MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton kicked off his campaign for Tennessee's 9th Congressional District seat Saturday and said his main reason for running is to diversify the state's all-white congressional delegation.
Herenton, the city's first black mayor before his resignation last year after 18 years in office, shook the hands of cheering supporters as he walked to the podium to speak to the crowd of about 200 in a local hotel ballroom. Many of them waved "Herenton/Congress" signs and danced as Frankie Beverly and Maze's hit oldie "Back in Stride Again" played in the background.
"Every opportunity that African Americans can get to serve as leaders, we ought to go after," Herenton said during his speech. "They've got 11 members, we just want one."
His challenger in the Democratic primary is U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, who became the city's first white member of Congress in more than three decades when he was elected in 2006.
Sidney Chism, manager of Herenton's congressional campaign, said the former mayor has been characterized as a racist because of his desire to diversify the delegation, but he said "it's nothing wrong with that."
"There's no reason for people to get all up in the air when you say you want a diversified community," Chism said. "Why should we be talking about diversity in 2010? I think our opponent is a good guy, but that won't keep me from doing what I can to make sure I get somebody in that seat that diversifies that congressional district."
In December, a grand jury ended its corruption investigation of Herenton. He made public in October that he was the target of a federal investigation of "personal business transactions."
The Commercial Appeal reported that grand jury witnesses were questioned about payments Herenton received while mayor from a land deal and annual Christmas parties financed by political supporters.
Critics say the investigation could hurt Herenton's campaign, but political scientist Marcus Pohlmann at Rhodes College of Memphis said he believes Herenton will be more affected by his behavior toward the end of his mayorship than the corruption allegations.
For weeks, Herenton kept people guessing about whether he'd resign as mayor. The headline of one local newspaper even read: "Willie or won't he?"
The 69-year-old announced his resignation last June but delayed it for what he said was a need to complete important business in this West Tennessee city of 671,000 that's about 61 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.
He finally resigned July 30 and said he planned to focus on his run for Congress. But two weeks later, Herenton picked up a petition to run in the upcoming mayoral special election. He later decided not to, which drew heavy criticism because the special election cost taxpayers nearly $1 million, according to Shelby County election officials.
Herenton even remarked to some media outlets the cost of the special election was "not a big issue for me."
But Pohlmann said it might be for some voters.
"Even though he's been cleared, the history or baggage from his mayorship may come back to haunt him," he said.
Nevertheless, supporters of Herenton — a 6-foot-6 former professional boxer — say he's used to overcoming adversity and cite his political track record as evidence.
In 1991, he was the first black to be elected mayor of Memphis. He set a record in January when he was sworn in for a fifth four-year term.
In 2007, Herenton was re-elected in a contentious three-way race after claiming political enemies conspired to tarnish his campaign by involving him in a sex scandal.
"I think he will be fine," said Lea Ester Redmond, who has supported Herenton since his first mayoral election and attended Saturday's event. "Dr. Herenton presents himself as a great leader for the city ... and I think he will do well for the 9th congressional district as well."
Pohlmann acknowledges Herenton's competitiveness, but he said this race may be more challenging than he thinks because Cohen has raised a lot of money and has developed a "voting constituency" of his own.
"I think the boxer is in for a fight," Pohlmann said.
Recent fundraising records show Cohen has more than $1 million on hand. Herenton told The Associated Press after his speech that he hasn't raised any money, but plans to this month, as well as provide details about his platform. He said two main issues will be the economy and education, where he spent about 30 years, including serving as superintendent of the city's schools for 12 years before becoming mayor.
Chism said money is not an issue with Herenton.
"He doesn't need as much money as Steve," Chism said. "Everybody knows him. He was born and reared here. He needs to get out ... shake hands and kiss babies."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.