The Staple Singers’ “Let’s Do It Again” resounded from a speaker before Dr. Willie W. Herenton emerged from the back of the room. He shook hands with people in the crowd as he made his way to the stage to address hundreds of attendees who’d gathered to hear him officially launch his bid for Memphis mayor.
The song that played in the background was intentional. “Let’s Do It Again” has become the campaign slogan for Herenton, who previously served as the mayor of Memphis for 17 years, making him the longest serving person in that position. And he wants another shot at it. He wants to do it again.
“I met a brother on the street who asked me why I was running again at my age,” the 78-year-old Herenton said to the crowd gathered inside the South Memphis venue at 3356 South Third St. on Saturday afternoon. “I told him two reasons…because I want to, and because I can.”
The crowd cheered before he offered a less comical response.
“Part of why I want to run again is because I want to be aspirational and inspirational for those who have been left out of this economy.”
Herenton, the first African American elected to serve as mayor, said crime, generational poverty and education are among the top focuses of his campaign platform.
“I am going to push vocational, technical education,” he said. “When I went to Booker T. Washington High School, we had shop. We need to get back to that.”
Herenton also touted his own 47 years in public service, including his long-running stint as mayor before he resigned in 2009. After that, he unsuccessfully challenged Congressman Steve Cohen for the 9th District seat in Congress.
Saturday, Herenton took his supporters on a “trip down memory lane.”
“How many of y’all remember when I was mayor?” he asked. “We would have 3,000 kids every summer with city jobs. For many of them they got their first job when I was mayor.”
Cassandra Haynes-Cowan was one of those kids. Only 15 at the time she participated in the former mayor’s summer initiative, she said the experience changed her life.
“That job made me much more mature and responsible. We worked the whole summer with no problems. And it showed us that someone hadn’t forgotten about us. I will always support Mayor Herenton. I know what he can do because he’s done it for us.”
Herenton also received an endorsement from the Memphis Police Association (MPA).
Mike Williams, MPA president, on Saturday said, “We’ve talked to Dr. Herenton prior to endorsing him, and he has asked, what is it going to take to restore the benefits, how can (he) help.”
During the rally, Herenton spoke avidly of his desire to create a minority economically empowered city, and he didn’t mince words when calling out his opponents.
“This current administration wants to build buildings, we want to build families,” he said referring to incumbent mayor, Jim Strickland, who is running for a second term. “When we look at this economy. There is no way Memphis can be a thriving metropolis when 40 percent of the 60-percent majority is living in poverty. We can’t have two Memphis’.
As for his other high-profile challenger, Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who is leading her campaign with the slogan, “We can’t Wait,” Herenton had this to say.
“When you talk about proven leadership…we’re not talking about novices. We’re not talking about people who are opportunists. We’re not talking about people who say they can’t wait. Those that say they can’t wait – they are going to wait.”
Sawyer, who officially announced her run for mayor in March, is among a new generation of grassroots activists. She organized the first Black Lives Matter protest in Memphis and led the #takemdown901 protest that demanded the removal of Confederate statues in local city parks.
Not discrediting the need for a new generation of leaders, Herenton said it’s one of the reasons he feels compelled to give it one more go as mayor.
“We must prepare the platform for the next generation,” he said. “I didn’t do that when I was mayor and that’s why we have a vacuum in leadership. But when I go back, part of our agenda is to plant the seeds and to grow the next generation of leaders.”
Herenton said he’s confident that he’s the “best candidate for the job”, and even more certain that the people of Memphis will vote him back in office in October.
“At the end of the day, we’re going back to City Hall.”
The city’s municipal election is October 3. Lemichael Wilson, a small business owner, has also specified that he will run.