Remembering Gwen Ifill and a crazy debate in Baltimore

One of Gwen Ifill's first televised debates was memorably crazy

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" Murphy Jr., 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 much that 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.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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