“He can go places and do things I can’t,” mused Memphis mayor Willie Herenton in an offhand moment last Friday. And it was hard to read his expression—a purely pensive one suspended somewhere between regret and acceptance.
The “he” referred to by Herenton was Congressman Harold Ford Jr., the Democratic nominee currently running neck-and-neck against Republican Bob Corker in what everyone—locally, statewide, and nationally—now recognizes as a pivotal U.S. Senate race.
Herenton has to be one of the most conflicted observers of the spirited race being run by Ford, a member of a local political clan that the mayor has always regarded with varying degrees of hostility—especially considering Chattanoogan Corker was so recently a member, and a friendly one, of the statewide mayoral fraternity.
Herenton is a Democrat, though he has strayed from the reservation on occasion—publicly endorsing the GOP’s Lamar Alexander for the Senate in 2002, as one example. And he had dropped a veiled hint or two earlier in the year that he would sit out the current Senate race—or maybe even endorse Corker, with whom he had conferred in camera during a visit by the Republican to Memphis last month.
Under those circumstances, it is probably little wonder that Representative Ford has not yet followed up on Herenton’s offer to make joint campaign appearances. “I haven’t heard a thing from him,” the mayor said last Friday. He went on to make the statement quoted in the first paragraph above concerning Ford’s accessibility to a wider electorate.
“It’s a matter of color,” the mayor stated flatly, addressing an issue that is rarely raised these days on the surface of politics and punditry but one that has fueled abundant private speculation concerning Representative Ford’s chances in rural sections of Tennessee. Note, however, that Herenton said “color” and not “race.”
“Ford’s light enough that he can go in there and be accepted by those folks. I’m realistic enough to know that I wouldn’t have a chance. I’m just too dark.”
The mayor reflected a moment. “That kind of thing is even an issue among our people,” he said, clearly meaning African Americans. “When I was down in New Orleans recently, I was told by a guy down there that I wouldn’t have the same chance of being elected in that environment as someone like [Mayor Ray] Nagin, who’s black but had just the right skin tone.”
From there, Herenton went on to lament in another direction—that “if some of these campaign charges made against Corker’s mayoral tenure in this race were made against me, I’d be indicted.” That remark, too, he made it clear, was color-related.