It may — as one of the principals indicated — end up being a one-of-a-kind event. But Steve Cohen, the incumbent Democrat for Memphis’ 9th Congressional district, and his Republican challenger, George Flinn, did in fact have something of a public debate on Thursday — though the main subject of their relatively brief back-and-forth was the issue of whether they should do a debate for real.
Cohen and Flinn were two of the candidates invited to a political forum at Kirby Pines Retirement Home, and, like the other candidates for various offices who were on hand, were there essentially to say their helloes and present their views to an auditorium full of Kirby Pines residents and other guests. While they waited their turn, the two congressional candidates sat virtually side by side — separated only by an empty chair reserved for a no-show independent candidate.
Cohen was the first of the two asked to speak by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who moderated the event. And when the third-term congressman reached the dais, he dutifully recounted his positions and achievements — ranging from helping to midwife The Med as a state senator to his role in cutting funding for Afghanistan to his espousal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
It was in discoursing on the latter that Cohen got off his first sally at opponent Flinn’s expense. Insisting that the Act, universally referred to these days as “Obamacare,” would not restrict a patient’s choice of physicians, Cohen said, “You’ll still be able to have Dr. Flinn do your ultrasound. He’ll be doing it anyhow next year.”
When it came Flinn’s turn, the GOP candidate, a wealthy broadcast executive and physician who owns ultrasound patents, discoursed on Obamacare himself, though from a more skeptical point of view than Cohen had. Extolling the members of the audience for the “sacrifices” they had made during their lifetimes, Flinn said, “Now we’re being told to sacrifice for the government," going on to repeat the Republican mantra that the Affordable Care Act means a contraction of Medicare services, something Democrats from Cohen to President Obama himself vigorously dispute.
Referring to the “225,000 new voters in District 9” after this year’s reapportionment, Flinn maintained that they were entitled to hear an exchange of views between Cohen and himself. “I don’t know why we’re not having a debate. This is the closest we’ve come to it.”
A Q-and-A session elicited another round of discussions about matters pertaining to both government and medicine, during which Flinn assailed what he regarded as bureaucratic waste and Cohen espoused a balance between new revenues and budget cuts. Fielding a question from an audience member critical of the relatively low tax rate paid by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire, Cohen responded, “You’re exactly right,” and said he would agree to a debate with Flinn “only when he releases his tax returns,” because “we’ve got to know what millionaires pay on their returns.”
Maintaining that he had recently released his own tax records, Cohen challenged Flinn to reciprocate. (Flinn would say that he had in fact made his tax information public, though an aide would later concede that Flinn had not released his returns in volume but made the minimum disclosures required by federal law.)
Chiding Flinn for not having agreed to debate Charlotte Bergman, his erstwhile GOP primary opponent, Cohen escalated into a generalized comparison of his own “open” situation to what he described as a more guarded attitude on Flinn’s part.
Mentioning the fact of his address on Kenilworth St. adjoining Overton Park, Cohen conjured up a contrast with Flinn’s residence near Memphis Country Club, “with a car in front of his house protecting it.” He said, “You need to be open. I’m out there, and you know it.”
Flinn responded tongue-in-cheek by saying rather that he lived “on the edge of Orange Mound,” a remark that drew general laughter. The neighborhood, he said, was “a good one,” and “I see a lot of interesting people come around.”
He went on to note, “I’m not the only millionaire on stage,” and offered mock congratulations to Cohen for his own membership in “the millionaire’s club.” And he renewed his challenge to Cohen to debate, noting, too, that Cohen had also eschewed debate encounters with his two most recent primary opponents, Willie Herenton in 2010 and School Board member Tomeka Hart this year. (Cohen said he had agreed to debate Herenton but that the former mayor had backed out of a commitment to do the debate at Channel 3.)
The two opponents shook hands after they had concluded their part of the event, and it remains to be seen whether their encounter on Thursday was the end of something or the beginning of something.
In any case, not much time remains for another go-round, with the election taking place in a little more than two weeks, on Tuesday, November 6.