The City of Kingman has been running damage control for close to a week due to Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who is America?” segment that depicted the city of Kingman as racist, bigoted and small-minded.
However, the majority of the City’s elected officials say they were not advised as to the mayor’s intention to appear on numerous television programs, including TMZ, and that those efforts have done more harm than good.
The City issued a press release Monday night headlined “City of Kingman, Arizona Responds to Baiting and Big Mistakes by Sacha Baron Cohen’s Very Lowly Rated “Who is America?” Kingman has caught flack on social media, news outlets and in the papers, including The Washington Post, for its characterization of Cohen’s show as low rated.
But there has been praise for the City’s plans to implement a wave of corrective efforts, including support for National Hispanic Heritage Month and creation of a diversity commission. However, some councilmembers believe certain portions of the release did not help the situation.
“The one that comes immediately to mind is that Kingman has African-Americans applying for leadership positions with the City ...” said Councilman Travis Lingenfelter. “I say that because there’s been media pushback on that. It opened up the question, ‘Well, don’t you already have African-Americans in high-level positions?’ So they had to backtrack on that, so I think that hurts a little bit.”
Council was asked for input on the letter, and while Lingenfelter said councilmembers weren’t given much time to relay their opinions, he recognized that it was important for the City to release some type of statement. Vice Mayor Jen Miles agreed, saying the America portrayed in Cohen’s show is “not my America.”
“Getting the information out that rejects Sacha Baron Cohen’s setup, if you will, about the characterization of Kingman was a worthy effort,” Miles said. “We really got slammed by him, and it was very unfair and not representative of our community.”
Councilman David Wayt described himself as being devasted and embarrassed to think “hateful” people like those used in the segment live in or near Kingman. He was in Tucson at a week-long “Career Prosecutor” course when he received the press release to be issued by the City and was unable to suggest changes.
“While there may have been phrases I would have encouraged the City to omit or revise, I am grateful that our city will be taking steps toward combating racism, raising awareness, and exposing the hate that lurks in the shadows,” the councilman said.
As news of the segment, which ran last Sunday night on Showtime, and the City’s response began to spread, requests for comment and interviews, specifically with Mayor Monica Gates, flooded in. Gates said she wanted to take every opportunity to “set the record straight” about the citizens of Kingman.
“Sometimes silence speaks volumes,” Gates said. “So when we have all of these requests for Kingman’s response and reaction, I strongly feel that we must do everything we can to set the record straight that the people in that skit do not represent our community whatsoever.”
Gates has been interviewed by TMZ, CNN, and KECY-TV out of Yuma. City Manager Ron Foggin confirmed those outlets reached out to the City and the mayor as opposed to the other way around. Foggin explained that he left the decision of whether to appear on those programs up to the mayor.
“I passed the information onto the mayor and she thought the best thing to do was not to be quiet, but to send a positive message,” he said.
Councilmembers Vice Mayor Jen Miles, Lingenfelter, Jamie Scott Stehly and Stuart Yocum told the Daily Miner they didn’t have a voice in that message or a say in the mayor’s decision to go on TV. The Daily Miner reached out to all councilmembers for comment but did not receive a response from Councilmember Vickie Kress.
“My opinion, I am disappointed that the mayor unilaterally chose to do what she’s doing, that she left out the other six councilmembers,” Lingenfelter said. “It’s been completely her decision to go onto the TMZ gossip program, and just choosing to do that and providing national statements like Kingman has a population of 30,000 and a regional population of 70,000, but she didn’t recognize anyone in the room, I think that does more damage.”
Yocum is of the same frame of mind and doesn’t think the appearances presented well. He said they haven’t done the City of Kingman any favors, particularly when the mayor speaks to not recognizing 30 people out of a population of 30,000.
“I would have preferred a more neutral and professional, pleasant statement,” he said. “Something to the effect of ‘This is a small group which is not representative of the wonderful residents who comprise Kingman.’”
Miles and Lingenfelter believe the proper course of action would have been to call a special meeting of the Council first thing Monday morning, “so that we could sit together as an elected body and come up with a PR strategy and campaign that we would cohesively run with,” Lingenfelter said.
Wayt said he learned of the mayor’s television appearances by way of an instructor at the course he attended, and that his input was not sought.
“I don’t think that we should distract from this comprehensive problem by blaming or denouncing a comedian for exposing the ugly,” Wayt said. “While I would be embarrassed to find out that these people who made these abhorrent comments are actually from Kingman, I am equally embarrassed that the people who made these comments are actually American.”
Gates said the requests for comment were directed to the mayor and not City Council.
“Why would it be?” Gates said when asked if the matter was brought to Council before she went on TV. “NBC, CNN, JTDR, KECY, every single one of them called and asked to speak to the mayor. I was elected and this is part of the role of the mayor, and I take that very seriously.”
However, Yocum believes there was an ulterior motive behind the mayor’s decision to appear before the cameras.
“My personal opinion is she got all excited about the opportunity to garner national attention for herself, knowing her the way I do and I don’t have a very good impression of her, and grab limelight,” Yocum said.
But Gates explained her goal was to do everything she could to correct the false impression of Kingman that resulted from “Who is America?”
“Intolerance exists, but to unfairly depict our community as a racist community is not fair,” she said. “It’s damaging and we’re going to do everything we can to come out a stronger and even more close-knit community.”