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The birth – and ultimate death of – Congressman Cohen’s ‘Miss Pearl’

  • Written by Bernal E Smith II
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.


0 #15 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 13:05
Quoting Memphis Lawyer:
I would just like us all to be intellectually honest when we discuss these issues.

Ricky Wilkins never represented the city or tax collection company in a single tax-related case. He just collected millions over the years for the contract. Interestingly enough, Ricky Wilkins percentage was roughly equal to the extra/illegal fees tacked on by the tax collection firm. Is this statement correct?
0 #14 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 13:04
Quoting Memphis Lawyer:

Ricky Wilkins introduced the tax collection firm to Mayor Herenton. Mayor Herenton awarded a no-bid contract. Wilkins got a finder's fee arrangement that paid him a percentage of what the firm collected every year.

Is this correct?
0 #13 Memphis Lawyer 2014-07-18 12:47
People can make all sorts of allegations in lawsuits and legal filings. It does not make them true, however. I would just like us all to be intellectually honest when we discuss these issues.
0 #12 Memphis Lawyer 2014-07-18 12:46
Wilkins did not set the property tax rates and Linebarger never actually collected any taxes. The City actually collected and received the taxes and took responsibility under its contract with Linebarger for setting the tax rates.
0 #11 Memphis Lawyer 2014-07-18 12:45
What this means is that Ricky Wilkins represented a client and his attorney's fees were percentage based. Just like Frank Watson's attorney's fees were percentage based. When Frank Watson sued Linebarger, and collected his fees, he did not receive taxes - just attorney's fees.
0 #10 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 12:06
"I have no comment," Ricky Wilkins said. "I represent Linebarger and I have for a number of years, and I'd prefer any questions about any of their claims be asked of (Linebarger's) legal representative."


I'm not an attorney or that smart but what does this mean?
0 #9 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 12:05
Wilkins agreed to accept a percentage of Linebarger's collections as his fee. Over the years of its contract, the company collected roughly $21.5 million from the fees paid by tardy taxpayers; Wilkins' fee was about 14.8 per cent of the amount.

"I did not inform the city or any city official of the fee Linebarger paid me," Ricky Wilkins said in a court filing.
0 #8 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 12:04
Court filings show that attorney Ricky Wilkins and his Memphis law firm were paid $3.2 million by Linebarger between 2004 and November 2012 after Wilkins helped Linebarger acquire a contract in 2004 with the city of Memphis.

In court filings, Ricky Wilkins said he was hired by Linebarger to represent the firm's interest in acquiring city business in 2002, while he still worked at Burch Porter & Johnson.
0 #7 Carter Williams 2014-07-18 12:03
Between 2004 and 2012, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson collected back property taxes for the city of Memphis and charged a 20 percent collection fee. A lawsuit challenged Linebarger’s 20 percent fee, citing a Tennessee law that limits attorneys’ fees for collecting delinquent taxes to no more than 10 percent. A $7.4 million settlement was reached in the property tax class action case against Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson.
0 #6 Memphis Lawyer 2014-07-18 11:08
Carter Williams,
Your statement is not not only incorrect, but is intellectually dishonest. Ricky Wilkins never received one dime from taxpayer money, never collected any delinquent taxes, and had absolutely no involvement in how the City of Memphis set its property tax rates. To imply that the lawyer for the firm charged with helping the City collect delinquent taxes is somehow a tax collector is akin to accusing a lawyer of murder because he represents an individual charged with murder.
+1 #5 Memphis Esquire 2014-07-18 00:28
Carter Williams, please make certain your statements are factual prior to posting. Mr. Wilkins does not regulate property taxes for the City of Memphis. You can address current and past politicians for the increase in taxes. Second, Mr. Wilkins did not generate millions in revenue for his firm from the city cases. When it comes to law firm billing standards, many firms cover the costs of everything from process servers to court reporters. Many of the fees generated likely fell in this category.
+1 #4 Abetter901 2014-07-17 22:21
Carter Williams how about the other lawyers @ previous administrations who made money or continue to make money. Your bias is transparent.
How much is Cohen paying you to troll?

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