Herenton has had to become a quick study in such issues as economic development and winning federal grants--areas where they say his administration has fallen short of cities like Nashville. Still, many people here are optimistic about Mr. Herenton's future.

A summer poll by The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis, found that he had the approval of 75 percent of the city's voters. The Democrat also has been endorsed by Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican.

Observers say they have been impressed by Mr. Herenton's ability to delegate day-to-day affairs to his top operatives and decisively address problems--such as his dismissal in 1994 of the city's police director and police chief. They also note that he has impressed many people by showing independence. He has openly criticized the city's representative in the U.S. Congress, the City Council, the school board, and even local ministers when they opposed the city's efforts to land a National Football League franchise.

Out of School

Mr. Herenton also has resisted any impulse to inject himself into the management of the city's schools, which are now headed by Superintendent Gerry House.

His chief education accomplishment has been backing a $100 million bond issue to renovate and rebuild city schools. He said that during a second term he would like to be a more vocal supporter for equalized school funding.

And though he knows where to draw the line, Mr. Herenton is quick to say that neither the city nor the schools can fix everything.

One woman at the forum complained about a rotting tree that leaned across her property line. She said she also was upset that children were crossing streets alone on their way to school.

"About that tree, you'll have to talk with whoever owns that property," he said. "And as for the crossing guards, that's the responsibility of the city schools."

"But let me tell you what they are going to say because I used to be the school superintendent. If you were to put crossing guards at every other block, you would have four times as many crossing guards as you have now, and you just have to realize it is all a function of money," he said. "They have to put crossing guards where they can do the most good, and that's the right thing to do."

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