Though as stunned as the rest of us when he got the news last week about Mayor Willie Herenton's proposed congressional race, 9th District incumbent Steve Cohen quickly rallied his fighting spirit and pronounced the impending affair to be a
showdown on the order of the 1975 "Thrilla in Manila," the name given to the rubber match between heavyweight boxing legends Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
We do wonder which of the two politicians is supposed to be which pugilist, but the analogy certainly holds in that both Herenton and Cohen can lay claim to championship status, as Ali and Frazier could and did on the eve of their epochal three-bout showdown.
So if it actually takes place, we expect to be entertained — indeed, to have our attention riveted by a Herenton-Cohen matchup. But we do wonder: Is there any real point, other than its marquee value, to such a contest? Will it even take place?
Are we really to believe that a man who'll be 70, when and if elected, who brooks no rivals, and has several times disparaged the office of congressman as pitifully insignificant compared to the office of mayor, and who, moreover, reportedly hates flying, is willing to board an airplane at least twice a week for the honor of being one member, and a freshman member at that, of a 435-member legislative body?
The prospect commands as little credibility as did the likelihood, in 2007, that a visibly burnt-out and unhappy Willie Herenton running for a fifth term would still possess enough real interest in the job to serve out that term. And, indeed, no sooner had Herenton accomplished the goal of turning back rivals Carol Chumney and Herman Morris that year than he began scouting around for other, more interesting vistas — like becoming school superintendent again or, having been rebuffed in that ambition, serving in Congress. Yeah, that's it. That's the ticket.
Which is not to say the race won't come off — just that there's no real reason for it to. Though he has occasionally been able to enunciate a compelling Big Idea on the local scene (follow-through has always been another matter), Herenton has never evinced much interest in national or international affairs. Cohen, on the other hand, always seemed fascinated by them, though his long service in the state Senate was more than sufficiently attentive and focused. Congress, though, is clearly Cohen's briar patch — a place where he romps with zeal and effectiveness on behalf of his constituents.
There are those who maintain that Herenton unloosed his bombshell announcement last week to deflect attention from what many people see as a highly suspect budget prospectus or from an ever-escalating federal investigation into his business affairs. Others suspect that the mayor is running a bluff in order to court friendly relations with a U.S. attorney's office that hasn't even been reconstituted yet.
Or maybe Herenton is just bored and is talking up a congressional race to excite himself as much as anyone else.
For fair reason or foul or for no reason at all, however, the Herenton-Cohen race might still come off. And, from this juncture, anyhow, it would seem to possess the one feature which would amply justify Cohen's "Thrilla in Manila" analogy: Nobody knows how it would come out.