Gwen Ifill and a crazy de­bate in Baltimore

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - Dan Ro­dricks­dricks@balt­

One of Gwen Ifill’s first tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances came in Baltimore dur­ing what was prob­a­bly the most amaz­ing po­lit­i­cal de­bate in the city’s his­tory: the may­oral fo­rum of July 1983, pit­ting the in­cum­bent mayor, Wil­liam Don­ald Schae­fer, against Wil­liam H. “Billy” Mur­phyJr., lawyer and dis­turber of the peace — and both of them against an angry ec­cen­tric named Mon­roe Cor­nish.

You’ve never seen any­thing like it, my friends, and though Gwen went on to serve as mod­er­a­tor of vice pres­i­den­tial de­bates in 2004 (Cheney vs. Edwards) and 2008 (Palin vs. Bi­den), I’m sure “the Mon­roe Cor­nish de­bate” lived as large in her mem­ory. It seems like an amus­ing story — a rem­i­nis­cence of re­porters and po­lit­i­cal junkies — but at the time, it was kind of dis­turb­ing.

Cor­nish shouted at the mod­er­a­tor and pointed at him men­ac­ingly through­out the de­bate. He called Schae­fer’s state­ments a “bunch of garbage” and claimed to have se­cret in­for­ma­tion about the 1981 at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Ron­ald Rea­gan by John Hinck­ley. All of this on tele­vi­sion, car­ried live, in prime time, by all three network af­fil­i­ates.

Gwen, who cov­ered City Hall, was a de­bate pan­elist and, of course, those of us who worked with her at The Evening Sun were proud to see her get her shot on TV. We just didn’t ex­pect Cor­nish. He pretty much ate the de­bate.

Af­ter about 30 min­utes, when it was clear the mod­er­a­tor’s ef­forts to con­trol Cor­nish were fu­tile — “That’s a bunch of garbage!” — Gwen got to ask a ques­tion. Her sub­ject was the need for af­ford­able hous­ing in the city.

Har­bor­place had opened by then, and the Baltimore re­nais­sance had made the cover of Time magazine. Schae­fer, seek­ing his third term, cam­paigned on his record. Mur­phy cam­paigned on “the other Baltimore,” say­ing that Schae­fer’s em­pha­sis on down­town re­de­vel­op­ment had left many neigh­bor­hoods to tot­ter. (Sound fa­mil­iar?)

“The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is with­draw­ing sup­port for the hous­ing in­dus­try that Baltimore has come to de­pend on,” Gwen said, and noted the re­duc­tion of funds from Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the early Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Yet there are still 42,000 peo­ple on wait­ing lists for sub­si­dized hous­ing in Baltimore. How is Baltimore go­ing to go about hous­ing its low-in­come res­i­dents over the next four years?”

Schae­fer an­swered. Mur­phy an­swered. An­other can­di­date, Lawrence Free­man, an­swered.

Then came Cor­nish: “This ques­tion of hous­ing Baltimore’s poor is a bunch of garbage. And I have in my hand right here, sir, that Baltimore City po­lice of­fi­cers have been fol­low­ing about 42,000 mem­bers of the black com­mu­nity, the white com­mu­nity, the Jewish com­mu­nity and the Ital­ian com­mu­nity since 1965. … Now, how can any­body pay their bills, or have a home, whether they’re old or young, if the Baltimore City po­lice of­fi­cers can fol­low be­hind them and say, look, flash a badge, and then de­fame that per­son’s name?”

Dur­ing a dis­cus­sion of neigh­bor­hood in­vest­ment, Schae­fer said a sec­tion of Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue once had been so in­fested with crime no one felt safe to go there. Cor­nish jumped right on that: “No­body in the black com­mu­nity has ever been afraid to go down Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue. Maybe Mayor Schae­fer has been afraid, but I haven’t been, no mem­bers of my fam­ily, no one that I know of.” He then re­turned to his as­ser­tion that po­lice were fol­low­ing thou­sands of peo­ple “with crim­i­nal in­tent.”

It went like this for 60 sur­real min­utes, with­out com­mer­cial in­ter­rup­tion. It left ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Gwen, in shock and awe.

I tell the story to­day be­cause it’s my way of re­mem­ber­ing Gwen, whom I adored when she was here. She was so great to work with, al­ways pos­i­tive and in­formed, a tough but fair re­porter with a strong eth­i­cal core.

Mur­phy’s Demo­cratic pri­mary cam­paign against Schae­fer, though un­suc­cess­ful, was im­por­tant be­cause it raised se­ri­ous ques­tions about the city’s pri­or­i­ties. We un­der­stood that Schae­fer needed to stop the bleed­ing; he needed to slow the white flight from the city and push the wa­ter­front as a new des­ti­na­tion for tourists and con­ven­tion­eers. So muchthat re­mains good about Baltimore took shape in those days, but Mur­phy was right — and Schae­fer later agreed with him pub­licly — that some­thing was ter­ri­bly wrong in the city’s poor­est neigh­bor­hoods. Gwen was here for that. I was sorry to see her leave The Evening Sun — her time in Baltimore was too brief — but we knew she was headed for great things. I did not fore­see a tele­vi­sion ca­reer for her; I don’t re­mem­ber her ever dis­cussing it. But when it hap­pened, when I saw her an­chor­ing the news or lead­ing dis­cus­sions on PBS, when I saw her mod­er­at­ing the vice pres­i­den­tial de­bates, I smiled with pride and re­mem­bered the hot sum­mer of 1983 and that crazy de­bate.

We laughed about it the last time I saw her, two years ago, and I thought for sure there would be an­other time, down the road, when I’d see Gwen’s amaz­ing smile again and hear her laugh.

Rest in peace.

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