Crazy Like a Fox

Why Willie Herenton’s statements should surprise no one, and other observations on the 9th District Congressional race

Willie Herenton via his campaign website

I can’t tell you how many times since his display outside Cohen Headquarters two weeks ago I’ve had people ask me if Willie Herenton is crazy.

My usual response, “How the hell should I know, I’ve only lived here 6 years, you’ve lived here your whole life!”.

In all seriousness, Herenton isn’t crazy, he’s using what he has at his disposal, name recognition and media savvy to promote a campaign that is in serious need of a cash infusion. While its easy to dismiss these tactics, the reality is, it’s worked in the past. From his perspective it can work again.

Simply Irresistible

Looking at the relationship between Herenton and the media is like looking at a co-dependent couple. They think they need each other, when in reality, one side has all the power in the relationship if they chose to use it.

Herenton is a newsmaker, there is no doubt. But so was Mongo, until the media and the general public grew wary of his schtick. Now, I’m not trying to compare Herenton and Mongo. Certainly, Herenton has much more credibility and newsworthiness, being an elected Mayor to five terms, but the local media needs to ask itself a question, “Who benefits from a news conference where the subject won’t answer the questions?”

Now, you can say that both sides benefit. The media gets an explosive story and the ratings and readers that come with that, and the candidate, in this case Herenton gets his name in front of the people. But there are also losers in this equation. The public loses because serious questions get diminished or cast aside, and the media loses because they look like weak enablers to consumers of their product, in this case, the news.

So, let’s look at how this breaks down:
Herenton – Win
Media – Push
Voters/media consumers – lose

Herenton understands that he just needs to get his name out there to get people to the polls. He doesn’t necessarily need people to understand his positions on anything. So these “free-for-all” media events where he offers a steady diet of nothing to the voters, are really just about gaining free press to inform voters of his candidacy, and that’s it.

In short, the story is changing from “Herenton said something crazy today” to “the media in this city is getting played every time they play along with the charade of a “free-for-all” press conference”.

Running on and from his record

Herenton has repeatedly stated in the past few weeks that he is running on his record as Mayor, and that Congressman Steve Cohen, who he faces in the August primary election has no record to run on.

This is a far easier position for Herenton to take when he belittles the problems his administration faced in its waning days, and afterward.

The problem with running on a record is that you have to take the good with the bad. No one has a perfect record on anything. But Herenton sees his bad as trivial, regardless of who suffered what indignity or injustice.

Under those circumstances, where the successes are bright indications of a potential Rep. Herenton and the failures are “trivialities” that are to be ignored, anyone can look like a superstar.

Certainly, Herenton’s time as Mayor should not be judged on two events. I’ll agree with him there. But if you’re going to run on your record you have to take the good with the bad, and that’s something Herenton has never been willing to do.

It should give voters pause. If his failures are trivialities then where’s the accountability? Accountability is one of the biggest things missing from Herenton’s record. It’s always someone else; the media, some interest group, mysterious forces of white businessmen conspiring against him. How can voters expect Herenton to take responsibility for his actions when his record shows that he’s resistant to doing that very thing.

This is a question every voter should ask themselves in the polling place.

“Just One”

From 1975 to 2007 Memphis was represented by an African-American in Congress. I don’t really have a beef with people who feel that Memphis should continue to be represented by an African-American, even though I don’t believe that race makes someone any more or less qualified to represent any district.

That said, if Herenton is going to run on “Just One” then perhaps he should support another candidate. African-American women make up the largest single voting block in the 9th district. This being the case, and following his line of reasoning, it would seem that Herenton would do better to get behind the only African-American woman in the race, Charlotte Bergman, who is running in the Republican primary. But that will never happen.

Herenton’s slogan may say “Just One” but at the end of the day what he’s really saying is “Just Me”

Polls schmolls

Finally, I want to talk about the poll that Otis Sanford mentioned in his Sunday column.

The poll showed Steve Cohen with a commanding lead, 69-9 over Herenton. I haven’t seen the poll itself, so I can’t really comment on the methodology or the racial or gender proportions, but I can say this; Herenton’s supporters have shown over and over again that they are unwilling to commit to him in polls. I don’t know why, I don’t understand the rationale, but when you look at polls for the 2007 Mayoral election, factor in the margin of error and look at the undecideds, the majority of them break for Herenton.

Also, there are a lot of questions about a poll paid for by a candidate for County Mayor being taken too seriously. This is as much about Luttrell’s marketing campaign as it is anything else.

All I’m saying is that Herenton may not poll well, but he has consistently delivered at the ballot box, and that’s something the Cohen Campaign would do well to remember regardless of any numbers they might be seeing in this or any other poll.


At the end of the day, Herenton believes he knows how to get elected; manipulate the media, highlight the good and dismiss the bad, and point out the obvious. This has worked in the past, why wouldn’t it work now?

What’s unfortunate about this strategy is that it not only dismisses his critics, but it also dismisses his supporters and places the media in the role of the hapless promotional lackey, a role they seem all too willing to play.

At the end of the day it seems clear that not only is Herenton not crazy, he’s playing his game and just about everyone else is playing along…except for the Cohen Campaign.

Whether or not this game will end up in a win for Herenton is an open question that no one will know, regardless of polls or any other metric until after election day in August.

Ed. Note:Just as I was finishing the last section of this piece, I saw Jackson Baker’s coverage come across the twitter. Looks like he and I are on the same page on a lot of this. Go give it a look-see.
Also check out Bill Dries’ analysis of the situation.

3 comments for “Crazy Like a Fox

  1. June 10, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    It’s tough to take the media seriously when they so willingly play bait to his fish hook. As best I can tell (haven’t watched the whole raw video yet) no one seems to have asked him substantive questions about national issues he’ll address as a Congressman. Instead, it’s the usual “can we set him off?” silliness.

    I’d rather they treat him like a serious candidate and ask him serious questions. If he’s not up for the job, that will show through.

  2. June 11, 2010 at 1:41 pm

    Steve, Really good piece of work. Well done.

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