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Candidates Corner: If Identity Politics Was an Extreme Sport

Posted on September 16 2009 8:28 pm
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Today’s installment of Candidates Corner focuses on only one candidate for election in the 2010 cycle, rather than three, as I would normally cover. The issues and implications of this candidate’s history in politics and attitude toward race are deserving, I believe, of lengthier public discourse.

Willie Herenton loves attention - good or bad.

Willie W. Herenton

Democrat, U.S. Representative for Tennessee

(subject to change at the whim of the candidate)

Cable news outlets quickly jumped this week on a recent statement from former President Jimmy Carter, in which Carter suggests opposition to President Obama’s health care reform proposal is due, in large part, to a long-festering boil of racism in America. Carter’s sophomoric pronouncement is yet another example of a dangerous message propagated in politics at all levels, all over the country – that a politician’s race can be touted as an asset or an excuse, depending on the needs of political expediency.

Carter’s baseless claim was covered only superficially by several cable news shows – lending to a perception that Carter speaks fact rather than unsubstantiated and inflammatory personal opinion. Only Laura Ingraham and Bill O’Reilly of FOX News dared question the use of the “race card” in this instance.

Oreilly Ingraham

Which brings me to another politician who throws the race card so frequently it showers over his every move like a steady stream of identity politics confetti. The candidacy of Tennessee politician Willie Herenton leaves me with many questions – the first being, “Seriously?”

This former Memphis Mayor’s career is riddled with controversy, accusations of impropriety and criminal behavior, and decisions/behavior that teeter between inconsistent and just plain bizarre.

Of his alleged criminal behavior, a March 2009 article in the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, revealed a second federal investigation into Herenton.

“The FBI has opened another probe into Mayor Willie Herenton’s dealings, questioning this time whether he pocketed cash left over from lavish parties paid for by some of the city’s most prominent businessmen… The questioning by the FBI is the latest in a series of inquiries by federal law enforcement agencies and a grand jury into the mayor’s dealings. Chief among them is a federal grand jury that has been exploring Herenton’s mixing of public and private duties involving plans to move the Greyhound bus station out of Downtown.”

And now – motivated by what can only be undiluted narcissism – Herenton seeks to bring his egocentric, amoral sideshow to the national political stage as he seeks election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

So far, Herenton’s campaign rhetoric suggests all he has offer Memphis voters is his race and a disturbing propensity to speak of himself in the third person. In a recent radio interview on Memphis station KWAM-AM, Herenton accused his opponent of racism, but offered no evidence of his inflammatory claim:

“To know Steve Cohen is to know that he really does not think very much of African-Americans. He’s played the black community well.”

His campaign manager readily towed the party line of identity politics:

“This seat was set aside for people who look like me,” said Herenton’s African-American campaign manager, Sidney Chism, formerly the head of a 2,000-member teamster local. “It wasn’t set aside for a Jew or a Christian. It was set aside so that blacks could have representation.”

Playing the race card is just politics as usual for Herenton. During his 2008 campaign for re-election, the Commercial-Appeal said the following of Herenton:

“On paper, Dr. Willie W. Herenton comes across as a true American success story – an admirable man who overcame poverty and discrimination to become highly accomplished and celebrated. On camera, Mayor Willie W. Herenton these days comes across as belligerent and bitter – a calculating politician grasping for a cause that will carry him through one final successful election campaign… But the Herenton on camera has turned into a man who detests criticism, accepts no blame for any of Memphis’ ills and portrays himself as a persecuted victim of racism.”

Herenton told one local television reporter, on camera, “It’s amazing to me how the media, and most of it is the media, the dominantly controlled white media, who wants to ignore race. You play the race cards all the time in your media.”

Given his track record, and the ease with which he makes race the primary issue in campaign after campaign, it’s difficult to fathom that this man is taken seriously as a contender for public office.

Here’s a synopsis of this man’s career in “public service:”

Before serving as Mayor of Memphis, Herenton was the superintendant of Memphis City Schools for 12 years, but was forced to resign from that position after public outrage over an extra-marital affair with one of his employees – a math teacher who claimed, in two lawsuits, she was pressured into a two-year affair with Herenton, whose wife divorced him in the wake of the affair. His private indiscretions continued to creep into public view. In 2003, the unmarried, 64-year-old mayor of Memphis, held a news conference to announce that a blood test showed he had fathered a baby boy with a 31-year-old former girlfriend.

Despite his first very-public affair, and its legal and ethical implications, Herenton was elected to his first term as Mayor of Memphis in 1991, though he only won the election by 146 votes. He was reelected four times, though he failed to win the majority of votes in three of the five mayoral elections. The most notable result of his continued re-election – surely an unintended consequence, compliments of Memphis voters – was his limitless arrogance.  He started his final re-election campaign in 2006 with an announcement that he would not debate any challengers during the campaign.

What followed demonstrates Herenton’s graduation from arrogance to sheer narcissism. On March 20, 2008 – only 90 days after he won his most recent re-election bid – Herenton announced his resignation from his position as mayor, effective July 31, 2008, telling his constituents and the Memphis media that he only ran for re-election in 2007 to save the city from the other mayoral candidates. Apparently, the position he truly wanted was his former post as Superintendent of Memphis City Schools. Yes – the same position from which he was forced to resign.

Shortly after announcing his resignation, Herenton said he would only leave office if he got the job as schools superintendent. By the time his resignation date rolled around, Herenton shared yet another change of heart – he would serve out his full term as Mayor until 2011.

But it’s never that simple with this fickle politician, who makes teenage girls seem steadfastly decisive. In April 2009, Herenton formed an exploratory committee for a run at the congressional seat for the 9th District of Tennessee. Two months later, he announced – yet again – his resignation as Mayor, to be effective on July 10. Eleven days later, he postponed his resignation date to July 30.

Herenton did resign on July 30. But just days later, a newspaper article started with another twist in this story –

“In a move that baffled both allies and critics, Willie W. Herenton has taken an initial step toward reclaiming the Memphis mayor’s office he retired from less than two weeks ago.”

The ex-mayor sat down with a local TV reporter to discuss his 180°, and proceeded to have an on-air meltdown of sorts that put his egotism/questionable sanity on full display –

Herenton change his mind again, and announced a few days later that he would run instead for U.S. Congress against fellow Democrat Rep. Steve Cohen in the 2010 Democratic primary, this time playing the race card to diminish his opponent —

Other than a text article on FOX News’ website, not one of the cable news networks is talking about this lingering, putrefying trend propagated by politicians like Willie Herenton and now Jimmy Carter, and the threat it poses to the credibility of our systems of representative democracy and free elections. And how the wanton and careless use of the “race card” in politics demeans and insults the intelligence of American voters.

Editor’s Note: See the previous installments of Karen Northon’s Candidates Corner Series:

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