Willie Herenton, former Mayor of Memphis

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Willie Herenton
former Mayor of Memphis

10 March 2008: A controversial figure by any standards, Memphis’ combative mayor, Willie Herenton, is now on his fifth term of office. A former superintendent of the city’s schools system, there are those who would claim the “consummate politician” represents something of a public service role model for young black men, while critics continue to seek his removal from office. Herenton is longlisted for the 2008 World Mayor Award.

Update 16 October 2009: Shelby County Mayor, A C Wharton, won a special election to replace Willie Herenton as mayor of Memphis. Herenton stepped down in June after 18 year as city leader to run for US Congress. Myron Lowery, mayor pro tem since June, came second. More than two dozen candidates were vying to serve out Herenton's unexpired term for Tennessee's capital city.

Herenton was born into a broken home in the Tennessee city in 1940, where he was raised by his mother and grandmother and helped support the family by picking cotton. He had originally hoped the emulate the sporting success of his idols Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and despite some success as boxer, abandoned his attempts and instead chose a career as an educator, graduating from LeMoyne College in the city in 1963 and becoming a teacher in the city’s public schools system. He picked up an MA from Memphis State University three years later and in 1967 became the youngest elementary school principal in the city at just 27.

From here he was able to gain a doctorate from Southern Illinois University in 1971 and in 1974 became deputy superintendent of the city’s public schools system. He made superintendent in 1979, a position he held for 12 years. During this time he was twice awarded a place in the Executive Educator Journal’s top 100 school administrators and a Horatio Alger Award for his work in turning around failing schools, the award’s administrators claiming that he represented “a role model for more than 100,000 youths in his system, the majority of whom are black. Herenton is seen as a symbol of what they can achieve.”

In 1991, Herenton was able to use his position and plaudits to run for mayor, defeating two-term incumbent Dick Hackett by just 142 votes, the closest ever mayoral race in the city’s history. Though the last city mayor to hail from the city’s falling white population, Hackett was regarded as more cooperative with black community leaders than his conservative predecessors. Aided by an improving city economy, Herenton coasted to re-election in 1995, defeating three opponents with almost three quarters of the total vote. Yet the more divisive period of Herenton’s tenure began with his 1999 re-election effort, where he faced 13 opponents, including a more credible challenger in the form of Joe Ford, scion of a local political dynasty. Herenton secured re-election with 46 per cent of the vote, with no run-off required due to the provisions of the city charter. In 2007 Herenton was returned for an unprecedented fifth term of office, again with 42 per cent of the vote, though his closest challenger came within less than 10 percentage points of unseating him on this occasion. The 2007 campaign was regarded as highly racially divisive, though this is not unusual in a city where the two parties are split along racial lines.

In his resignation letter, Herenton claimed he wished to "pursue other challenges".  Speculation among political allies and the local media include a return to his former job or even a run for Congress.

Herenton is divorced and has three children with former wife Ida. In addition to two honorary doctorates, Herenton holds memberships on the National Board of Directors of the Urban League, Junior Achievement, National Executive Board of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Rotary Club and the Economic Club of Memphis.

Memphis is governed by the mayor and council system, with 13 council members elected to the city council. There has been some discussion around merging the city council with the Shelby County into one consolidated metropolitan county, as in Nashville elsewhere in the state.

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