Robbie Coblentz: The debate that didn’t happen




Starting mid-morning May 6, the movement began to organize a televised debate between Parker Wiseman and Matt Cox before the Democratic run-off. The idea was to hold a debate with a moderator and format that would produce unscripted answers. A candidate would be asked a question, get two minutes to answer, and then his opponent would get two minutes to answer. The candidate with the first answer would get a minute followup. Both sides would be allowed to submit two questions ahead of time to the moderator, who would provide the other two for a total of six questions debated.


Calls and e-mails went out to both candidates. Details were close to being hammered out with one exception - who would moderate.


WCBI assignment editor Steve Rogers agreed to the job. Steve is a political veteran who has been in Golden Triangle media for a few years -- first at the Commercial Dispatch as an editor, then at WCBI.



The Cox campaign agreed with the choice. The Wiseman campaign did not.


Wiseman called it an "ambush." Ben Needham, campaign manager for Wiseman, pointed to a column Rogers wrote in mid-January speculating about who was running in the Starkville municipal elections. Here''s the piece in question:




The first week of qualifying for municipal elections produced one mild surprise in the region.


After being on-again, off-again for months about whether he was going to run, Dan Camp has qualified to seek a second term as mayor of Starkville. He can''t stand the thought of Ward 5 Alderman Matt Cox, the only other person to qualify so far, getting a free ride.


In recent weeks, the rumor was that Camp wasn''t going to run but that Parker Wiseman, a lawyer and the son of long-time Mississippi State University professor and noted political analyst Marty Wiseman, was. The younger Wiseman moved back to Starkville not too long ago and with the backing of Camp and his father''s name recognition, was thought to be a solid challenge for Cox, who has served one term on the Board of Aldermen.


But now that Camp has qualified, some say Wiseman still is considering a run. I doubt it; certainly his father will advise him against it.


Eric Parker, a Starkville home builder and another political newcomer, likely will make his first run for office against Ward 3 Alderman P.C. McLaurin. Parker has been considering the race for more than a year, especially since some of McLaurin''s supporters have become disenchanted with the long-time alderman.


The ward is the most conservative in the city and four years ago, McLaurin won by only about 50 votes against an unknown.


Lots of people have asked whether former Columbus Mayor Jeffrey Rupp is going to return to politics by running for alderman or even mayor in Starkville, where he works for MSU. I haven''t talked to him, but I wouldn''t bet on it.


He may have the political itch and his experience in Columbus could be an asset as an alderman, but I suspect he''ll sit this one out, opting instead to keep raising his two young daughters and working with the new MSU president to build the university.


Needham referred to this column as "disparaging" in a conversation I had with him late Wednesday afternoon.


Thursday morning was spent trying to salvage the debate. Rex Buffington from the Stennis Center for Public Service was mentioned as a possibility. The Cox campaign raised concerns because of personal affiliations Buffington has with both candidates.


Commercial Dispatch publisher and editor Birney Imes was contacted and agreed. The Cox campaign approved. The Wiseman campaign did not.


Needham pointed out Imes relationship with former Columbus mayor and Cox supporter Jeffrey Rupp. He said that Imes and Rupp were "college roommates and close friends."




According to both Imes and Rupp, neither ever roomed together. In fact, Rupp never directly worked for Imes at any time. Rupp''s friendship was with Frank Imes, Birney''s brother. Those two roomed together for a few months more than 10 years ago. Rupp worked for Frank when he was general manager of WCBI.


Why doesn''t Wiseman want to debate Cox? He rejected Rogers based on a small comment made at the end of a column in mid-January. He rejected Imes based on an incorrect fact.


As an attorney, Wiseman is trained to logically state and defend his position. Would a moderator who could only control two of six question be that large of a handicap for him?


I, and several other people, lost almost two days trying to put this thing together. The voters of Starkville lost a whole lot more.


Robbie Coblentz is the managing editor of StarkvilleNow, an online Web site featuring news and information about Starkville. His e-mail address is [email protected]




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