(UPDATE: The vote on Monday developed very much as foreseen here, with Chism and Mulroy as holdouts for Avery, both citing commission tradition. Democrat James Harvey followed suit, and the five "passes," including one from Malone nominator Matt Kuhn, were de facto votes for acclamation.)
For all the media buildup of the last few days, an effort to re-elect Deidre Malone as chair of the Shelby County Commission for a second consecutive term is destined to fail. It may never be put forth when the commission holds its regular meeting on Monday, one for which the annual election of a new chairman is scheduled.
The reason is, Malone won’t have the votes, and she dare not risk the embarrassment of a defeat. At least two Democrats are strongly opposed to her re-election — Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy. Both are solid votes for Joyce Avery, the Republican vice chair who would normally be scheduled to ascend to the chairmanship as a matter of routine.
The Kuhn Precedent
Earlier this year, the commission Democrats broke with precedent and combined to elect a fellow Democrat, Matt Kuhn, to succeed Republican David Lillard in a traditionally Republican suburban seat. At the end of several ballots, the Democrats voted together to shatter a long-established precedent whereby Democrats were named to fill vacancies in traditionally Democratic districts and Republicans were named likewise in historically GOP districts.
But it took multiple ballots, during which the commission’s Republicans ignored an implicit offer to accept nominal Republican Linda Kerley, the former mayor of Collierville. Sticking as a bloc with former Republican commissioner Tommy Hart, they allowed a stalemate that was finally broken when Democrat Joe Ford, a holdout for tradition, eventually joined his party mates to put Kuhn over.
And, after all, what was at stake was an increase in the Democrats’ majority from 7-6 to 8-5, providing a much more comfortable margin for controversial legislation on which the parties disagreed.
What is at stake in Malone’s venture to further break tradition is something substantially less meaningful — except to her wish to become Shelby County mayor, an office she hopes to win in next year’s countywide general election. Continued service in the high-profile position of chairman would be incentive enough, but there is more to it than that.
It is widely assumed by almost all observers that current county mayor A C Wharton, term-limited for his current office, is well ahead of potential opponents in the forthcoming special election for Memphis mayor. It’s an office Wharton has been campaigning and raising money for since mid-2008.
A Boost in the County Mayor’s Race
Just as the pending possession of the city mayor’s office by city council chairman Myron Lowery is regarded as a distinct advantage for Lowery in his own race against Wharton and others, so would Malone’s accession as chairman to the office of county mayor, however brief and temporary, be an advantage to her campaign.
That’s the basic reason why Malone seeks to be chairman for a second straight year.
As things would normally stand, vice chair Joyce Avery, a Republican, having waited her year as heir-apparent, would be elected unanimously and without incident, according to the long-established terms whereby the chairmanship is rotated every year, by person and by party.
Malone’s current ambition to do otherwise is in decided contrast to her own celebration of Avery a year ago when she and the Arlington Republican were elected chair and vice chair, respectively. At the time, Malone, citing Avery by name, made much ado of the fact that women would chair the commission for two consecutive years. That’s “women,” plural.
The impetus for Malone’s change of mind — which, if successful, would brush aside Avery’s only chance at a chairmanship before the end of her second, and final, allowable term — reportedly came from Matt Kuhn, the beneficiary of last February’s Democratic power play.
Chism and Mulroy to Say No
Democrat Sidney Chism, who at the time had been coveting the chairmanship himself and was one of Kuhn’s strongest supporters, won’t be in “lockstep” (one of Chism’s favorite terms of invective, usually applied to the commission ‘s Republicans) this time. For one thing, he’s partial to Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, another candidate for county mayor, and is loath to give Malone the special advantage she seeks.
And Mulroy, the Democrats’ swing man for most controversial votes, and consistently the best and most articulate advocate of Democratic positions, can’t muster any rhetoric or enthusiasm for this move. Unlike the addition of Kuhn, which changed the arithmetic of commission voting, this move wouldn’t change a thing, vote-wise, and would be sure to antagonize the minority Republicans, perhaps irreparably.
At this point, Malone must know she doesn’t have Chism and Mulroy on board, and she knows also that the well-liked Avery’s fellow Republicans will be ardent and unanimous in their support for her.
Deidre Malone can count. She knows a second straight chairmanship is a non-starter. She’s already embarrassed that news of her gambit was leaked to the media. (Internal evidence points to Chism, on that one.) And, rather than risk a highly public defeat, she will simply back away from the whole project.
Or not, depending on how stubborn (and possibly self-sacrificial) she feels on Monday.
Chism vs. Brooks
A second issue to be determined on Monday will be the selection of a new vice-chair. The candidates are both Democrats, consistent with the expected victory of Republican Avery and the reversion to the every-other-year assumptions regarding partisan claims on the succession.
They are Chism and fellow Democrat Henri Brooks. Both are controversial and outspoken, but Chism is more used to playing the political game, and, in fact, his planned vote for Avery on Monday is one more evidence of that. He can with justice claim the thank-you votes of the commission’s Republicans, and, as an established Democratic political broker, he’ll have more than enough votes from his party mates as well.