At 79, Howard Richardson is a patriarch of both the labor movement and the Democratic Party in Shelby County, and political gatherings at his house, in the residential area between the Defense Depot and Interstate 240 South, are generously well attended.
Such was the case Friday night, March 12, when Richardson played host to a meet-and-greet/fundraiser for Corey Maclin, considered the leading Democratic candidate for Shelby County Clerk. Richardson’s event for Maclin counterpointed nicely with a similar one for prospective opponent Wayne Mashburn, the favored Republican candidate for county clerk, held the evening before at the Variety Club on Sycamore in East Memphis.
Taken as a pair, the two events — one Democratic and primarily African-American, the other Republican and predominantly white — symbolized much about a forthcoming election that may be destined to become a watershed.
It isn’t exactly a case of an Old Order — the white GOP preeminence in county government — under challenge from a demographic new order, though superficially it would appear to be that kind of circumstance. But this is not 1991 — a year in which whites and blacks segmented cleanly to decide the balance of power in Memphis itself.
And give some credit to the much-abused former mayor Willie Herenton, the African-American victor in that election of nearly two decades ago, for maintaining a semblance of racial balance in the overall administration of Memphis government. Greater Shelby County, a diffuse and ethnically checkered territory, is even less capable of domination by a single racial entity.
That being said, the division between white and Republican on one side and black and Democratic on the other is all but complete in the developing ballots of the two parties. It is in the rhetoric of the two occasions, as well as in some concrete instances, that a broader sense of citizenship got its due.
Paul Boyd, a young county employee and Republican activist, was on hand at the Variety Club — certain to be the GOP nominee for Probate Court clerk, since neither Chris Thomas, the incumbent, who seeks a county commission seat, nor anybody else on his side of the political line chose to run for the job. Undeniably, that says something about Republicans’ estimation of their overall chances in the county election.
On the Democratic side, no fewer than six candidates are seeking the same job of Probate clerk, and the tireless Danny Kail, a former labor official and county human resources director and a white, was on hand, as he always is on any Democratic or bipartisan public occasion, to plead his case.
Kail may, in fact, get his party’s nomination, creating an anomaly of sorts — white Democrat versus black Republican for Probate Court clerk. Maybe but not necessarily., Kail’s opposition includes Clay Perry and Sondra Becton, both active Democrats with name recognition and networks, as well as Peggy Dobbins, Annita Sawyer-Hamilton, and Karen Tyler.
In the arithmetic of county general elections, any white Democrat, especially an incumbent, has a serious advantage.
Of the two Republicans vying for the right to oppose Newman, David Lenoir, an up-and-coming sort, is making the rounds and dutifully checked in at Mashburn’s Variety Club event. His primary rival, John Willingham, an unusual mix of elder statesman and perennial candidate, wasn’t there but had been at an earlier event in the week, the Monday luncheon of the Shelby County Republican Women, where, in a stage whisper to the people at his table, he reviewed the credentials of the various GOP candidates who spoke there.
(Sample Willingham observation: About interim county commissioner John Pellicciotti, running for the District 4, Position 1 seat against Jim Bomprezzi and the aforementioned Thomas, Willingham observed, “He looks like a movie star.” When Thomas, who does modeling and has a role in a forthcoming indie film, came on to speak, Willingham observed, “He is a movie star.”}
The other races on the ballot seem destined to feature black Democrats versus white Republicans (though African-American newcomer Michael Porter is challenging Kevin Key, son of retiring incumbent Bill Key, in the GOP primary for criminal court clerk). And there is a sense in which the two occasions of the weekend — Mashburn’s and Maclin’s — defined the somewhat nuanced way in which the two sides now diverge.
Noting that his grandfather had been a county clerk in Haywood County for almost four decades and his father had served as Shelby County Clerk for more than a decade, and that Rout, a cousin, had served two terms as county mayor, Mashburn declared, “It’s in the blood. I want to serve.” He then went on to recount his business successes. Tradition, plus private-sector experience: two sure-fire ingredients of a successful Republican candidacy.
At Richardson’s house an evening later, Maclin would recite some business accomplishments as well, and he outlined at great length his plans for the clerk’s office — ranging from extended Saturday hours and other customer services to the creation of a single cash window, set aside from the others, so as to keep incoming receipts straight and minimize the potential for abuse or corruption.
Maclin’s speech was free of racial implications. Not so that of his chief campaign adviser, Bret Thompson, who made the concluding remarks at Richardson’s house. But Thompson brought the subject up to caution against campaigning only within ethnic enclaves.
Contending that no African-American holder of countywide office — “except for A C Wharton” — had ever won reelection, Thompson insisted that pursuit of crossover votes should be the guiding principle of Maclin’s or any other African-American candidate’s campaign.
To think otherwise is to lose, Thompson said. And he may have been on to something that would apply equally well to Mashburn and the predominantly white slate of candidates on the Republican side.
More than likely, questions of race and party will figure large this election year, but there is still a rough balance that will require that successful candidates show some degree of finesse and appeal to inclusiveness.
This is certainly the case with respect to this year’s two marquee races locally. One is that for mayor, which will ultimately match one of three name black Democrats, Joe Ford, Deidre Malone, or Otis Jackson, against Sheriff Mark Luttrell, a Republican of proven crossover ability.
The other race is that for the 9th District congressional seat, an affair matching two notable Democrats. To acknowledge that former mayor Herenton was more racially even-handed in office than his current reputation would indicate is only fair. To observe that he is conspicuously less inclusive in his manner and rhetoric these days than incumbent congressman Steve Cohen is, however, unavoidable.