Even as the 2004 election season is picking up heat nationally, with the beginning of the Democratic convention in Boston, events locally are gathering momentum too. Next Thursday, August 5th, will see the next major round of voting in Shelby County, with three contests on the general countywide ballot and three contested primary races for legislative positions.
For at least a decade and a half, political observers have predicted a demographic sea change in county voting, with demographic changes -- mainly middle-class out-migration into adjoining counties -- allowing Democrats to overtake Republicans. For whatever reason, it hasn't happened yet.
This is one of two return bouts on the August 5th ballot. The Democratic nominee, challenger Roscoe Dixon, took on Republican incumbent Chris Turner four years ago and fell short -- at least partly because he declined to say forthrightly what he would do, if elected, concerning his seat in the Tennessee state Senate. At a crucial forum held at the Jewish Community Center in 2000, Dixon waffled on that issue but was reasonably forthright in his praise of Senate colleague John Ford. Dixon was chief assistant for Ford during Ford's one-term clerkship from 1993 to 1997, when Ford concurrently served in the Senate.
In the judgment of most campaign observers, neither position did Dixon much good. This year he has been forthright in stating that he would surrender his Senate seat if elected, and he hasn't said doodley-squat about Ford, pro or con.
What Dixon has done is go on the attack against Turner, whose practice of maintaining surveillance of employees the senator likens to a "P.O.W. atmosphere." The incumbent shrugs this charge off, conceding without much reluctance that overhead cameras are placed in a number of locations in his office quarters -- especially, he notes, "where money is handled."
That's about it as far as campaign controversy goes -- with Turner otherwise boasting various economies and technical modernizations in the office and Dixon advocating the implementation of a night-court arrangement like that of Nashville and other state jurisdictions.
This race too is a rematch. Incumbent Democrat Rita Clark upset then Republican incumbent Harold Sterling in 1996. After an eight-year layoff in which he returned to his prior trade of real estate sales, Sterling thinks he can return the favor against Clark, who in 2000 won a three-cornered race to become the first two-term assessor in decades.
The job is a hot seat for the obvious reason that homeowners are likely to take umbrage as their property values are assessed upward in the successive re-evaluations required by the state. Clark, an admitted novice eight years ago, attacked Sterling then for having on the payroll what she described as a personal trainer. She also took note of a discrimination suit filed against Sterling at the time. Both charges have been reprised in this year's race -- although Sterling has attempted to turn around the former one on the basis that the trainer was the administrator of a general health program for employees that reduced absenteeism and saved the county money.
Sterling has been the primary attacker this time around, chiefly on what he regards as the incumbent's spendthrift attitude. Clark has denied any such tendencies and challenged some of Sterling's radio ads -- one of which refers to a California junket she says she never took.
Though Sterling is making a stout race of it, he is handicapped by the fact that Clark's gender and support in the black community are dependable add-ons to her party-base support.
By their nature, judgeships are relatively free from controversy, and the state judicial canon of ethics basically precludes any adversary tactics. Even so, the candidates in this formally nonpartisan race -- incumbent Arnold Goldin, who is being boosted by the local Republican organization and has Democratic supporters as well, and challenger Karen Tyler, who has a Democratic base in the African-American community -- have managed to communicate their presumed political positions indirectly.
Goldin, a gubernatorial appointee two years ago to fill the term of the late Chancellor Floyd Peete, has TV ads boosting him as a reassuring presence for voters concerned about values, education, and public safety. For her part, Tyler has made outright appeals that voters consider diversity in the judiciary.
There are interesting showdown races between Republicans and Democrats coming up in the November general election, but the main action in next Thursday's statewide primary has to do with the open seat in state House District 83 (southeast Memphis, Germantown), left vacant this year by longtime incumbent Joe Kent, a moderate Republican. Most of the action is in the Republican primary; Democrat Julian Prewitt is running uncontested.
Kent's 2002 primary opponent, Chuck Bates, a conservative financial planner, got off to a head start, but he has been seriously challenged by lawyer Brian Kelsey and businessman/teacher Mark White, both of whom have serious followings and good financial backing. Teacher Stan Peppenhorst has run a credible race, and Charles McDonald, another lawyer, has had a bully pulpit for his belief that government isn't serving its public, while retiree Pat Collins has concentrated on health-care and other issues of presumed urgency to seniors. If no candidate has a majority on August 5th, there will be a runoff.
Two other legislative primary races: Incumbent Democrat Larry Turner faces opposition from Errol Harmon, a newcomer, and Paul Lewis, a previous challenger, in House District 95 (South Memphis); and incumbent Republican Curry Todd has a challenge from newcomer Dan Dickerson in House District 95 (outer Shelby).