By MONICA DAVEY, DAVID BARSTOW, WAVENEY ANN MOORE and MIKE WILSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 1998
ANSAS CITY -- Prosecutors are trying to put him away, his flock is buzzing about his extramarital foibles and bankers are closing in on his headquarters building. But on Wednesday the Rev. Henry J. Lyons made a prayerful request of his fellow Baptists:
"I am not a thief," he said.
Lyons' announcement that he will seek another five-year term, though not unexpected, came in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis. According to the National Baptist Convention USA's annual report, obtained Wednesday by the Times:
The convention missed $364,000 in principal and interest payments on the Baptist World Center in Nashville, Tenn., this year and defaulted on its mortgage. With another $600,000 payment about to come due, convention leaders face the potential of a foreclosure.
Even so, Lyons' proposed 1999 budget calls for him to receive a raise from $85,000 to $147,000. The convention, which is holding its annual meeting here, will discuss those matters today.
Wednesday was a day for power seeking, a day in which a half-dozen ministers played politics while also trying to maintain Christian decorum. No fewer than five ministers -- including Lyons' longtime rivals W. Franklyn Richardson and William Shaw -- have announced they want his job in 1999.
But Lyons is determined to keep it. He arrived at the Marriott Hotel about 4:50 p.m. Wednesday, 10 minutes before his scheduled announcement. He stepped from the rear of a white stretch limousine and was ushered inside by a posse of bodyguards in white cowboy hats. As he entered the hotel, five or six female supporters reached out to him.
Inside, reporters gathered around. Lyons, accused in state and federal court of using the convention as a front to bilk corporations of millions of dollars, was asked what he will do if he is convicted. He won't keep campaigning, will he?
"That's academic. That's understood," he said, chuckling at the idea.
Reporters were not allowed into the Benny Moten Room for Lyons' announcement, but word of the proceedings soon got out. Lyons apologized again for what he has called an improper two-year relationship with NBC meeting planner Brenda Harris. He said he didn't steal money from anyone, black or white. He asked for prayers.
"I have a deep repentance," he said.
The crowd of more than 100 belted out a gospel song. Somebody shouted, "You're forgiven!"
The Rev. Roscoe Cooper Jr., the NBC's general secretary, stood by Lyons' side. Prosecutors say Lyons defrauded banks, in part by submitting documents on which Cooper's name was forged. If Cooper has any hard feelings about it, he didn't let on.
"I'm with Henry Lyons till he wins! Hallelujah!" he shouted in his distinctive tenor. "I'm with Henry Lyons till whatever! Sink or swim, I'm with Henry Lyons! We're going all the way!"
The people chanted, "All the way! All the way!"
Cooper said Lyons has $3,000 in his campaign fund but needs much more. He asked the pastors to give $500 each and several did. Make your checks payable to "Lyons for President 1999," Cooper told them.
Lyons -- who is staying with his wife, Deborah, in the Marriott's penthouse Truman Suite -- later repeated his announcement before a larger crowd in a larger room.
But he was hardly the only minister to fill a room. Lyons' five challengers also stated their cases Wednesday, none more vigorously than Richardson and Shaw.
Lyons' two leading challengers -- both of whom ran against him four years ago -- have strikingly different styles. Tall and barrel-chested, Richardson works every room like a seasoned politician, slapping backs, grabbing lapels and whispering into ears. He sports double-breasted suits and rarely goes anywhere without a phone. His nickname is Rich.
On Wednesday night, when he was introduced to hundreds of cheering supporters at a campaign rally, a chant broke out: "Let's switch, we've got Rich."
Shaw, pastor of a Baptist church in Philadelphia since 1956, is Richardson's physical and temperamental opposite -- owlish, balding and bespectacled, with bushy white sideburns that suggest a 19th-century sensibility. A Christian ethics major in his seminary days, Shaw says raw-thuh for rather and gives the impression he wouldn't slap anybody's back unless it were on fire.
Richardson, of Mount Vernon, N.Y., bills himself as "today's leader, tomorrow's president." His 12 years as general secretary under former President T.J. Jemison are both an asset and a liability: Richardson has lots of experience, but he got it while serving in an administration many NBC members believe was corrupt.
Even if it was corrupt, he said, "I didn't sign any checks. I was not the co-president. I was not in charge of the finances."
Still, Richardson's name is associated with at least one ugly episode. After he lost the 1994 election, his supporters -- Jemison among them -- filed a lawsuit alleging voter fraud, then falsified evidence to support the charge. A Washington judge, Zinora M. Mitchell-Rankin, tossed out the case, calling it "rotten from the inception."
But that seemed a distant memory early Wednesday as Richardson worked the lobby of the Marriott, dressed in a double-breasted suit with a powder-blue shirt and matching hankie. Even during an interview with a reporter he was grabbing ministers as they passed by, pumping their hands and telling them, "We gotta talk."
Nearby, one of Richardson's aides buttonholed a pastor and told him, "My man, my man wants you to be part of his cabinet. My man wants you to come with us. You can't do my man like that."
Because a candidate needs only a plurality to win, some of Lyons' challengers fear they will split the opposition vote and return the presidency to him. Richardson is trying to persuade some of the candidates to join him so that won't happen. He has even talked to Shaw about it, he said.
When asked about that later, Shaw said sharply, "When I'm president I hope to have his support."
Shaw announced his candidacy before about 150 pastors at the Westin Crown Center. He said he will bring openness, accountability and integrity to the convention. The era of the imperial presidency will end, he said.
If Shaw's words sounded familiar to the audience, they should have. Lyons ran on a similar platform in '94.