Turning Things Around 

Lowery's "Open House" arrests a landslide; Cohen's "Town Meeting" aborts a riot.

click to enlarge Myron Lowery with Joe Birch
  • Myron Lowery with Joe Birch

The six weeks from June 25th, when then Mayor Willie Herenton announced in the Hall of Mayors that he would be resigning, to last Wednesday, August 5th, when Chancellor Walter Evans protected city attorney Elbert Jefferson from firing by awarding him, in essence, indefinite tenure in office, were not good times overall for Myron Lowery.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Lowery, who sometimes seems tone-deaf politically, should not have attempted to pre-empt the dais on Herenton's resignation day for his own Alexander Haig-like I-am-in-command moment. Herenton resented it to the point of sabotaging then-City Council chairman Lowery's attempts to stage-manage a full-fledged transition.

Then, only minutes after taking the oath as mayor pro tem on Friday before last, Lowery erred again by showing Jefferson the door — quite literally — without any prior effort at clearing the way with a council whose offended African-American majority plainly stood ready to block Jefferson's discharge. Evans' subsequent ruling effectively concluded a disastrous opening act in which Lowery clearly hoped to have established himself as a take-charge "good government" mayor for real, thereby to gain traction in his long-odds race for city mayor.

However, whether he is destined to be a caretaker fill-in or something else, Lowery's "open house" at City Hall last Friday, in which the mayor's office itself was opened to public inspection and directors of city departments made themselves freely available, was a winner in every respect. Lowery himself exuded charm and a deft sense of control, and when new council chairman Harold Collins insisted privately that the council was ready to cooperate with Lowery and that much could still be accomplished before the forthcoming October 15th special election, a successful interregnum began to seem possible after all.

As he welcomed visitors into the seventh-floor office which, under Herenton, had been something of a closely guarded inner sanctum, Lowery was hearty and affable. He indulged himself in some playful irony when WMC-TV anchor Joe Birch entered. As he would with many another visitor, Lowery suggested that Birch sit down at the mayor's desk.

"No, that's your chair," said the deferential newsman. "Well, I'd swap it for your chair," answered Lowery wistfully. It was a reminder of his own time at the station some decades back when, as a weekend anchor, he had aspired to the job later inherited by Birch. Denied the promotion, Lowery resorted to litigation, and there was finally a settlement.

It was all smiles on Friday, though, and that unpleasantness, too, seemed long gone.

In the previous 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.

Judged by those precedents, 9th district congressman Steve Cohen did well indeed last Saturday, when it was his turn to take on the issue at a "Town Hall" meeting 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 more, 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!"

Cohen, assisted by an all-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 — such as 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.

Too, there were physicians — like Joe Weinberg and Jeff Warren — who delivered reasoned and passionate defenses of the brewing legislation or of something like it.

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.

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, and held out his hand to the congressman to thank him for holding the meeting and doing so fairly.

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 that 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. Certain themes recurred. Various speakers and shouters condemned the concept of "government" medicine, giving Cohen the opportunity at several occasions to underscore 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 draft legislation did nothing, despite suspicions to the contrary, to alter the current state of physicians' freedom of action regarding abortion nor to legitimize euthanasia. He noted, to what sounded through the hubbub like audience approval, that the bill would extend insurance coverage to patients with pre-existing medical conditions.

Though he took an equivocal stand in favor of the final congressional bill 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.

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.

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