On Monday, the Shelby County Commission, down to 12 members now that District 4 Commissioner Wyatt Bunker has moved on to serve as elected mayor of suburban Lakeland, will select someone from a lengthy list of applicants to be Bunker’s interim successor through this year’s regular election cycle.
On Wednesday, commissioners had a chance to interview most of the 13 applicants remaining after the last-minute withdrawals of two others, Van Turner and Matt Kuhn. Remaining hopefuls are Bennie Cobb, Dennis Dougherty, Diane George, Frank Uhlhorn, George Chism, Jackie Jackson, Kevin Hardin, Mark Billingsley, Rob Johnson, Robert Escue, Ronald Fittes, Leon Hurd Jr, and John Wilkerson.
The withdrawals of Turner and Kuhn, both former chairs of the Shelby County Democratic Party, seemingly assured that the new commissioner will be, like Bunker, a Republican. The 4th District, a collective one soon to pass into history as the result of reapportionment into single districts, has a predominantly Republican constituency and has been served of late by Bunker and GOP Commission colleagues Terry Roland and Chris Thomas.
Although prospects of a victory by a dark-horse candidate cannot be dismissed, especially in view of the multi-ballot outcomes that have come to characterize Commission votes in filling vacancies for various positions, three applicants are regarded as favorites on the eve of Monday’s debate.
They are Mark Billingsley, executive director of the Methodist Hospital Foundation; mortgage banker George Chism; and realtor Diane George, a former member of the Shelby County Schools board. Like most of the other applicants, each of the three is at least nominally Republican, but all — particularly George, who begins with commitments from several Democrats — are capable of attracting crossover support.
Of the three presumed leaders, only Billingsley and Chism have indicated their intent to seek election this year to one of the 13 new single-district positions. Fittes and Jackson have also expressed an intent to run.
Numerous factors, ranging from the partisan to the personal to simple evaluations of candidates’ credentials, will be weighed by Commission members in selecting the new interim commissioner. One multi-leveled issue pertains to the future of the Shelby County Schools district vis-à-vis the new municipal school districts in six incorporated suburbs, involving such related matters as funding and questions of school board composition.
Commissioner Thomas, who is not seeking reelection but intends to serve out his present term, was recently hired as city manager of Lakeland. Thomas asked each applicant in turn their regarding their attitude toward municipal schools. Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a Democrat representing District 5 (Midtown, East Memphis) , was equally persistent in asking candidates their position on the desirability of expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, as well as that of funding pre-K programs. And District 2 Democrat Henri Brooks, a representative of the inner city, asked each candidate their views on funding for social services.
There were several intriguing dialogues on Wednesday between candidates and the commissioners who interviewed them. One involved candidate Escue, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization who underwent an extended interrogation from Brooks concerning that organization’s de facto segregation by gender. (Separatism of various kinds was one of the matters candidates were asked about on the application forms they submitted.)
“It’s ‘Sons,’” Escue said, noting that the existence of a parallel organization, Daughters of the Confederacy. He assured Brooks, an African-American female, that she would be welcome to attend the meetings of the SCV and issued her a direct invitation.
The first version of this post incorrectly stated that Commmissioner Chris Thomas intended to run for reelection. He does not.