Lee Harris vs David Lenoir: The Shelby County Mayor’s forum that almost wasn’t

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by Michelle Wilson Bradley, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

First it was on, then it was off and then it was back on again after a controversial move to change moderators. That was the backdrop as State Sen. Lee Harris and Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir met for a forum at the National Civil Rights Museum on Tuesday evening.

With Karanja A. Ajanaku, The New Tri-State Defender’s Associate Publisher/Executive Editor, stepping in to moderate on morning-of-debate notice, Harris and Lenoir fielded questions before a crowd of 200-plus at the forum sponsored by VIP 901 (Voting is Power); the National Association of Health Services Executives) and the Memphis Branch NAACP.

The controversy was rooted in Lenoir’s objection to the scheduled moderator, Wendi C. Thomas, the editorial force driving MLK50: Justice Through Journalism.

“I was aware when the previous moderator was selected,” Lenoir said. “When I became aware of biased public statements after her selection as a moderator I went to the NAACP and asked that they change the moderator,” Lenoir said in his opening statement.

“I don’t mind having a debate and a difficult conversation, but I want to do it where it is objective and that’s all my request was. …You (the NAACP) did not have to (honor the request) and you did. And for that, I am grateful.”

Thomas later made this observation via social media: “…Lenoir has still not given examples – specifics, screen shots, etc. – of things I’ve said that he had problems with. And it’s curious that he seems to feel he knows better than I what issues resonate with the NAACP crowd.”

Ajanaku addressed what he called an “elephant in the room” before he began working through prepared questions from the hosts and those submitted from audience. Noting that he initially said “No” to the request to step in, Ajanaku said he did not like the idea of making the switch in light of the circumstances.

“I made the adjustment in order to be responsive to Ms. (Deidre) Malone (Memphis Branch NAACP president) and after hearing that the previous moderator thought it was good for the forum to go forward. And I think it is good to have as many forums as necessary – and that we can get – so that we can address the issues of the day.”