Concerning One’s “Ept-ness”

Jackson Baker throws a peace sign at Bratfest
Photo by T. Sharp

Jackson Baker’s been around the political block a time or two…or maybe twelve. So when confronted with an angry Willie Herenton at last week’s impromptu press conference right outside the Cohen for Congress headquarters, Jackson took it in stride.

From the article:

My question for the former mayor at the impromptu press conference he invited was this: How could he not have known, way back last year when he first agreed to debate Cohen on News Channel 3, that WREG-TV commentator Norm Brewer and Commercial Appeal opinion editor Otis Sanford would be the panelists asking questions?

These two had been the core personnel — the staples, in fact — of every election-year debate on WREG (and there have been many) since 2002, when the station and The Commercial Appeal became official “news partners.”

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, in point of fact, 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.”

Jackson’s analysis that follows this account of the exchange is spot on. This entire imbroglio is nothing more than a publicity stunt on Herenton’s part, and Cohen’s resistance to altering the debate schedule is pretty standard practice for a front-runner who, as Jackson says, “has nothing much to gain from offering his opponent… an endless series of joint appearances”.

A scenario similar to this is currently going on in the TN-08 race between presumed front-runner Stephen Fincher and Ron Kirkland.

This kind of political gamesmanship is not unique to these races. In fact, this same scenario is played out over and over again in races big and small all across the country.

There’s a conventional wisdom that debate appearances are primarily about informing the public of various candidate’s positions. The reality is, in most cases very few people actually watch these debates. Most only see the highlights played on an endless loop on the evening news.

Candidates know this, which is why debates are negotiated carefully and usually, well in advance.

Challengers typically want as many joint appearances as possible with the incumbent or front-runner because it gives them more free media, something they usually need badly, and elevates them to voters. Front-runners and incumbents are loathe to schedule too many debates, because why should they willingly give their opposition a platform to elevate themselves when said opposition is usually under-funded, and less well known.

But this scenario shouldn’t be the case in the Cohen-Herenton matchup. Both are known quantities; Herenton, as Mayor of Memphis for nearly 20 years, Cohen as a legislator in State and Federal government.

So Herenton’s decision to cede some ground by basically casting himself as the underdog is a recognition on his part that he needs more exposure despite the fact that his long tenure as Mayor gives him something that most challengers don’t have, ready name recognition and a solid voter-base. But its also something else; it is Willie Herenton taking the role that he’s most comfortable with, the guy who is trying to fight “the system”.

Invoking an “entrenched Republican” and the Ford family name in this forum was very calculated on Herenton’s part. Herenton needs to play the role of the guy fighting “the system” to ignite his base, a base that doesn’t necessarily always head to the polls for primary elections.

How this all plays out will be interesting to watch, as is any campaign featuring the former Mayor. How much positive impact it will have on the former Mayor’s campaign however, is yet to be determined.

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