Two important filings took place Tuesday at the downtown offices of the Shelby County Election Commission.
In ballyhooed scenes reminiscent of a pre-cybernetic time, when candidate filings in deadline week routinely drew big and boisterous crowds, former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown — “Judge Joe Brown” of TV fame — and Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks turned in completed petitions and made their 2014 election bids official — Brown for District Attorney General and Brooks for Juvenile Court Clerk.
Brooks. accompanied by Ruby Wharton, wife of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, and members of a support group called “Women for Brooks,” came first, shortly to be followed by Brown with a celebrity-style ad hoc entourage. Both candidates thereby opened up a new chapter in their contrroversial public lives — and new opportunities for a Democratic Party still smarting from an electoral wipe-out by the GOP in 2010.
Hours before his filing, Brown had addressed a luncheon meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club. It was the latest of several public appearances for the former judge, and, as always, he tailored his remarks for his audience — a good omen for those Democrats who need his turnout pull at the polls but fear an implosion resulting from intemperate or impolitic statements.
As the keynoter at last year’s party “roast” of former mayor Willie Herenton, Brown allowed himself some critical remarks about gays and loose women that antagonized some of the attending Democrats (though such rhetoric played well with others). And at a recent meeting of the Shelby County Denmocratic execuive committee, he made accusations against some sitting politicians that raised howls of delight by some and fears by others in his audience that he’d gone too far.
So it was that Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, who introduced Brown to the Rotarians, jested that he should overcome his “shyness” and speak his mind for once.
Brown did, but within safe and audience-appropriate limits. He lamented that “our criminal justice system is no longer concerned with securing justice or controlling crime.” It had become, instead, “a device to control surplus labor.” That was his way of addressing the issue of the nation’s — and Shelby County’s — high incarceration rates, and it bespoke his propensity for dramatic statement.
That line of thought, as the judge elaborated, soared in the direction of revolutionary (“labor as a commodity,” “economic control of labor”), but he had fallback lines, too, for the more conservative (“We need to switch over from welfare to workfare”), and he even had some praise for Memphis lowlifes as being morally superior, all things considered, to the riff-raff he had to deal with during his 15-year run on TV (technically as an arbitrator, though his set was decked out as a courtroom).
Brown, who clearly has a propensity for the Big Idea, floated a proposal to convert Memphis into the “point of entry for Eastern seabord maritime traffic. But he could get down to earth, too, as in his denunciation of Memphis’ well-publicized rape-kit back log as something resulting in “12,000 women out there insulted by gross neglect, with not even the opportunity to get justice.”
All in all, it was a tour de force and, as Rotarian Dick Ranta of the University of Memphis noted during the Q and A “a good stump speech.” And, in answer to Ranta’s question as to whether he intended to offer himself for office, Brown allowed as how, having done his non-partisan duty as a Rotary Club speaker, he would be officially filing at 3:15 later on.
Which he did, a few minutes after Brooks had made her entrance, clearly buoyed by the experience and by the exuberance of her entourage, as well as by the fact that she seems to be having a career peak. She not only had Ruby Wharton in tow, but she was recently the recipient of the Ruby R. Wharton Award, given for her determined efforts to seek reform of Juvenile Court procedures, resulting in a U.S. Department of Justice investigation and a subsequent mandate for specific reforms by the Court.
Brooks has also organized a group of community monitors to ensure compliance with those reforms, and she earned the public support of her colleagues on the County Commission when Court authorities initially balked in allowing her group to exercise a supervisory function.
That unanuimity of support from hefr colleagues was a signal event in itself, inasmuch as Brooks had previously spent much of her time on the Commission as a dissenter — even (in the Socratic sense, of course) as a gadfly, less intent on achieving comity than in raising aloud issues she considered important to her mainly African-American constituency.
After filing, Brooks observed that she had honestly thought she would become “a taxi-cab driver” after her two terms as County Commissioner ended (meaning she would be attending to the transportation needs of her grandchildren), but she now felt a sense of mission to follow through on the issues of Juvenile Court.
And, indeed, she might well be an asset to a Democratic Party seeking redemption at the polls. So could Brown, as a galvanizer of the voted. But both will need to restrain a certain tendency for — how to say it? — high-risk rhetoric, and both are up against an odds board that always favors incumbents.
District Attorney General Amy Weirich, the incumbent Republican, demonstrated in the election of 2012, when she won the right to finish the term of former boss Bill Gibbons, now state Commissioner of Public Safety and Homeland Security, that she could pull a significant crossover vote, and she has won points in most quarters for her professionalism.
Similarly, Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos, who will be running on the GOP ticket, is regarded as a solid , effective, and non-controversial public official.
And both Brown and Brooks have primary opponents — attorney Linda Nettles Harris for District Attorney General and Cynthia Gentry and Kenneth Moody for Juvenile Court Clerk. Competitive races could well develop at that level.
Whatever the case, Brown and Brooks are going to make things interesting.