"Last September Congressman Cohen and Willie Herenton both agreed to participate in a debate on July 11th on WREG-TV with the terms of the debate, including the moderators, known to both candidates. In the 8 months since that agreement, the Congressman has not waivered and he is honoring his word.
"The Cohen Campaign never agreed to a meeting to consider other debate venues."
That statement was in response to a somewhat agitated and inflammatory press conference held earlier Friday in front of Cohen’s Union Ave. Campaign headquarters by the congressman’s Democratic primary opponent, former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.
Essentially Herenton charged Cohen with having canceled a supposed meeting that morning involving “representatives from WMC-TV, I believe Fox News, the League of Women Voters, the Tri-State Defender and representatives from the Cohen and Herenton campaign.” So said the ex-mayor.
The meeting was to have ironed out details of a series of prospective debates to replace the one, scheduled for July 11 at WREG-TV, News Channel 3, and involving Channel 3 commentator Norm Brewer and Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford as panelists. Rather famously, Herenton had backed out of that debate two weeks, several months after he and Cohen had agreed to it. The reason? Brewer and Sanford were biased and would be unfair. So said the ex-mayor.
Spokespersons for the organizations involved in the aborted Friday-morning meeting suggested that, the Cohen campaign’s statement notwithstanding, there indeed had been an agreement to hold the meeting — which, said the ex-mayor, was “canceled at the request of Steve Cohen.”
If indeed the Cohen organization had agreed to a meeting on alternate debate venues, that would have been sharply at odds with what appears to have been an inflexible — nay, intractable — opposition on Cohen’s part to considering anything but the one and only Channel 3 debate.
Why Channel 3?, Young was asked Friday. First come, first served, she said in effect. Channel 3 had asked first. And ever since Herenton bowed out in protest of the station’s chosen panelists, Cohen had maintained that to accept other debate proposals would be allowing Herenton to “dictate the terms” of debate between the two.
Well…that begged the question of whether in fact it was now Cohen who was, by his inflexibility, choosing to dictate the terms.
But that possible inconsistency was as nothing compared to one engaged in on Herenton’s part, and I made bold to ask the former mayor about it at Friday’s press conference.
How could he not have known, way back last year when he first agreed on to debate Cohen on Channel 3, that Brewer and Sanford would be the panelists since the two of them had been the core personnel —the staples, in fact — of every election-year debate (and there have been many) since 2002, when WREG and The Commercial Appeal became official “news partners.”
(Consider that the Cohen press release we began with expressly stipulated that both candidates knew full well the identity of the station’s participants.)
Maybe it’s my imagination, but the former mayor appeared flustered when confronted with this obvious conundrum. There was a brief but impassioned verbal detour during which Herenton called me “inept” for having suggested (in several recent columns and interviews, I’ll admit)) that there was no Herenton campaign to speak of. No money, no events, no paraphernalia, no organization, no campaign — unless you count the occasional stab at getting some free media, like, come to think of it, the press conference on Friday.
“How do you have the audacity to talk about the campaign organization of the longest-serving mayor in this city, who beat an entrenched Republican and had no money, who dismantled the Ford political machine?” Herenton thundered.
‘Deciding that I would wait until later to cry my eyes out at Herenton’s reproaches, I repeated: Was the ex-mayor seriously maintaining that he didn’t know who would be asking questions when he first agreed to a Channel 3 debate late in the summer of 2009? If so, why didn’t he ask about such elementary details?
Taking a full breath, I asked, Was this not inept?
A perceptible pause, and then Herenton answered: “No, I just reserve my right.”
So here we are, the ept and inept alike, waiting on these two headstrong antagonists to cease reserving their rights — Herenton to get off his high horse concerning Brewer and Sanford, Cohen to relent about other debates in other venues.
“Please understand. I want to debate Steve Cohen,” Herenton said Friday. And, in an apostrophe directed at the absent congressman, still presumably on the job in D.C., he offered to do so “in front of your office.”
Herenton then got off what he must have hoped would be the predominant sound bite of the day: “I know you‘re not coming into South Memphis. That’s where a lot of your constituency are. You’re here in Midtown and downtown with a million-dollar war chest. Come down in the heart of South Memphis where the people live, where the unemployment rate is high, where the dropout rate is high. Come down there and explain to the people how you can give good representation as our congressman.”
Meanwhile, Cohen apparently intends to let his congressional work speak for itself — or to get back to doing so after a brief spell of consenting to do the dozens with former Mayor Herenton.