The debate season — meaning one-on-one exchanges between contenders for major office — is upon us, both in the observance and the breach.
At the county mayor level, several debates apparently will take place between now and the countywide general election of August 5th, involving Democratic nominee Joe Ford, the interim mayor, and Sheriff Mark Luttrell, the Republican nominee. The first, hosted by the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, took place last week at Pancho's restaurant off Summer.
At the congressional level, 9th District representative Steve Cohen and his Democratic primary opponent, former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, are hopelessly at loggerheads. A scheduled debate to be telecast by WREG-TV, News Channel 3, was scotched last week when Herenton abruptly declared that the intended panelists — Channel 3 commentator Norm Brewer and Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford — were unacceptable.
Given the facts that debate arrangements had been made months earlier and that Brewer and Sanford have been staples of such Channel 3 forums for years, Herenton's belated reaction seemed odd. Another complication was Cohen's refusal to consider participating in other debates held under different auspices. At least two other television stations offered debate formats, as did a growing number of private organizations.
But it was Channel 3 and Brewer and Sanford or nothing at all, the congressman declared, taking what he and his supporters regarded as the high ground. As Cohen said on the occasion of his headquarters opening on Union at McNeil on Saturday, "[Herenton's] not going to dictate the terms of this debate to me. He's not going to dictate the terms of this debate to the Memphis public."
If Herenton continued in his boycott of the previously agreed-upon debate at WREG, Cohen said, the former mayor was a "coward."
Almost unnoticed in the furor was that Cohen had shifted his position from indifference toward Herenton to active adversary status. Whereas before he had ignored the ex-mayor, in the name of focusing on his congressional duties, Cohen now was predicting a "big win" over his opponent. Polls indeed showed a sizable lead for Cohen, although one that narrowed marginally during the course of the debate controversy.
And the congressman's hardening attitude toward the original Channel 3 format as the only acceptable one, along with his ringing defense of Brewer and Sanford against Herenton's charges of bias and unfairness, gave Herenton, who was publicly floating several other debate venues, a chance to brand Cohen himself as the intractable one.
The fiscally starved Herenton was, for better or worse, picking up free media, as well as creating more of a sense that an active contest between the two actually existed. Until the debate controversy, there had been virtually no sign of a Herenton campaign. No events, no paraphernalia, no tangible organization — or at least nothing that compared to the congressman's well-financed and ever-burgeoning operation. In sum: Prospects for a debate diminished, while prospects for a race may actually have increased.
• Meanwhile, the first mayoral debate at Pancho's underscored what Luttrell, in his summing-up, described as contrasting "leadership styles and visions for the future."
Both candidates were asked what was "the most serious misconception people have about you." This is a famous trick question used by executive headhunters to elicit private truths from the applicants they interview. The idea is that there are no misconceptions, that whatever the interviewee says is a misconception is instead fact.
Luttrell seemed honestly baffled by the question, apparently viewing himself as not only an open book but one printed in large reader-friendly type. His was "a pretty simple life," he said. He'd been married "a long time," had "beautiful children and lovely grandchildren," and had "never had financial difficulties." (That last reference may have been a subtle jab at his opponent.)
Ford took something of the same tack but in a considerably more introverted and defensive manner. "A lot of people look to my last name and come to a conclusion, but I'm 'what you see is what you get.'... I've ran [sic] a calm, citizen-involved open-door government. I've been honest, people like me. A couple of newspeople that I don't know and never met wrote some bad articles about me. ... [There was an] article that was terrible about my family. ... I've done a great job. Regardless of what you see in the paper and what you read in the paper and what you see on TV, here I am."
That sensitivity to media attention on Ford's part, which had materialized repeatedly in previous public appearances by the interim mayor, surfaced several times more during the hour-long forum — when he insisted that he had "saved" the Med, for example, but that "the media" in general and The Commercial Appeal in particular declined to acknowledge the fact.
Luttrell was also skeptical. "Speak to anyone close to the Med, and they will tell you the Med has not been saved; it survives to fight another day," he said. All the funding sources Ford had boasted about had been stop-gap, meaningless without the long-term "business plan" which Luttrell insisted was necessary.
When both candidates were asked to identify any potential weakness they might have, either in educational preparation or political background, Ford was serene in his confidence: "I don't see a weakness," he said. "I've got six years of college, I've ran [sic] the office with distinction. ... I think if you had to grade me right now — grade me A to F — just think about it, I'm going to continue that service."
He went on to note an extensive governmental vita: six years on the City Council and seven years on the County Commission, having served as chairman of both, plus the last five months as mayor.
Luttrell's answer to the same question: "I'm not a 'hail fellow well met.' I'm pretty strictly business. I'm sometimes not as warm and fuzzy as I should be, that's what my wife says. I take a great deal of pride in trying to be a good listener."
The two candidates differed on numerous issues. Ford was adamantly opposed to consolidation, while Luttrell preferred to wait and see what the Metro Charter Commission comes up with. The sheriff was open-minded about the virtues of outsourcing county services, while Ford opposed them on grounds that the security of 6,300 county employees would thereby be endangered.
Ford was more enthusiastic about PILOTs (payments-in-lieu-of-taxes) as incentives for new business, while Luttrell was more grudging, wanting to see more of a focus on "a strong educational system, safe streets, amenities in the community."
Ford and Luttrell differed even on whether Shelby County's was a "weak mayor" form of government. Ford said he had not found it to be the case, that there were ways in which the county mayor had more power than the city mayor.
• In the days following that first debate, Ford continued to make the most of his incumbency, though on two occasions it was in the face of what some saw as reverses. First, an add-on grant to the Med that the county mayor had described as a "promise" from Governor Phil Bredesen apparently vanished when Bredesen spelled out his wishes to the legislature. What the governor asked for, it turned out, was no more than authorization for a backup expenditure to the Med of $20 million, if a federal grant in that amount, which did in fact materialize, was not forthcoming.
Ford irately claimed that the state had reneged. "Another disappointment from Nashville," he called it.
And the interim mayor took another hit this week, at least temporarily, when, despite his defense of an appropriation for widening Holmes Road at a County Commission budget hearing, the commissioners present voted to cut funding for the project by a third.
"I know it feels good to change things, because I served on this body," Ford, a former long-term commissioner, said. "You have a balanced budget. We're working on next year's budget. The citizens of Memphis deserve Holmes Road."
The resolution of that skirmish awaited final action by the full commission, but it, like the setback in state funding for the Med, illustrated that incumbency has its perils as well as its advantages.