Monday, October 29, 2012

The Plot Thickens, as State Election Officials Resist Order to Honor Library Cards

Posted By on Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 6:54 PM

State Election Coordinator Mark Goins
  • State Election Coordinator Mark Goins
Whatever the final disposition of the library-card controversy in Memphis, it has so far affected a very small percentage of those voting locally, according to Shelby County Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers, who says that only 19 provisional ballots have so far been issued out of more than 151,000 persons voting early in Shelby County.

And Meyers does not believe that all 19 of those cases involved voters arriving at polling places armed with library cards to satisfy requirements of the state’s Photo-ID law.

Controversial from the time of its passage in the Republican-dominated 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly, the law is now the subject of fresh contention. A decision by a state appellate Thursday had apparently reversed an earlier ruling in Nashville Chancery Court which upheld state election officials’ judgment that the library cards were an invalid credential for voting purposes.

But state Election Coordinator Mark Goins wasted no time in instructing the Shelby County Election Commission that, pending resolution of a fresh appeal by his office to the state Supreme Court, local polling officials should continue, as they had been doing, to give provisional ballots to persons presenting library cards.

Goins has contended that the pending appeal constitutes a de facto stay.

The Coordinator's directive, which had been sent to SCEC administrator Rich Holden as well as to Meyers and the other four Commission members, was immediately transmitted by Holden to all local polling officials. This occurred, Meyers said, little more than an hour after he had sent an email to the same officials instructing them to comply with the findings of the appellate court.

The Goins directive in effect canceled out his own email, Meyers said. Asked how many people might have voted in the interim after presenting library cards, Meyer said, “I doubt there was enough time for many, if any, to have done so. One thing came very quickly on the heels of the other.”

Asked if he regarded himself as merely “following orders,” Meyers at first responded firmly, “No sir,” as if in recognition that in modern times that idiom has taken on an unfavorable connotation. But after a pause, he acknowledged, “I was following instructions. Yes.”

Meyers, a lawyer, said he had not fully analyzed the situation from a legal point of view.
Meanwhile, the City of Memphis has filed a brief with the state Supeme Court contesting Goins’ appeal on the basis that the Memphis library cards, the result of an initiative by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, had been adjudged by the state Appeals Court to be in compliance with the state Photo-ID law. In the same ruling, the Appeals Court had ruled the law to be valid.

Also, on Monday, the City of Memphis dispatched a letter to state Attorney General Robert Cooper demanding that he enjoin Goins and other officials that “the state immediately cease and desist its unlawful refusal to accept Memphis photo library cards as acceptable proof of identity for voting.”

Kelsey Will Introduce Bill to Prohibit Medicaid Expansion in Tennessee

Germantown State Senator says he will file legislation next Wednesday,the day after the election; Supreme Court decision on Affordable Care Act allows states to opt in or opt out of Medicaid portion.

Posted By on Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 11:34 AM

State Senator Brian Kelsey in action
  • State Senator Brian Kelsey in action
Even as a pending expansion of Medicaid services for poorer Americans is being highlighted as a political issue by observers like columnist Paul Krugman, who writes about it this week, a Tennessee state senator from Shelby County is proposing legislation to prohibit expansion of the program in Tennessee.

Passage of such legislation would presumably bind the hands of Governor Bill Haslam, who has been non-committal about whether the state should accept add-on federal funds for Medicaid expansion under terms of the Affordable Care Act.

Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) said in a press release on Monday that on Wednesday, November 6, the day after next week’s election, he will introduce a bill to prevent the expansion of Medicaid called for by the Act. Kelsey’s co-sponsor in the House would be Jeremy Durham (R-Franklin), who has not been formally elected yet but it unopposed on next week’s ballot.

As Kelsey noted in his release, the same U.S. Supreme Court decision which upheld the Act last July struck down a provision of it which mandated such expansion and left it to the states to decide whether to revamp their Medicaid programs.

Under the Act’s provisions, the federal government would initially pay all the cost of expanding Medicaid to 133 percent of the poverty level. A state’s share would slowly rise to 10 percent of the cost by 2020. But Kelsey casts doubt on the reliability of the federal government’s commitment to its ultimate 90 percent share of additional expenses.

“Unlike Washington, Tennessee balances its budget every year,” Kelsey said. “Tennessee taxpayers cannot afford this expansion of spending. The federal government may be promising money today, but with sixteen trillion dollars of debt, those funds will not be there tomorrow.”

As GOP opponents of the Affordable Care Act often do, Kelsey quoted an initial reaction former Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, when the Act was first being considered in 2009. Bredesen referred to it then as “the mother of all unfunded mandates,” and, according to Kelsey, estimated that it would impose a $1 billion burden on Tennessee taxpayers.

Proponents of the Act and of its Medicaid provisions see thingsdifferently. In his column on the subject this week, Krugman insists that Medicaid actually lowers overall costs by eans of greater efficiencies. “While costs grew rapidly in 2009-10, as a depressed economy made more Americans eligible for the program, the longer-term reality is that Medicaid is significantly better at controlling costs than the rest of our health care system.”

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cohen Calls Flinn Ad "Despicable," Scoffs at Opponent's Debate Demands

Posted By on Fri, Oct 26, 2012 at 6:18 AM

Cohen meeting with the press at his home
  • JB
  • Cohen meeting with the press at his home

Calling an attack ad by his opponent “despicable,” 9th District Democratic congressman Steve Cohen called a press conference at his Midtown home Thursday to denounce charges by Republican nominee George Flinn that he had missed vital votes and indulged himself in too many trips at taxpayer expense.

Flinn had charged in a TV ad that Cohen had missed 130 votes during his tenure and laid the blame for much of this to what he suggested was the congressman’s excessive junketeering. At his press conference, held on his outdoor patio, Cohen acknowledged that he had missed a few votes out of “5000 votes in six years, “ but, he said, “none of them were of consequence to Tennessee, “ and his vote in “none of them” would have been the deciding one.

The congressman said the votes he missed were generally of the “Monday night” variety, routine ones that were got out of the way before the real congressional work week got under way. He said he had missed some votes on the occasion of his mother’s illness and death and others when he came home to attend the funerals of his friend, restaurateur Tommy Boggs, and the late civil rights eminence Benjamin Hooks.

Still other absences occurred unavoidably because of hitches in airline service from Memphis to Washington, both on Northwest and on Delta, which became the successor line providing such service.

As for the frequency of his travel, which Flinn’s ad had highlighted, Cohen defended it as being related not only to his job but specifically to national or international issues of importance to his constituents. Among the trips he mentioned were a recent one to Georgia, the former Soviet Union nation, as a member of the Helsinki Commission charged with observing that country’s first true democratic election.

He noted also that he had gone to Turkey, where he consulted with General David Petraeus on military issues, and to Iraq and Afghanistan to visit the troops.

“I take my work seriously. I work hard at my job, seven days a week,” Cohen said. He declared that “Dr. Flinn should take those ads off the air [and] apologize to me. He should be ashamed of himself…For him to suggest I was playing, that’s despicable.”

The congressman returned fire on his attacker, suggesting that Flinn, a multi-millionaire physician and broadcast executive, was using his millions to try to gain a political foothold. “This man desires to win a political election at all costs.”

Responding to Flinn’s frequent demands for a public debate between the two, Cohen repeated that he would not consider one unless Flinn released his tax information, something Cohen himself has just done. And he scoffed at his opponent’s ambition. “He’d be prime pickings” in a debate, Cohen said. “He knows nothing about Congress. He has no clue. He’s vulnerable on every subject.”

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Court's Ruling for Memphis Library Cards Gets Mixed Reaction Statewide

Posted By on Thu, Oct 25, 2012 at 11:06 PM

mayoracwharton_4.jpg
Memphis Mayor A C Wharton released a statement Thursday expressing gratitude that the state Court of Appeals had found for the city in its appeal of a prior Davidson County Chancery Court ruling that had invalidated city library cards as proper IDs for voting under state law.

"It was our intent to make voting easier, not more difficult," Wharton said. "In so doing, we knew that we were fighting this battle not just for the citizens of Memphis, but for every city and community across Tennessee where you have seniors, the disabled, and people in general in need of greater access and flexibility in obtaining a valid ID for voting."

The court issued an unequivocally firm directive in support of its decision:

"In light of the fact that the period of early voting for the November 6 election is currently underway, Defendants (Secretary of State Tre) Hargett and (State Election Coordinator Mark) Goins are hereby ordered to immediately advise the Shelby County Election Commission to accept photo library cards issued by the City of Memphis Public Library as acceptable 'evidence of identification' as provided at Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-7-112(c)(2)(A)."

And it wasn’t just in Memphis where waves were made by Thursday’s appellate-court decision affirming Memphians’ rights to use library-issued photo IDs for voting.

Mary Mancini of Nashville, director of Tennessee Citizen Action, an avowedly progressive lobbying and watchdog group, had this to say:

"This is good news! The ruling clearly states that city-issued library cards lawfully fulfill the requirements of the photo ID to vote. It should send a clear message to the Tennessee State Legislature that their attempts last session to limit allowable IDs to only a handful was both restrictive and excessive.

Citizen Action looks forward to working with the Tennessee General Assembly next session to amend the Photo ID to Vote law to allow other Metro and city-issued photo IDs to fulfill the requirements of the law thereby removing additional barriers to the ballot box making it much easier for more hardworking Tennesseans to vote."

Mancini’s response paralleled those of most Democrats across the state.

Republicans, especially conservative ones, felt differently. Here’s this from Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who sets the pace for his party’s right wing:

"While allowing library cards clearly violates the legislative intent of this law, the court rightly affirmed the law's constitutionality. Just yesterday, we saw Democrat Party voter fraud efforts make national news in Virginia, as the son of a U.S. Congressman was caught on tape explaining how to commit fraud at the ballot box. This is exactly the type of illegal behavior our law will stop. Tennessee's voter ID law is necessary, proper and completely constitutional. This has been made plain by the courts and remains undisputed."

And state Representative Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), a principal author of the state’s Photo-ID legislation, expressed her vexation with the ruling:

"Not only has the Court gone beyond the clear intent of the law by allowing library cards, it has also created an exception for the city of Memphis that falls below the standard for the rest of Tennessee. This is the definition of 'legislating from the bench' and, frankly, is unacceptable."

In a late-afternoon conference call, Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett said the state would file an appeal with the state Supreme Court asking that Thursday’s ruling legitimizing library cards as a voting credential be overturned.

But Hargett found a silver lining in the court’s ruling that the Photo-ID law itself was constitutional, “They’ve called it a burden on voting and once again the judiciary has said it’s not.”

In upholding the law itself, the Court decision said, "We note that the Voter Photo ID Act has created much controversy and aroused intense feelings among both its supporters and its detractors. The courts do not question the General Assembly's motives or concern themselves with the General Assembly's policy judgments.”

Thursday, October 18, 2012

9th District Opponents Cohen and Flinn Square Off — Sort Of

Contenders for 9th District congressional seat share a stage — and a handshake — at Kirby Pines forum, have impromptu debate about having a debate.

Posted By on Thu, Oct 18, 2012 at 9:47 PM

Flinn (l) and Cohen at Kirby Pines
  • WMC-TV, Action News 5
  • Flinn (l) and Cohen at Kirby Pines

It may — as one of the principals indicated — end up being a one-of-a-kind event. But Steve Cohen, the incumbent Democrat for Memphis’ 9th Congressional district, and his Republican challenger, George Flinn, did in fact have something of a public debate on Thursday — though the main subject of their relatively brief back-and-forth was the issue of whether they should do a debate for real.

Cohen and Flinn were two of the candidates invited to a political forum at Kirby Pines Retirement Home, and, like the other candidates for various offices who were on hand, were there essentially to say their helloes and present their views to an auditorium full of Kirby Pines residents and other guests. While they waited their turn, the two congressional candidates sat virtually side by side — separated only by an empty chair reserved for a no-show independent candidate.

Cohen was the first of the two asked to speak by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who moderated the event. And when the third-term congressman reached the dais, he dutifully recounted his positions and achievements — ranging from helping to midwife The Med as a state senator to his role in cutting funding for Afghanistan to his espousal of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

It was in discoursing on the latter that Cohen got off his first sally at opponent Flinn’s expense. Insisting that the Act, universally referred to these days as “Obamacare,” would not restrict a patient’s choice of physicians, Cohen said, “You’ll still be able to have Dr. Flinn do your ultrasound. He’ll be doing it anyhow next year.”

When it came Flinn’s turn, the GOP candidate, a wealthy broadcast executive and physician who owns ultrasound patents, discoursed on Obamacare himself, though from a more skeptical point of view than Cohen had. Extolling the members of the audience for the “sacrifices” they had made during their lifetimes, Flinn said, “Now we’re being told to sacrifice for the government," going on to repeat the Republican mantra that the Affordable Care Act means a contraction of Medicare services, something Democrats from Cohen to President Obama himself vigorously dispute.

Referring to the “225,000 new voters in District 9” after this year’s reapportionment, Flinn maintained that they were entitled to hear an exchange of views between Cohen and himself. “I don’t know why we’re not having a debate. This is the closest we’ve come to it.”

A Q-and-A session elicited another round of discussions about matters pertaining to both government and medicine, during which Flinn assailed what he regarded as bureaucratic waste and Cohen espoused a balance between new revenues and budget cuts. Fielding a question from an audience member critical of the relatively low tax rate paid by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a multi-millionaire, Cohen responded, “You’re exactly right,” and said he would agree to a debate with Flinn “only when he releases his tax returns,” because “we’ve got to know what millionaires pay on their returns.”

Maintaining that he had recently released his own tax records, Cohen challenged Flinn to reciprocate. (Flinn would say that he had in fact made his tax information public, though an aide would later concede that Flinn had not released his returns in volume but made the minimum disclosures required by federal law.)

Chiding Flinn for not having agreed to debate Charlotte Bergman, his erstwhile GOP primary opponent, Cohen escalated into a generalized comparison of his own “open” situation to what he described as a more guarded attitude on Flinn’s part.

Mentioning the fact of his address on Kenilworth St. adjoining Overton Park, Cohen conjured up a contrast with Flinn’s residence near Memphis Country Club, “with a car in front of his house protecting it.” He said, “You need to be open. I’m out there, and you know it.”

Flinn responded tongue-in-cheek by saying rather that he lived “on the edge of Orange Mound,” a remark that drew general laughter. The neighborhood, he said, was “a good one,” and “I see a lot of interesting people come around.”

He went on to note, “I’m not the only millionaire on stage,” and offered mock congratulations to Cohen for his own membership in “the millionaire’s club.” And he renewed his challenge to Cohen to debate, noting, too, that Cohen had also eschewed debate encounters with his two most recent primary opponents, Willie Herenton in 2010 and School Board member Tomeka Hart this year. (Cohen said he had agreed to debate Herenton but that the former mayor had backed out of a commitment to do the debate at Channel 3.)

The two opponents shook hands after they had concluded their part of the event, and it remains to be seen whether their encounter on Thursday was the end of something or the beginning of something.

In any case, not much time remains for another go-round, with the election taking place in a little more than two weeks, on Tuesday, November 6.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Cohen Rides (And No, It's Not a Tank!)

Posted By on Tue, Oct 16, 2012 at 8:49 AM

Rep. Cohen boards the "Big X" - JB
  • JB
  • Rep. Cohen boards the "Big X"

SEE VIDEO BELOW

9th District congressman Steve Cohen paid a visit Monday morning to Krone of Memphis, a German-owned farm implement company in his district. The congressman both informed his listeners about matters pending in Congress and soaked up information about the company and about farm machinery — learning, for example, the meaning of "ted" as a verb ("to spread newly cut hay to facilitate its drying").

As a bonus, Cohen was invited for a ride on a massive machine used for foraging hay called "the Big X."

Friday, October 12, 2012

New Morris Opinion Okays Sexual Orientation Amendment for Council Vote

Posted By on Fri, Oct 12, 2012 at 9:19 AM

City Attorney Herman Morris
  • City Attorney Herman Morris
The anti-discrimination ordinance that was shelved last month will be back on the City Council agenda Tuesday, thanks to a new opinion from City Attorney Herman Morris that effectively reverses his prior advice that a referendum would be necessary to add an amendment regarding sexual orientation.

At the Council’s September 18 meeting, Morris’ earlier admonition had halted an effort to pass an amendment from Councilman Lee Harris adding a reference to “sexual orientation” to his proposed ordinance expanding protections for workers on the city payroll. Under advice from Council attorney Allan Wade, the Council voted for a 30-day pause, during which the issue would be given further legal research.

On Thursday, Morris announced his new finding in response to a formal request from Harris. The kernel of Morris’ opinion is this: “"While the non-discrimination in employment ordinance you have proposed includes language that is not found in the City Charter, the proposed ordinance does not conflict with the Charter and therefore, does not require a charter amendment by referendum vote."

The entire opinion can be read here: 20121005164543629.pdf.

Morris’ new opinion clears the way for a reconsideration of Harris’ amendment, which would add the term “sexual orientation” to a list of categories already included in Harris’ original ordinance expanding workplace protection. Those other categories were age, disability, ethnicity, and national origin.

All indications are that a majority of Council members are prepared to vote for the Harris ordinance, which had been amended conditionally on September 18 by a 7-5 majority, with one abstention.

Between that September 18 meeting and Morris' issuance of his new opinion, numerous proponents of the Harris ordinance, on and off the Council, had argued on its behalf with Mayor A C Wharton, who was thought to have concerns about its effect on the balance of power in City Hall.

Those interventions were influential, as was the key conversion of Councilman Reid Hedgepeth, a conservative member who had invoked the name of FedEx founder/CEO Fred Smith on behalf of the ordinance.

Also having an effect were favorable legal opinions from elsewhere, including one from a City of Knoxville legal authority acquired by Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, the author of a anti-discriination resolution on the Commission in 2009.

With chances good for passage of Harris' amendment, the main issue Tuesday could be an effort, supported by Jonathan Cole and the Tennessee Equality Project, to add language concerning "gender identity" to the ordinance.

Cole, who said his organization was "encouraged" by Morris' opinion and by clear indications that Mayor Wharton would not be an opponent, was optimistic that the ordinance, "as written," would pass and hopeful that the votes would be found to add the additional language pertaining to transsexuals and transgendered persons.

He said the TEP was actively attempting to rally supporters via phone calls and emails, while, he acknowledged, the Family Action Council, an organization affiliated with Bellevue Baptist Church that opposes all sexually related versions of the ordinance, was active as well, particularly with robocalls.

Council members regarded as "swing votes" on the addition of "gender identity" language are Hedgepeth, Edmond Ford Jr., and Wanda Halbert.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Alexander Sees Potential for Vice Presidential Debate to Boost GOPTicket

Posted By on Thu, Oct 11, 2012 at 4:33 PM

Just hours before Congressman Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president, was to take on Vice President Joe Biden, the incumbent Democrat, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander said Ryan, his fellow Republican, had an unusual opportunity to boost the chances of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

“Vice presidential debates are usually entertaining, but not important.” Alexander said in Memphis on Thursday. “This one might be a little more important because President Obama has made an issue out of Ryan’s Medicare proposal, and if Ryan can explain that adequately, it should help Governor Romney. Also, Ryan’s good in these forums. ..He talks in plain English, he’s very thoughtful, and he’s willing to compromise on his ideas to get a result.”

Alexander speakig to TCSA audience on Thursday
  • JB
  • Alexander speakig to TCSA audience on Thursday

The “compromise” Alexander spoke of was Ryan’s alteration of his original plan to include traditional Medicare as an option. The Wisconsin congressman had earlier attracted national attention for a plan that would have phased Medicare in its present form, completely replacing it with a voucher system for seniors.

Alexander said he had voted for a variant of Ryan’s original plan twice. “But I admire him, because, over the last year, he’s adjusted it three or four times to gain support, which is the way I think a political leader ought to do.”

The Senator had just spoken to a session of the Tennessee County Services Association (TCSA) Fall Conference at the Convention Center on the general theme of government via bipartisan consultation and compromise, and he said Romney’s ability to function that way as governor of Massachusetts contrasted with President Obama, “who has shown no skill for it or interest in doing it.”

Alexander praised Romney in last week’s first presidential debate in Denver for “emphasizing issues that are important to the independent voter, because the independent voter is going to decide the election.” Of Obama’s performance in the debate, Alexander said, “He seemed like his staff hadn’t told him that it was going to be televised.”

Friday, October 5, 2012

George Flinn, the Hip-Hop Candidate??

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2012 at 1:46 PM

We’re going to have to let this new ...er, rap from Al Kapone, on behalf of the congressional campaign of Republican George Flinn in the 9th District, speak for itself:

Meanwhile, the incumbent congressman, Democrat Steve Cohen,already had his supporters in the genre, as far back as 2010:

Five Thoughts on The Debate

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2012 at 11:53 AM

Romney_vs._Obama.jpg

(1) There’s very little doubt as to who won it. Literally. No one of prominence and anything resembling objectivity credits the President with a win. In fact, most of those biased in Obama’s favor concede a Romney victory.

(2) The chief Democratic response, emerging in a veritable landslide of day-after tweets, blog posts, and press releases, is to call the Republican nominee a dissembler and to itemize x, y, and z of his statements as outright lies. Stephen Colbert had the best response to this gambit, noting that it might go over big in Factchechoslovakia (which he probably spelled differently and has, in any case, Zero electoral votes) but nowhere else in the real world

It is an unpleasant reality, but a reality all the same, that successful politicians spin tall tales all the time and get away with it. Think Reagan, FDR, a host of others. The point is that Romney gave his various exaggerations and misstatements an internal plausibility (on his tax cuts being “revenue neutral,” for example) that Obama was not able to duplicate with what the President’s defenders say was the Whole Truth but was itself actually a somewhat muddled and contradictory account of things. (That business of himself and Romney “agreeing” on Social Security, for example. What was that supposed to mean? Is it possible that Obama has been dissembling?)

But the real problem with this line of defense is that presidential “debates” are not like the college tournament variety, to be graded by academic supervisors on truth content, factual accuracy, or suchlike. They are much closer to being beauty pageants or stages in the much-maligned “horse race.” And dismiss both those concepts as cosmetic as you will, the fact is, voters are judging the person more than they are a set of position papers or talking points. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. Think the difference between JFK and Ted Sorenson, Kennedy’s idea man, speechwriter, and researcher. And on the personal level, Romney was assertive, organized, and even somewhat likable. Obama seemed to be waiting on a bus.

(3) Romney revived a former image of himself as a moderate conciliator, noting that as governor of Massachusetts he was able to deal successfully with his Democratic legislature on health care and other issues. Yes, and no doubt he would, as President, take on the coloration of Congress in the same chameleon-like manner — except that the House is a Tea Partier’s paradise and the Senate, even with its narrow Democratic majority, is no progressive wonderland. It is barely, and somewhat conservatively, Democratic — nothing at all like the erstwhile 87 per cent Democratic majority in the Massachusetts blue-state legislature.

Taking Romney at his word, any “reasoning together” of his with the Congress he would face is more likely to take him further to the right than otherwise. Consider only how far he’s already traveled in that direction since his aforesaid governorship.

(4) The reality is that, with two more debates to go (three, counting the one between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, which itself could be problematic), things could get worse for the Democrats rather than better. In a true sense, Obama can now be regarded as the underdog on the debate circuit, and, while that is good for him if he can rise to the occasion and defeat expectations (which is what Romney did on Wednesday night) it is hard to imagine that the President can maintain his purported sigle-digit percentage-point lead in swing states if he takes two more shellackings as thorough as this week’s in Denver.

And, speaking of Denver, Al Gore is wrong. Wednesday night’s result was more a matter of attitude or, arguably and more seriously, aptitude than altitude.

(5) Ah well, what was it that Scarlett O'Hara said? Something about tomorrow being another day? Well, from the President's point of view, it better be.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Cohen Elated After Monitoring Elections in Nation of Georgia

Posted By on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 at 3:53 PM

Georgia.jpg

9th District congressman Steve Cohen is just back from Georgia — no, not that Georgia, the one that used to belong to the former Soviet Union — and, as he waited in the Newark airport Tuesday, he could barely contain the elation he felt from having observed a political sea change in that land-bound Eurasian naton.

Cohen was in Georgia as a member of the Helsinki Commission and as an international monitor, appointed by House speaker John Boehner, charged with observing parliamentary elections Monday in the Republic of Georgia.

What Cohen got to see, as he told the Flyer, was a nation in the act of asserting its will for change. The election process seemed both “free and fair,” and the outcome was a defeat for the ruling party of incumbent Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who conceded the election to a coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. News reports have characterized the pending transition to be a victory for democracy, and Cohen concurs in that judgment.

The new leader is “a Bloomberg type,” Cohen said, referring to Michael Bloomberg, the wealthy entrepreneur who is now serving his third term as mayor of New York.

The congressman said that the media of Georgia, though not as open as in the United States, had begun to report accurately on the country’s internal conditions, and it was a recent series of articles about brutality and oppression in the natoin’s prisons that may have turned the tide against the incumbent. The attitude in Georgia was “festive,” Cohen said.

Georgis is catching up with the West in other ways, too, said Cohen, who toured the province of Gori and spent time in the capital city of Tbilisi, where he patronized an Elvis theme restaurant, a Beatles Café, and a giant-sized McDonald’s.

Upon his return stateside, Cohen’s staff issued the following news release:

MEMPHIS, TN — Congressman Steve Cohen (TN-09), a member of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE — also known as the Helsinki Commission), recently served as an international monitor for the high-profile Parliamentary elections in the Republic of Georgia. Congressman Cohen was appointed to the Helsinki Commission by House Speaker John Boehner in early 2011.

“It was an honor to serve as a monitor for the Helsinki Commission,” said Congressman Cohen. “The Georgian government worked hard to hold free and transparent elections and this was its first litmus test for democracy. The Helsinki Commission and the world were watching this election closely because Georgia’s future and international reputation is at stake. These elections were an important test for Georgia’s democracy, especially considering how they will now undergo a peaceful passage of power. I have long been an advocate for protecting the right to vote in America and overseas and will continue to fight for the right to vote.”

Congressman Cohen continued: “The election I witnessed was free and fair, with checks and balances in place that assured that people were registered voters and only voted once. There were some activities leading up to election day, weighted by the government to their advantage, that made it more difficult for Georgia Dream Party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili to get his message out. Nevertheless, it appears the people’s will prevailed and, for the first time, a peaceful change in power via the election process has come about in a former Soviet satellite. I met Mr. Ivanishvili on Sunday morning and presented him with a U.S. House of Representatives coin as a token of goodwill. He accepted the coin with a broad and gracious smile. It was beautiful and inspirational to witness the ecstatic Georgian people participate in the Democratic process. Hundreds of thousands of citizens participated in a rally in Tbilisi after the election results were announced. The OSCE helped contribute to this birth, growth and fulfillment of democracy and I’m happy to say that Democracy is alive and well in Georgia.”

Congressman Cohen observed voting in rural and urban areas of Georgia on October 1 as part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) election-observation mission as the former Soviet republic undergoes the most competitive election process since gaining independence. Congressman Cohen also was a member of the senior advisory committee of the OSCE PA as it worked with the OSCE Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights to formulate the official OSCE assessment of the election process. Congressman David Dreier (R-CA) and Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX) also served as election monitors.

Earlier this month, Congressman Cohen participated in a Helsinki Commission hearing on “Georgia’s Parliamentary Election: How Free and Fair Has the Campaign Been, and How Should the U.S. Government Respond?” Georgia’s Parliamentary elections were held on Monday, October 1.

The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. Government agency, was created in 1976 to monitor and encourage compliance with the Helsinki Final Act and other OSCE commitments.

The Commission consists of nine members from the United States Senate, nine members from the U.S. House of Representatives, and one member each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. The positions of Chair and Co-Chair are shared by the House and Senate and rotate every two years, when a new Congress convenes. A professional staff assists the Commissioners in their work.

The Commission contributes to the formulation of U.S. policy on the OSCE and takes part in its execution, including through Member and staff participation on U.S. Delegations to OSCE meetings and in certain OSCE bodies. Members of the Commission have regular contact with parliamentarians, government officials, NGOs, and private individuals from other OSCE participating States.

The Commission convenes public hearings and briefings with expert witnesses on OSCE-related issues; issues public reports concerning implementation of OSCE commitments in participating States; and organizes official delegations to participating States and OSCE meetings to address and assess democratic, economic, security and human rights developments firsthand.

State Comptroller's Report Faults Both Administrator, SCEC Board

Posted By on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 at 10:07 AM

ShelbyCountyTN_ElectionCommission_logo.jpg
The Shelby County Election Commission has released the findings of the long-awaited state Comptroller’s report on glitches in the August 2012 election process in Shelby County. According to a summary of the findings by Rene Brison, assistant director of the division of Investigation in the Comptroller’s office, “Our review identified no discernible evidence of intentional misconduct or other actions intended to affect or influence the election process or election outcomes in Shelby County. It appears that poor judgment and mistakes were the most likely causes of the ballot errors and SCEC staff did not identify or correct the errors in a timely manner.”

Independent investigations by Steve Ross and Joe Weinberg, later corroborated by state officials, indicated that upwards of 3000 Shelby County voters in August were given wrong ballots. The Comptroller’s report faults Shelby County Election Commission administrator Richard Holden for delays in ballot preparation arising from a decision to wait on the Shelby County Commission’s long-stalled efforts at redistricting. The report cited Holden for failure to prepare a timely backup plan and found that the Commission board had failed to provide proper oversight.

The Commission board has since imposed a three-day suspension and a six-month period of probation on Holden.

“We are pleased that the independent audit by the State of Tennessee found no issues beyond those already acknowledged and identified by the Election Commission,” said Commission chairman Robert D. Meyers. “We appreciate the work undertaken by the Controllers’ Office. With no additional issues raised in the audit beyond the commission’s self-evaluation, that means the steps already underway by the commission staff to improve processes, safeguards and ballot accuracy are addressing the same issues and concerns as the state.”

The complete Comptroller's Report can be accessed here.

City/County Group Boosts Sales Tax; Luttrell Still a Holdout

Posted By on Tue, Oct 2, 2012 at 7:27 AM

from left: Patrice Robinson, Steve Mulroy, Mayor Wharton, Chris Caldwell, Mike Ritz, Melvin Burgess, Shea Flinn, Sidney Chism, and Myron Lowery. Also present was Walter Bailey.
  • JB
  • from left: Patrice Robinson, Steve Mulroy, Mayor Wharton, Chris Caldwell, Mike Ritz, Melvin Burgess, Shea Flinn, Sidney Chism, and Myron Lowery. Also present was Walter Bailey.

As previously forecast, two former critics of a proposed half-cent increase in the county sales-tax hike came forth in support of it on Monday, but another prominent naysayser, from county government itself, remains unmoved in his opposition.

The two converts were Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and City Councilman Shea Flinn, both of whom had originally been opposed to the proposal from Shelby County Commissioner Mike Ritz, now the Commission chairman. Their opposition had been based, essentially, on the fact that Ritz’s proposal, adopted by the Commission and later defended against an attempted veto by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, would supersede and displace from the November 6 ballot a similar initiative for city residents only.

But, after weeks of discussions with Ritz and others, notably Commissioner Steve Mulroy, Wharton and Flinn have become foursquare in their espousal of the county tax proposal, and no hint of reservation showed in their remarks at a morning press conference called to support the tax hike, held in the county auditorium.

Wharton hailed the tax increase as a means of extending childhood education and pre-K programs throughout Shelby County and of providing “some additional breathing room for some of the additional challenges we face.” Flinn, the Council’s immediate past budget chairman and the sponsor of the now displaced half-cent tax proposal by the city, would sound similar notes and warned of the alternatives. “If you vote no to the sales tax, a property tax will be coming soon thereafter and we will miss out on opportunity for pre-K and city improvements,” he said.

But Luttrell, who attended the press conference but did not speak at it, told reporters afterward there were “huge gaps in the general operation of our schools,” notably in security provisions, adding up to “about a $6 million hole in the budget” that he said should be plugged “before we talk about expanding.” The county mayor criticized the tax proposal for what he said was a lack of “specificity,” and, when asked if he would vote for it, said, “At this point, no.”

As if anticipating Luttrell’s objections, Ritz had already tried to debunk charges that the proposed tax would be “premature.” Such allegations “couldn’t be more untrue,” he said, citing the need for “a strategy to have the resources to do what we need to do.” And Ritz had spelled out what he said the financial consequences of a no vote would be. If the county, which will shortly be the only body responsible for funding public education, were to pick up the burden of a $57 million maintenance-of-effort default by the city, the result would be “a 44-cent increase in the property tax.”

Wharton, in speaking to the same point, the imminent phasing-out of the city’s financial obligations after completion of the pending merger of city and county schools, had said, “While the City of Memphis will no longer have a legal responsibility to contribute anything to education, it still has moral responsibility, particularly when it comes to early education and the pre-K years.” He would say, in a Q-and-A session that concluded the press conference, that it was the commitment to pre-K that “sold me” on the county plan.

Others attending the press conference in support of the county tax proposal were Patrice Robinson of the Unified School Board (who called the occasion “a great day”); Chris Caldwell of the School Board; Mulroy, Sidney Chism, Melvin Burgess Jr., and Walter Bailey of the County Commission; and Myron Lowery and Harold Collins of the City Council.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Germantown Democrats: Not an Oxymoron?

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 9:19 AM

germantown_dems_picnic_2.jpg

The Germantown Democratic Club (for yes, Virginia, such a group exists and may even be thriving) met at the Gazebo in Germantown Municipal Park Saturday for its annual picnic. Here Dave Cambron exhorts his fellow Democrats to take heart from recent poll samplings that show President Obama to be leading Mitt Romney nationwide.

Attendance at this year's event seemed well above the average turnout in recent years.

Ironically enough, considering that Germantown is considered to be the heart of the heart of Shelby County's Republican constituency, the Germantown Democrats, who also include a good many members from Cordova, Collierville, and unincorporated areas, constitute one of the county's more active party groups.

An analogy might be to the South Memphis Republican Club, or the Orange Mound Republicans. Do such groups exist?

The point is not facetious. The President will almost certainly carry Shelby County on November 6, and until Republicans are able to carve out a bridgehead within Shelby County's African American majority, they will not be able in the long run to match Democrats in countywide voting.

In the short run, the GOP has managed quite well, dominating most county elections over the last 20 years despite being demographically challenged. But Democratic incumbents won the countywide offices up for grabs in August, and that fact could have portents for the future.

(Those attending the picnic were well aware, however, that Republicans now dominate politics and government statewide, and that fact is unlikely to change for some time to come.)

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