Though it dealt only with the candidates for judgeships and the Shelby County School boards — with an unexpectedly brief and somewhat anti-climactic interlude for congressional candidates — the NAACP affair lasted four hours and seemed even longer, though there were animated moments, to be sure.
One came from Criminal Court Judge Paula Skahan — the firebrand pixie who only last week spotted a motorist beating his lady friend in an adjoining lane and hailed him down, calling him by a name (initials “M.F.”) that was not on his birth certificate.
Skahan was only slightly more tender Sunday with her main election opponent, Nigel Lewis — “young Nigel ,” as the veteran jurist called him, challenging his experience.
Skahan burlesqued an extended handclap after suggesting that Lewis had just begun handling a jury trial by himself “in the last few weeks” and expressed the sarcastic hope that he might equip himself to run for judge “in eight years.”
Lewis billed himself as “a product of this community” and had said, “We can do better than the status quo,” noting further that 80 to 85 percent of current defendants were African American — not the first nor the last time that particular disproportion figured in Sunday’s event.
He objected that other judges could attest to his acumen and experience, and Skahan drew laughs as he spoke by pantomiming an appeal to the crowd, palm upward, as if seeking out corroboration from judges in attendance.
Another moment of theater came when judicial candidate Sheila Bruce-Renfroe, candidate for a General Sessions judgeship (Civil, Division 1) took to task her absent opponent, incumbent Judge Lynn Cobb, for an ad of his featuring, over a fine-print identifying paragraph, the visage of Cobb’s campaign co-chair Van Turner.
Said Bruce-Renfroe of Cobb, who is white: “He was trying to give the impression that he was African-American. He looks more like Elmer Fudd.”
One aspect of the forum that slowed down proceedings was the posing to candidates of written questions received from the audience. (These dwindled down considerably as the evening wore on.)
A staple question early on regarded whether the candidates had ever been disciplined, either publicly or privately, by a regulatory body.
For those who had, especially by the state Board of Professional Responsibility, their methods of dealing with the question varied. Venita Martin-Andrews, a candidate for Circuit Court, Division 8, bit the bullet, owning up forthrightly to having been sanctioned for allowing a proxy to oversee a minor in a case where the child’s supervision had been assigned to Martin-Andrews herself.
On the other hand, Alicia Howard, candidate for Criminal Court Judge, Davison 6, adopted, perhaps inadvertently, a different approach to her previously well-publicized suspension by the Board of Professional Responsibility for 18 months (12 of which were probated) for the dual offense of forging a client’s name to a document and soliciting pay from the state for work which a surrogate actually performed.
Since the question about sanctioning was in a two-parter that also asked about trial experience, Howard dilated so long about the latter matter that she was at the end of her allotted period for answering when time was called on her just as she began to speak regarding the details of her suspension.
The matter of excessive absenteeism reared up when Myra May Hamilton, a contender for the General Sessions Civil Division 2 judgeship, (without naming her opponent, incumbent Judge Phyllis Gardner), cited a Sunday Commercial Appeal article in which Gardner was listed as having the most absences of any General Sessions judge. “I don’t know how you cannot show up for your job,” said Hamilton.
Gardner, who had preceded Hamilton, had not mentioned the article but had spoken at some length about her high rating in a Memphis Bar Association poll of lawyers and her experience and credentials, including an ongoing effort to establish a civil mental health court.
The absentee issue surfaced again, even more indirectly, when Betty Thomas Moore, the incumbent judge in General Sessions Civil Division 5, commented, while addressing her credentials, that “you’re not always going to get the truth of the matter” from TV or newspaper accounts. Moore had been listed in the CA article as being just behind Gardner, among General Sessions judges, in the number and frequency of absences.
Midway of the appearances by judicial candidates, the debate sponsors made space on the agenda for four congressional candidates — in District 9, incumbent Steve Cohen and Ricky Wilkins, Democrats, in a rare joint appearance, and Charlotte Bergman, Republican; and, in District 8, Rickey Hobson, a Somerville native and Democrat.
Bergman, who spoke first, and Hobson, who concluded, elaborated on their backgrounds and political outlooks. So, essentially, did Cohen, who conspicuously omitted mention of lawyer Wilkins, his latest challenger, but Wilkins would go on the attack.
Cohen, like opponent Wilkins a life member of the NAACP, referred to the sponsoring organization as “the conscience of the United States Congress." He recounted some of the grants and programs he had brought to Memphis and noted that he had been endorsed by both President Obama and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Wilkins, who followed, spoke of his climb upward from an impoverished background in the inner city and offered himself as a “role model.” Suggesting, as often before, that Cohen had slighted local issues and “done nothing” to alter power relationships, Wilkins said, “The status quo does not work for us.”
Tarik Sugarmon, the Memphis city judge who is a candidate for Juvenile Court Judge, received the most audible applause of the evening after a presentation in which, reading from a report of a meeting of the Midtown Republican Club, he quoted his absent opponent, Dan Michael, as having said, “I’m a strong critic of the federal program of the deinstitutionalizing of minority confinement.”
“That means he wants to lock African American kids up,” said Sugarmon.
The main fireworks from the final portion of the forum, involving SCS candidates, came when Damon Curry Norris, a candidate for District 9, denounced “special interest groups…trying to hold our School Board hostage.” He later indicated that he had been referring principally to “Stand for Children,” a group which has endorsed and donated funds to one of Norris’s two opponents, Roshun Austin.