It was Monday morning, July 7th, and I was up early to start the workweek. I’d spent Independence Day and Essence Festival weekend in New Orleans and in nearby Houma, La., where I visited family and friends. Heading into the office while listening to Clear Channel Radio station KJMS V101, my ears were disturbed by a political ad that harkened back to a day when freedom did not ring nearly loud enough for African Americans.
A character by the name of Miss Pearl, obviously the brainchild of Congressman Steve Cohen’s campaign, spoke in a tone and manner reminiscent of the Aunt-Jemima stereotype about President Obama’s support of Cohen’s reelection campaign.
“Cohen stood up for Obama, now it’s our turn to stand up for him,” said Miss Pearl. Wow, I simply could not believe my ears. The unmitigated gall to even produce an ad with this level of race-focused pandering and condescending admonishments was and simply is unacceptable for any candidate and certainly one with the history and experience of Cohen.
As I was contemplating writing this piece I received a call from the incumbent Congressman and subsequently had two additional phone calls and conversations. I was glad to hear directly from him regarding how such a disrespectful and demeaning ad targeting African-American voters could come out of his campaign.
I listened intently to his explanation of how and why the ads were generated and how they got played on the radio station. He said the ads were the idea of his senior advisor, Jerry Austin, a well-respected political advisor who had worked on the campaigns of a number of members of Congress, as well as that of President Obama. Cohen pointed out that in previous campaigns the voice of former 103.5 on-air personality and comedian Mother Wit was used on radio ads that went over well. Unable to find Mother Wit, they attempted to recreate and channel her voice, energy and personality through the character of Miss Pearl.
According to Cohen, several advisors, including African Americans, told him “the ad was OK and to move forward with it.” He “approved the text, the content of the ad” but once he heard the ad he told them to “kill it.” Cohen said the ads were never meant to run on the air, but it was too late to pull them before the first ones were played. I confirmed with Clear Channel Radio Market Manager Morgan Bohannon that the ads ran on Monday, July 7th on KJMS and Hallelujah FM.
There are a number of problems with the Congressman’s explanation. First, as a senior statesman with a 30-year history of service and a track record of solid work, the buck ultimately stops with him.
The script chose to play to the connection between African Americans in the 9th Congressional district and President Obama, the first African American elected (now twice) President. Maybe that’s an acceptable strategy. However, I would wager that voters are less concerned with the endorsement by the President than with Cohen’s consistent efforts to bring to bear legislation and resources to positively impact their lives. Maybe they are a bit more eager to hear about efforts now in motion that warrant sending him back to Congress to complete.
The script slaps voters with the not-so-subtle message that Cohen’s support of the President has somehow created a debt for them that has now come due in the form of their votes.
The voters of the district deserve better. Add in the tone and caricature of Miss Pearl and the ad evokes the issue of race in the most condescending and demeaning way.
Previously, Congressman Cohen has proclaimed the end of race-based voting in Shelby County, asserting that voters had moved beyond that issue in his successful campaigns against several other candidates who are African Americans. Now, it is not his Democratic Primary opponent, who happens to be well qualified and African American, who has pulled the race card, but the Cohen campaign.
In our conversations, Congressman Cohen acknowledged that he felt and sensed the vitriol from some in the community about the ad. It’s a backlash born of a long frustration with oversimplification and discounting of the true needs, value and desires of African-American voters in this community and throughout this country.
The ad assumes a simplistic, non-cerebral voter needing to be reminded by “Mammy” that the Congressman is a good guy deserving of our support. No consideration of the state and needs of the community. No consideration for the record and contributions of the incumbent. Nope, just “Cohen stood up for Obama, now it’s our turn to stand up for him!” For people who for too long have gotten the short end of the stick and caught the majority of hell in this community, that simply isn’t enough.
After thoroughly contemplating the ad and my discussions with Congressman Cohen, I asked myself these questions: Why wouldn’t the Cohen campaign focus on a stellar record rather than race? Why hasn’t he debated his last three opponents in a public debate despite calls to do so? (The TSD would love to host a debate and has attempted to do so previously only to be declined.) Do the voters not deserve it?
Mistakes do happen and clearly this was one. Once rung there is no un-ringing of the bell, one must simply deal with the ripples. Whether driven by the Congressman or his advisors, the Miss Pearl ad reflects a lack of respect and appreciation for the issues and needs of many in the district. That something like that could even be birthed in the midst of his campaign – no matter the mother – causes one to question the culture, tone and tenor of the campaign.
While I sensed Congressman Cohen’s sincerity during our conversation, he expressed no responsibility for those that created Miss Pearl on his behalf. In fact, I sensed that he felt like the victim of unfair criticism and attacks.
That ad is a reminder of so many things that are wrong with our way of electing leadership in this community, and many rightfully resent it. Given the state of things in our city and county, what the voters truly need is progressive leadership that won’t offer or accept pandering and backwards approaches that yield the same old outcomes. The community is calling for leadership to accept responsibility in making things right, not making excuses and passing blame.
After Congressman Cohen’s 30 years of public service and a track record of positive accomplishments for this city, county and state, I expect more and so does the community. Yes, the Congressman ordered his team to “kill” the Miss Pearl ads, but the reality is they never should have been born.