Wednesday, November 3, 2004

BUSH BACK(S) IN

GOP gains at the legislative level and School Board surprises highlight other results.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 3, 2004 at 4:00 AM

Election Day 2004 was a day of mixed messages and, intermittent rains notwithstanding, brisk turnouts at the polls. Almost 375,000 votes were cast in Shelby County, along with 2 million statewide. Both were records, added on to what had already been precedent-shattering totals for early voting.

Though the Big Issue on everybody’s mind -- that of the presidency -- remained unsettled until mid-morning Wednesday, when Democrat John Kerry made a surprise concession to President Bush -- perhaps to avoid a period of national confusion like that accompanying the Florida recount in 2000, shake-ups in other races were signaled early on. These were both locally, where two School Board incumbents suffered reverses, and statewide, where the Republicans added significant legislative gains to Bush’s electoral-vote victory in Tennessee.

Local Democratic activist Cheri DelBrocco reported a wait of an hour and a half on Tuesday morning at Temple Israel on East Massey. And her own expectations were stood on their head. Seniors in line, supposedly responsive to traditional Democratic positions, were indicating their intention to vote for Bush, the Republican, while youngish mothers with children -- the conservative-minded “soccer moms” of yore -- were talking up Massachusetts senator Kerry.

As local Kerry campaign director David Cocke boasted to the faithful from a stage at Beale Street’s Plush Club Tuesday night, Shelby County would go for Kerry by some 52,000 votes -- two thousand more than separated Al Gore from Bush in 2000. But that was countered by local Republican chairman Kemp Conrad, who presided over a crowded election-watch party at GOP headquarters on Ridgeway.

Conrad, who had set as a goal the cutting in half of Gore’s countywide majority, nevertheless professed himself “thrilled” by the election results. “We had an increase of 10 percent in the Shelby County overall, and of that new 10 percent, Republicans got 75 percent,” maintained the numbers-juggling GOP chairman, who noted further that his party had captured a majority in the state senate and that Shelby County had provided more votes than any other Tennessee locality for Bush, who won the state, Conrad calculated, with “a 13 percent majority.”

Though they were moot as far as influencing any local outcomes, both Conrad and Cocke, as well as state Representative Kathryn Bowers, the Shelby County Democratic chairperson, were nigh on to apoplectic about what each of them saw as the other party’s machinations and about apparent screw-ups in communications between the Election Commission downtown and various local precincts.

FOR COCKE, THE ISSUE WAS the issuance of provisional ballots to voters whose credentials could not be verified at local polling places. By his estimation, these were mainly Democratic and numbered “in the thousands.” Worse, though, was what we called the “confusion” resulting from the communications breakdown. “You have to blame the commission,” he said. “There was gross incompetence. It doesn’t matter what party was responsible.” (Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the panel.)

A corollary to Cocke’s concern was one advanced by Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas, a Republican, who claimed that at one precinct at least 75 voters who should have been classified as provisional were allowed to vote by machine. He, too, blamed a communications breakdown between the Commission and outlying precincts.

Even as the polls were opening Tuesday morning, Bowers and Conrad were in a verbal tangle over what the Democratic chairman charged were efforts by Republican poll-watchers to intimidate and disqualify obvious Democratic voters -- African-Americans in the main. Conrad said the charge was “an attempt to play the race card...right out of the Kerry-Edwards playbook” and unjustified by any Republican conduct, “past or present.”

The local controversies reflected some accruing to the Big Issue nationally -- that of who gets to be president for the next four years. All hinged on Ohio, whose vote count had been delayed, contingent on what at first was predicted to be a weeklong counting of provisional ballots in that state. Right up to the point of Kerry’s Wednesday-morning concession, Bush maintained a numerically slight lead in that all-important Midwestern state, which even before Tuesday’s voting had been generally classified as one of three decisive “battleground states -- the others being Florida, which went for Bush, and Pennsylvania, which went for Kerry.

In the final mathematics, the winner of Ohio’s 20 electoral votes was destined to be elected president. That was the bottom line, and that was the line reluctantly crossed by Kerry -- reportedly at the behest of his wife Teresa.

THOUGHT THERE WERE SEVERAL WELL-WATCHED RACES on the local ballot (see below), most eyes at the two party election-watch parties -- the GOP’s at their Ridgeway headquarters, the Democrats at the Plush Club -- were fixed on the several big TV screens that sporadically presented the presidential results in key states.

Burned in 2000 by what turned out to be premature calls of Florida for both Gore and Bush, the networks were reticent about stating their conclusions. Notable in this regard were CBS News and the Fox News Channel, criticized by Democratic and Republican partisans, respectively, for their alleged biases.

Though he had been billed as one of the star attractions at the Plush Club festivities Tuesday night, 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. had decamped earlier in the day for Boston, where, as a national co-chair of Senator Kerry’s effort, he intended to share a stage with the Democratic nominee in Copley Square.

Given the incompleteness of the outcome, the Democrats’ celebration never occurred, however, nor did the Republicans indulge in one at their national headquarters in suburban Virginia. Local Republicans did whoop it up on Ridgeway, however, claiming victory as soon as the Fox network got over its unaccustomed bashfulness and put Ohio in the Bush column just before midnight, Memphis time.

Though local office-holders were numerous on Ridgeway, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, Bush’s state campaign chairman, joined other GOP bigwigs in Nashville to monitor statewide and national results.

Though Rep. Ford was not to be seen at the Plush Club other members of the Ford clan were. There was, for example, Uncle John Ford, the controversial District 29 state senator, who took the occasion to proclaim to another attendee, “You’re looking at the next mayor” -- a boast which underlined the curious absence from political events, this week or at anytime in this campaign year, of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

And Isaac Ford, a sometime candidate for various offices and the congressman’s brother, was going about at the Plush, impeccably suited and chanting, somewhat inscrutably, “Hip-hop politics! This is hip-hop politics!”

Whatever it meant, that was a counterpart of sorts to “flip-flop” -- the pejorative adjective which, used by Bush and other Republicans against Kerry, figured large in this year’s presidential campaign. For a while, it seemed that term “flip-flop” might come to describe the outcome of the presidential race. But that was before Kerry resolved on his concession statement Wednesday -- an act that no one could call ambivalent.

MEANWHILE, THESE WERE THE WINNERS AND LOSER in local and statewide voting:

Legislative Races: Potentially dramatic change was in the offing for the next session of Tennessee’s General Assembly, as two Middle Tennessee Democratic state senators -- Jo Ann Graves (Clarksville) of District 18 and Larry Trail (Murfreesboro) of District 16 fell to Republican challengers Diane Black and Jim Tracy, respectively. As Memphis lawyer John Ryder, the GOP’s immediate past national committeeman from Tennessee pointed out, “That gives Tennessee its first elected state Senate majority in history.”

A survivor, though, was the Senate’s presiding officer, Lt. Governor John Wilder of Somerville, who turned aside a challenge from Republican Ron Stallings. And the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, won an easier-than-expected victory over Dr. Jesse Cannon, his GOP opponent.

Although Republicans had a net gain of one seat in the House, the Democrats -- and presumably Naifeh -- will maintain their power, with a seven-vote majority. What happens in the Senate, where nominal Democrat Wilder has in recent years functioned as a de facto nonpartisan leader, is still uncertain. The Senate speaker has had the declared support of three GOP senators, including Shelby County’s Curtis Person, but Ryder predicts that there will be a “grass roots” demand from Republicans that the GOP get to name one of its own as speaker.

All the incumbents in Shelby County and its environs held on to their seats. That included Democrat Mike Kernell in state House District 93, who won over Republican John Pellicciotti with somewhat greater ease than he had in 2002, when the two first tangled.

At a Republican rally in Shelby County on Monday night, Pellicciotti had been fatalistic. “I’d like to flatter myself that what I do or what Mike does in our campaigns will make the marginal difference that elects one of us or the other,” said the young businessman. “But the fact is, I think these local races, where they’re close, will be driven by the Bush-Kerry race. Whoever does the best job of getting their voters out for president will determine the outcome in District 93, too, I think.”

Though, as previously indicated, spokesperson for the two parties differed as to which party actually improved its lot in Shelby County, Pellicciotti’s stoic forecast might have been on target.

Another Democratic House member, Beverly Marrero, turned back Republican Jim Jamieson’s third try for the District 89 seat, and Democrat Henri Brooks easily beat Republican D. Jack Smith, a former Democratic legislator, in District 92. Ditto with Barbara Cooper over George Edwards in District 86. Two local Republicans, House GOP leader Tre Hargett and newcomer Brian Kelsey won easy victories over Democrats Susan Slyfield and Julian Prewitt in Districts 97 and 83, respectively. Republican state Senator Mark Norris and Democratic Senator Steve Cohen easily disposed of their opponents. Cohen eclipsed both Republican Johnny Hatcher and Mary Taylor Shelby, a perennial running as an independent. Norris won two-to-one over Democrat Pete Parker.

School Board Races: Two upsets and one narrow escape dominated results in the five contested elections for the Memphis board.

In the closest race, incumbent Wanda Halbert of Position One, At Large, profited from the halving of the “anti-” vote between her two major opponents, second-place finished Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Robert Spence. But her Board colleagues Willie Brooks in District 1 and Hubon “Dutch” Sandridge in District 7 were not so lucky, polling well behind newcomers Stephanie Gatewood and Tomeka Hart, respectively.

Gatewood won outright. Sandridge will get to fight another day, however, since Hart failed to get an absolute majority; the balance of the vote went to third-place finisher Terry Becton.)

Patrice Robinson defeated Juanita Clark Stevenson and Annabel Hernandez-Rodriguez Turner in District 3. And Dr. Jeff Warren defeated Rev. Herman Powell in a battle of newcomers for the right to succeed the retiring Lora Jobe in District 5.

Congressional and Legislative Races: All members of the Tennessee congressional delegation won handily or without opposition -- including those closest to home: 7th district Republican congressman Marsha Blackburn, who was unopposed; 8th district Democratic congressman John Tanner, who buried unregenerate racist James L. Hart, running with the GOP label but repudiated by every Republican in sight; and 9th District congressman Ford, who racked up a better-than-4-to-1 majority against Republican Ruben M. Fort.

OH, AND THERE WAS AN UNKNOWN -- because so far uncounted -- number of votes for gay activist Jim Maynard, the write-in candidate who was spurred to oppose Ford because of the congressman’s support of a Federal Marriage Amendment that would exclude gay matrimony.

In a post-election press release, Maynard said he was considering a formal run against Ford “in the next primary” -- which, given that the congressman will almost certainly next be seeking the U.S. Senate seat which current incumbent Bill Frist has said he will vacate in 2006], would escalate Maynard’s goal as well.

Though Maynard’s effort this year -- not even noted by most media outlets -- never amounted to more than a blip on anybody’s radar screen, he made some effort in his press release to put his own circumstances in a larger context. Referring to Tuesday’s overall national outcome as a “sad election,” Maynard went on to sum up thusly:

“George Bush lost every debate to John Kerry. The exit polls that the majority of voters opposed Bush's handling of the economy and the War in Iraq. So why did he win such a large popular vote (51 %)? The polls show that the most important issue to voters were "moral" issues (i.e. abortion and gay marriage.)

“The Republican Party, under the direction of Karl Rove, strategically planned to use the issue of gay marriage to motivate the Christian Right and to divide the base of the Democratic Party. They succeeded. As I predicted, the issue of gay marriage and gay rights may have played a larger role in this election than the economy or the Iraq War. The political Right uses cultural issues like abortion and gay rights to win the support of people who do not benefit much if at all from Republican economic policies.

“...Like the rest of the world, I am baffled by the choice the American people have made today....”

One wonders how “baffled” Maynard could actually be, having just pinpointed one of the clear reasons for the seismic, and potentially permanent, shift to Republican control in national and statewide -- and, perhaps even in the long run, local -- politics.

Not long before his death last month, Religious Right activist Ed McAteer, who had no trouble acknowledging he wouldn’t know a Laffer Curve (or any other economic precept) from a laugh track, said his own de facto support for Republican causes and candidates owed almost wholly to social and moral issues. Otherwise, he could be a Democrat. Even Moral Majority mogul Jerry Falwell, on a visit to Memphis some years back, had said much the same thing.

For better or for worse…No, this isn’t a matter of “better or worse.” It’s just reality -- which one post-modern school of philosophy defines, simply enough, as “that which is the case.”

With Bush backing in again and the GOP stealthily gaining elsewhere, Republicanism is increasingly the case.

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