Red Herring 

Behind Herenton's grandstand debate ploy of last week may be a canny gambit.

Okay, lookit, and this is for those who commiserated with me following a semi-public run-in with former Mayor Willie Herenton last week, as well as for those who congratulated me.

Thanks in both cases. The reactions were appreciated, but neither was, strictly speaking, called for. The fact is, I don't need consoling. Being dissed by the ex-mayor in the line of duty is roughly akin to a batter's having to lean back from a high hard one. It goes with the game, and it shows a kind of respect on the part of the pitcher.

I wasn't bothered, honest. To tell the truth, I kinda enjoyed the whole thing.

Nor did I do anything heroic. To stick with the baseball analogy, the important thing is to do justice to the at-bat. You're up at the plate to make contact, that's all.

To reprise: Herenton turned up last Friday at the campaign headquarters of his Democratic primary rival, incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen. He had two missions — the one dependent on the other. He was there to charge that Cohen had stiffed him and various other people interested in seeing debates between the two. And, overriding that, he was there to get free media for an under-financed, under-organized campaign, which has largely been nonexistent.

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."

As did — and do — I. One need not be clairvoyant, merely open-eyed, to see that the ex-mayor's pretense concerning Brewer and Sanford has been disingenuous. And so, to a degree, is Cohen's righteous protestation that, in fidelity to open covenants openly arrived at and the professional reputation of the slandered journalists, he could not consider other debate formats at other stations and venues.

The fact is that, as the putative front-runner with a campaign on track and seemingly running well, Cohen has nothing much to gain from offering his opponent, well behind in such polls as have been taken, an endless series of joint appearances. And the congressman can claim with some justice that he has work to do.

And the other fact is Herenton needs such encounters, as many as can be arranged, and needs them desperately. It should not be forgotten that, as Herenton himself noted, the man has never lost an election, and — hapless campaign or no hapless campaign — for an opponent to give him endless (and free) opportunities to catch fire would be foolish.

Here's my theory as to what's really going on here: Herenton is clearly trying to bait the congressman into more debates, and he may be willing, in some dramatic moment of apparent concession, to offer to accept the maligned Brewer and Sanford as moderators in return for Cohen's agreeing to more public one-on-ones.

Just a guess, be it ept or inept.

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