Saturday, August 8, 2009

Out of Chaos, Cohen Manages a Bona Fide "Town Meeting" on Health Care

Posted By on Sat, Aug 8, 2009 at 8:32 PM

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  • JB

In the last week we had all seen the network newsclips of turmoil and shouting and the close-ups of confused and cowed legislators in this city or that who were prevented from conducting public dialogues on pending national-health measures in Congress.

  • JB

Judged by those precedents, 9th district congressman Steve Cohen did well indeed when it was his turn to take on the issue at a Town Hall meeting, held Saturday in the huge, barn-like confines of the Bridges Center downtown.

The structure was, as they say, filled to the rafters, with several hundred, maybe a thousand or two attendees, the great majority of whom seemed to be worked up to a frenzy, one way or another. Undeniably, naysayers — organized and otherwise — predominated, with high-decibel noise of all kinds, including groans, cheers, and persistent chants of “term limits!,” “tort reform!” and “read the bill!”

  • JB

Cohen, assisted by a full-out effort on the part of his overloaded staff, was able, despite the din, to maintain order and get statements made from the podium that reflected both, or rather all, sides to the current health-care debate. There were physicians — like Drs. James J. Klemis and Frank McGrew — who made reasoned and steadfast objections to a developing bill that may or may not end up with a “public” (i.e., government-managed) option for the medical-insurance seeker. There were also physicians — like Drs. Joe Weinberg and Jeff Warren — who delivered reasoned and passionate defenses of the brewing legislation, or of something like it.

There was also a drumfire of more rabid and demagogic statements made, from the podium and elsewhere, and there’s nothing much to be gained from apportioning it out as to pro and con. The point was that a dialogue was created and maintained, despite all odds. Cohen was able to establish the fact that he had indeed “read the bill,” as had most of the others who were able to address the throng.

  • JB

One speaker, with a nod to known sports nut Cohen, likened the bedlam in the audience to someone’s trying to hold a pep rally before a University of Memphis-Louisville grudge match and filling the auditorium with both student bodies at once.

At one point, as if to challenge the very fates, Cohen strode down the center aisle amid this cacophony of contending partisans, delivered his response to a question, and, after doing so, returned unscathed to the podium. (That feat, like the relative order of the proceedings, may of course have been enabled by the conspicuous presence of uniformed city and county security officers — yet another credit due to local district chief Randy Wade and the rest of the farsighted Cohen staff, especially since there were unconfirmed reports that guns may have been confiscated from some of those entering.)

At the end of the proceedings, Stuart Ellard, an opponent of the bill now pending in Congress and a self-professed foe of “liberals” in general, made his way to the head table, penetrated the crowd collected around Cohen to hold out his hand to the congressman and thank him for holding the meeting and doing so fairly.

  • JB

Not that everybody was so happy. Jane Pierotti, a professional consultant and local Republican activist, complained to a newsman that the questions presented to the congressman for reply had been “screened” by his staff to be one-sided. “We couldn’t ask everything we wanted to,” she said.

To this a Cohen staffer would note common-sensically that attempting the usual mode of having a mike line and accepting questions at random would very likely have degenerated into chaos. “We made every effort to group the questions by subject matter, and no other criteria. We made no effort to judge their point of view,” she said.

And, indeed, there was a fair amount of redundancy to the questions. Usually that’s anathema to the success of a “town hall” assembly. In this case, given the volume and persistence of shouts, applause, and interruptions, the repetitiousness was an aide to framing both the basic questions and the range of answers.

  • JB

Certain themes recurred. Various speakers and shouters condemned the concept of “government” medicine, giving Cohen the opportunity at several occasions of underscoring the irony of that complaint by noting the general acceptance of such venerable institutions as V.A. hospitals, military medical corps, and Medicare. Indeed, when he asked those audience members to stand who approved the achievements of Medicare, undeniably a form of “government” medicine, a majority of the audience seemed to rise, even many (and not all of them elderly) who had been hurling verbal abuse at the proposed bill.

Cohen was able, too, to point out that the bill did nothing, despite suspicions to the contrary, to alter the current state of physicians’ freedom of action regarding abortion, nor to legitimize euthanasia or unpopular or illegal forms of sexual practice. He noted, to what sounded through the hubbub like audience approval, that the bill would extend insurance coverage to patients with pre-existing meedical conditions.

Though he took an equivocal stand in favor of the final congressional bill’s containing a public option (for which he received as many cheers as boos), Cohen refused to say in advance whether he would vote for it, contending that to make such a declaration would be irresponsible without knowing what the bill ultimately would involve.

  • JB

As the meeting wore toward its close, there were even moments of general agreement, as when one questioner wondered about the prospect of converting The Pyramid, a nearby structure which continues to be unused, into a facility to be administered by the Smithsonian. The crowd murmured its approval, no one seeming to mind the suggestion of “government” administration.

As noted above, Cohen and other participants were swarmed over by attendees when the meeting broke up, but this was no hostile melee — rather a continuation of a conversation on national health care which, miraculously enough, had actually gotten under way.

There were those, generally proponents of the congressional bill, who would argue later on that the rowdiness of the meeting had been an “embarrassment” to the city. At least one journalist complained of being manhandled by someone in the crowd. A photographer got into a shoving match with a heckler. And the sound system, which sometimes dissolved into unintelligible electronic mud, left much to be desired.

But again, given the recent precedents of disrupted meetings and frustrated dialogues in other cities, Saturday’s “Town Hall” was a model of decorum and light. Cohen and his staff have reason to be proud.

UPDATE: Given the fact that so many Tea Partiers slammed away at my innocent if ignorant original usage of the term “TeaBaggers” to describe them in a previous post, this note from an authentic Shelby County conservative and patriot sheds some light on the recent history of that term as applied to health-care protesters.

TeaPartiers Aiming at Cohen Meet

Posted By on Sat, Aug 8, 2009 at 7:57 AM

TeaParty Protesters in Germantown - JB
  • JB
  • TeaParty Protesters in Germantown

On the eve of a 9th District congressman Steve Cohen's Saturday Town Hall meeting on health-care legislation at the Bridges Center downtown, TeaBag Tea Party protesters rallied Thursday night in Germantown and made plans to show up at the planned informational session en masse.

The TeaBagger TeaPartier meeting, an overflow from a scheduled Town Hall meeting held by 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, an opponent of the bill now shaping up in Congress, was conducted on the parking lot adjoining the Macaroni Grill, where Blackburn's meeting had been originally scheduled.

Rep. Blackburn addressing TeaParty crowd - JB
  • JB
  • Rep. Blackburn addressing TeaParty crowd

Simultaneous with the organized TeaBagger TeaPartier effort, health-care supporters made their own plans to attend the Cohen Town Hall. Members of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, among others, prepared to counter what they foresaw as the TeaBaggers' TeaPartiers' planned disruption, part of a pattern of national protests, and held organizational meetings for the purpose.

A spokesperson for Cohen said the congressman himself was fully aware of the imminent convergence of forces and was determined to to get the message out about the pending health-care legislation.

The Flyer will provide pictures and coverage of the Saturday morning event.

UPDATE NOTE: Even before an additional story providing the promised coverage of Saturday's Town Hall event goes up — as it will later Saturday — it is worth noting that the term "TeaBagger" is essentially a self-description of the conservative populists who began these protests of Obama administration programs several weeks ago.

Indeed, "TeaBag parties" as a phenomenon entered the political lexicon at the behest of the protesters themselves. It obviously derives from the "Tea Parties" held by American patriots in protest of British tax policies before the Revolutionary War.

Given that fact, it is passing strange and beyond thin-skinned for several commenters here to belabor the fact that the term is used generically in this brief article.

It is certainly gratifying, though, that so many people have beeen moved to read the article so as to comment on it one way or another. — JB

UPDATE of UPDATE. Seems I was mistaken. As I tried to explain to some of the unforgiving complainants below, I'm too much of a shut-in and mope to have grasped the apparent sexual metaphor and (therefore) insult in the term "teabagger." "Tea Partier" it is. No offense intended. Honest. A thousand pardons and mercy on me.

ONE MORE UPDATE: Given the fact that so many Tea Partiers slammed away here at my innocent if ignorant original usage of the term “TeaBaggers” to describe them (since corrected), this note from an authentic Shelby County conservative and patriot sheds some light on the recent history of that term as applied to health-care protesters.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Conrad Won't Run for Mayor

Posted By on Thu, Aug 6, 2009 at 1:33 PM

Scarcely a week after his colleague Jim Strickland opted out of a race for mayor in the October 15 special election, councilman Kemp Conrad followed suit Thursday, saying he wouldn't be a candidate this year but not closing the door on the possibility of future mayoral runs.

"All I hope to do right now is do the most effective job on the council that I can and help the mayor pro tem [Myron Lowery] and whoever gets elected in October succeed," Conrad said.

Although he acknowledged that the possibility of stalemate in city government still exists — particularly after such events as the imbroglio over Lowery's attempted firing of city attorney Elbert Jefferson — Conrad contended that relations between the council and the mayor's office are bound to improve in the wake of former Mayor Willie Herenton's resignation. "They had become downright poisonous," Conrad said.

He praised Lowery's choice of Jack Sammons as acting CAO and said that Sammons would be of enormous help to Lowery in restoring an atmosphere of amity and trust.

"I agree with Myron that we can still get a lot of positive things done in the next few weeks," Conrad said.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Election Commission Does the Obvious, Sets a Common Date for Mayoral, Senate Votes

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2009 at 9:00 AM

Giannini explains things to the media. - J.B.
  • j.b.
  • Giannini explains things to the media.

With dispatch and unanimity, the five members of the Shelby County Election Commission agreed Tuesday afternoon to reset the special mayoral election from October 27h to October 15th and to set the latter date, contingent on Governor Phil Bredesen's consent, as the appropriate one for the Democratic and Republican primaries for state Senate District 31.

As commission chairman Bill Giannini and commission director Rich Holden explained it the media, the change would save the taxpayers some $160,00 by avoiding separate votes in those city precincts which also belong to District 31.

Mayor Willie Herenton's recent retirement made the mayoral special election necessary, and the resignation of scandal-plagued state Senator Paul Stanley created the need for another special election to replace him. Governor Bredesen must still issue the writ for the special Senate election, but Giannini and Holden said that preliminary discussions with the governor's office indicated that agreement was likely on the October 15th primary date. Once it is settled on, a subsequent general election date for the Senate seat must be agreed on — "between 40 and 47 days after the primary," said Giannini.

Yet another reason for changing the mayoral election date was the fact, as the two SCEC officials explained it, that state law, which calls for a 60-day maximum from the time a vacancy is declared, trumps the city charter, which allows for a maximum of 90 days before an election must be held. As Giannini noted, the new mayoral-election date of October 15th satisfies both sets of criteria.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Confusion Reigns in Political Ranks In Wake of Herenton Withdrawal

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 10:33 AM


The mayoral succession to Willie Herenton, the dominant figure in Memphis city politics for the better part of two decades, is now beginning to resemble the situation in Yugoslavia in the early ‘90s after the death of that country’s long-time dictator, Marshal Tito.

Not only did rivals of every sort begin staking their claims to power, but the country itself broke up into fragments — Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, etc., etc., and the process is continuing even today. Nobody expects that kind of Balkanization to occur in Memphis. The city is the city and will remain so.

But the power struggle is something else. For years, ever since it became obvious that Herenton wanted to take leave of the mayor’s office before his term expired, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton has been reckoned the odds-on favorite to succeed him. Even now, the major challenge to that assumption has come from Wharton’s own expression of concern about the size of the prospective October 27th special election field two weeks ago.

Wharton worried out loud that a plethora of niche candidates could create a “fluke” situation with an unexpected victor. And a day after he had formally left office, leaving city council chairman Myron Lowery in charge as “mayor pro tem,” Herenton, too, advanced the notion that the special election would be a “crapshoot,” one which “anybody can win.”

The “anybody” in question at the time was a relatively smallish field consisting of Wharton, Lowery, former city council member Carol Chumney, lawyer and Herenton intimate Charles Carpenter, WWE wrestler/commentator Jerry Lawler, maverick school board member the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., and businessman/Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey. Lawyer Jim Strickland, who had been considered a strong contender, had decided against running after commissioning and digesting a poll.

Lowery, whose early wish to have an orderly transition and head up an activist interim government had been quashed by Herenton, was reeling anew this week after his post-swearing-in effort to fire city attorney Elbert Jefferson had angered fellow council members and been blocked, at least temporarily, by a judicial injunction.

Coincidentally or not, that imbroglio coincided with a second wave of mayoral candidates — including, it would seem, city court clerk Thomas Long, city council member Wanda Halbert, and former city council member Edmund Ford Sr. Nor, with ample time left before the September 17th filing date for candidacies, is there reason to believe that the parade of new hopefuls is over.

Clearly, there is a power vacuum in Memphis at the moment, and the fact that nature abhors a vacuum is a bona fide physical law, one that applies to politics as well. The present confusion in the city’s political ranks is a case in point.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Herenton Sees No Clear Winner in Special Mayoral Election

Posted By on Sat, Aug 1, 2009 at 7:51 AM

61f2/1249131515-herenton_profile.jpgDressed nattily with a blue blazer and silk rep tie and looking relaxed as he talked to reporters Friday in the Hall of Mayors before interim mayor Myron Lowery’s swearing-in ceremony, the man who would shortly describe himself from the podium as “former mayor Willie Herenton” discoursed briefly on the forthcoming October 27th election that will determine his permanent successor.

“I really would like to see someone who really has a passion for the city,” Herenton said. “I don’t want to see someone become the mayor because it’s a political stepping-stone.” He assumed the look of a man exasperated by the follies of others. “There’s some euphoria in the air about being mayor. This is a tough job. It requires a lot of managerial skill, some toughness. You’ve got a lot of people who think they can do it, but it’s a tough job.”

As he had in a sit-down interview with the Flyer several weeks ago after announcing his resignation, Herenton said he expected minimal public interest in the struggle among his would-be successors. “I’m not sure you’re going to see a lot of excitement about this mayoral race.” But he acknowledged that most of the declared contenders had “strong egos and a sense of determination that they can win” and said, “I don’t think we’ll see many dropouts.”

Unlike observers who see the forthcoming special mayoral election as a slam dunk for Shelby County Mayor a C Wharton, Herenton saw it as a free-for-all. “Conceivably, depending on the turnout, there could be a victory with, perhaps, no more than 30 thousand votes.”

Someone asked: Did that mean that a celebrity candidate like WWE wrestler-commentator Jerry Lawler had a chance? The ex-mayor regarded the question seriously. “Jerry ran in a race that I was involved in a few years ago [1999] and got a substantial number of votes.” He repeated: “It’s kind of like a crapshoot. Anybody can win.”

Had he been surprised by city councilman Jim Strickland’s dropout from consideration?
Herenton shrugged. “I don’t know all the politics of what they’re discussing. I think he saw some polls, maybe.”


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