On Wednesday morning, in the Cannon Center of downtown Memphis, the winners in the August 5 Shelby County election took turns swearing their vows before a mellowed-out crowd, in a ceremony that culminated with the newly inaugurated Shelby County mayor, Mark Luttrell, invoking an image of “the city on the hill” and professing himself “the Number One advocate of this great county.”
On Thursday evening, at Bloomfield Baptist Church on South Parkway, five miles further south, some of the losers in the August 5 Shelby County election and their supporters faced a highly energized standing-room-only crowd of 500 souls and took turns vowing reprisals for a “stolen” election — including the prospect of “shutting this city down.” And the idea of merging city and county took a pummeling as well.
That was how things stood nearly a month after one glitch-marred election and two months before another one, at which the issue of consolidation is at stake.
To say that two different visions were on display on consecutive days — one of comity, the other of conflict — would be an understatement.
"Sweetness and light" at Cannon Center
All was sweetness and light at the Cannon Center on Wednesday, with the idea of family predominating.
There was new Shelby County Clerk Wayne Mashburn taking an oath administered by his cousin, former county mayor Jim Rout, for an office his father, “Sonny” Mashburn, once held. There was Mike Ritz, a Republican, renewing the oath of office for his District 1 county commission seat, with his son Kevin officiating and with his wife Sharon standing by — both of them Democrats.
There was another District 1 commissioner, Mike Carpenter, being sworn in again, with his entire family on stage with him, including tiny daughter Lily Beth, who kept waving to the crowd. There was District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy up there renewing his vows, accompanied by wife Amy and Brandon Rodgers, his “little brother” in the Big Brother program.
There was Melvin Burgess Jr. being sworn in as a county commissioner from District 2, as his father, former Memphis police director Melvin Burgess Sr., sat proudly in the audience. There was Justin Ford taking the vow for the District 3 commission seat held until fairly recently by his father, outgoing interim mayor Joe Ford. And Wyatt Bunker, backed by his father, former county School Board member Homer Bunker, was sworn in again for his District 4 commission seat.
And in a final transcending act of unity, Luttrell made a point of citing Joe Ford, his recent election rival, for his service as mayor and calling for a standing ovation.
"Shutting this city down!"
There were standing ovations at Bloomfield Baptist, a night later, as well. But they were for statements of defiance, for summonses to retribution, and for standing as a bloc against a “criminal” power establishment.
Among the speakers at Bloomfield was Randy Wade, who vowed not to reveal the real identity of informant “John Doe,”. Wade, the defeated candidate for Sheriff, alleges "Doe" to be a source in the Election Commission who confided in him that Election Commission officials knew a day before the August 5 election that early-voting data from the May primary election had been fed into the Electronic Poll Book for the August vote. That allegation, if verified, would transform what the Election Commission diagnosed as “human error” into something more sinister.
“Yes, I have an informant,” proclaimed Wade, who went on to say, “Before I turn this individual over to the TBI [Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, now conducting an investigation of the election], I will die and go to hell….. He will remain as John Doe. If in fact they take me to jail all hell will break loose in this own. I am not playing with this. We mean business.”
Wade, who was one of several speakers denouncing the election as stolen and the perpetrators of the theft as criminal, said that voters had been the victims of “a coup d’etat,” one that had begun with efforts to shut down or muzzle such representatives of the African-American media as the Silver Star News, the Tri-State Defender, and blogger/broadcaster Thaddeus Matthews.
Matthews himself took the microphone, telling the crowd, “Somebody in Shelby County decided they were going to steal an election, and they did it quite well.” He then addressed himself to “the white establishment and handkerchief-head Negroes.” An earlier speaker, Darrick “Dee” Harris, had gone down the laundry list of suspicious circumstances in the August 5 election process but had refrained (though with some irony) from directing specific accusations at Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini.
Matthews was less tender toward the Election Commission head. After referring to several alleged personal derelictions on Giannini’s part, he said, “We invite Bill Giannini to come into the hood, and we’ll deal with him the way they deal in the hood.”
And he vowed, “If Randy Wade goes to jail, we will shut this city down. Some white folks ain’t seen black power before. Some black folks ain’t used black power before. We’re not talking about burning no buildings. Hell, they’re our buildings. We’re talking about economically shutting this city down!”
Launching a fund-raising drive (which the Bloomfield pastor, the Rev. Ralph White, would later designate the “Shelby County Voter Education Fund), Matthews said, “If you ain’t no sissy, and you ain’t no punk, if you’re not a homosexual, you’re gone bring some money down here tonight!”
"They stole the votes!"
George Monger, Wade’s youthful associate, had previously dilated on what consultants for the defeated Democratic candidates, now parties to a Chancery Court suit to overturn the election as “incurably uncertain, had called the “ghost race.” This, according to the consultants, was a hidden feature of the Diebold election-machine machinery which permitted possible alteration of vote totals in the actual ballot races and which allegedly targeted predominantly black precincts.
Upon Wade’s insistence, Monger would pinpoint the two persons with direct oversight of such a feature as Rich Holden, the Election Commission chief administrator, and Dennis Boyce, the Commission’s IT director. (Boyce was identified in the Commission’s official report as the individual who had inadvertently fed the wrong early-voting data into the August electronic poll book.)
Shep Wilbun, who lost his bid to return to the Juvenile Court clerkship he once held, would similarly expound on another recently discovered Diebold feature, a “manual override” capability which would also allow vote alteration. Contending that some 77 percent of American elections employed hardware or software owned by the ESS company, current proprietors of Diebold technology, Wilbun called for remedial action and said, “We’ve got to do ourselves a favor, we’ve also got to do America a favor.”
Wilbun contended that Shelby County experienced “immoral” and dishonest elections ever since 1990, and lawyer Charles Carpenter, a longtime associate of former Mayor Willie Herenton, reviewed for the crowd a whole series of allegedly fraudulent actions in county elections, ranging from attempts to discard votes belonging to victorious congressional candidate Harold Ford Sr. in 1974 to the whittling down of Herenton’s 3000-votewinning margin in 1991 to a mere 142 votes.
“They stole the votes but they didn’t steal enough,” Carpenter declared. He noted that supporters of defeated Mayor Dick Hackett had not contested the results of the 1991 race. “You know why? Because people would have gone to jail. They were stealing votes then, they’re stealing votes now.” He called for massive voter turnouts from African Americans as the only way to safeguard the election process.
And Carpenter vigorously seconded the opposition to the forthcoming referendum on consolidation which Matthews had introduced and Wade passionately concurred with.
"Consolidation is not for us!"
“Let me tell you something: Consolidation is not for us!” Matthews had thundered. Wade had elaborated, “Let me say this. I am not in the middle. I am against consolidation. “Noting that the proposed Metro charter allows the suburban municipalities to keep their charters but would call for that of Memphis to lapse, he said, “Why is it we have to give ours up?” — answering his own question with the assertion that “The city is majority African American.”
So dramatic was the rhetorical turn against consolidation that Rev. White himself, a member of the Charter Commission and a sometime spokesman for the charter referendum, backed off from it. “If you don’t like it don’t vote for it,” he said. “That is not going to divide me from my community.”
After all the tumult and the shouting, White would pronounce the benediction for the evening, one in which he called for the Lord’s blessing on Memphis and included a plea: “Let it be a city of greatness.”
UPDATE:On the same night that a November 2 ballot referendum for city/county consolidation came in for verbal abuse at a meeting to protest alleged August 5 election irregularities, the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee voted lopsidedly to oppose the consolidation measure.
At its regular monthly meeting Thursday night, the Democratic committee recalled a previously tabled recommendation from its steering committee to oppose consolidation and then approved that motion by a reported vote of 34 to 9, with five abstaining.
The committee further voted to approve $2,000 in funding for a campaign against the consolidation proposal. Before the vote was taken, three prominent consolidation proponents -- Matt Kuhn, Darrell Cobbins of Rebuild Government, and Andre Fowlkes of the Metro Charter Commission – were invited to make the case for supporting the ballot referendum.
Objections to it ranged far and wide, but key points were the proposal’s prohibition of partisan elections for Metro office and the fact that Memphis would relinquish its charter while the suburban municipalities would be allowed to keep theirs.