Anyone who is confused about the reasons for Republican domination of Shelby County politics — a fact of life that flies in the face of what would seem to be a demographic preponderance in favor of Democrats — should have been at the local party’s biennial convention Sunday.
The event, like the GOP’s nominating caucuses some weeks back, was held at the Bartlett Municipal Center on Stage Road. And, though the delegates and onlookers were not numerous enough to fill all the spaces, large and small, of the venerable community center (as was the case on the prior occasion), they — the elected remnant of that earlier meeting — certainly had the sprawling banquet hall filled to capacity.
Yes, this impressive turnout of several hundred was virtually all-white, as at least one of the many vying candidates at Sunday’s affair was candid enough to say from the dais (and this was by way of boasting his command of Spanish). But, whatever the nature of its ethnic identity, this party is organized in depth. That fact was made obvious when, at the very beginning of the convention, outgoing GOP chairman Justin Joy lined up, successively, long rows of the party’s internal officers and its elected public officials at the front of the room.
By anybody’s definition, this was a display of active grass roots politics.
Another lesson of Sunday’s convention was that, while there was no dearth of competition — either for the party chairmanship, won by Mary Wagner over Arnold Weiner, or for the numerous other offices up for grabs — the Tea Party rebellion which flared up at the 2013 Republican conclave and in attempted power grabs at several local Republican clubs has been contained. There was no Tea Party slate as such, with adherents of that somewhat diversified, quasi-libertarian point of view to be found on both contending slates, Wagner’s and Weiner’s.
There was a message to be had, though, in the fact that the slate headed by Wagner, a relative newcomer to party politics whose last position was that of Young Republicans president, all but swept the slate led by Weiner, a longtime party veteran who had been, most recently, a party vice chair and immediate past president of the East Shelby Republican Club. And that “all but” is required mainly because Curt Cowan, the Wagner slate’s candidate for Primary Board position #5, was prevailed upon to drop out in favor of Dr. George Flinn, the wealthy radiologist/broadcast executive and sometime political candidate who still maintains a high profile in the local Republican Party.
The other 35 contested positions — for chairman, at-large steering committee members, district representatives, and primary board members — were won by the Wagner slate.
The message, quite simply, is that there is a Republican mainstream, and it is back in full command — though there is, and always has been, a dissenting minority, which this year collected around Weiner. This year, as always before, that minority can — in today’s political vernacular — “make a statement” (mainly that it opposes whoever is in charge), but it cannot attain control or set forth, much less establish, a coherent ideological
The relative balance of power is accurately reflected in the ratio of Wagner’s victory —317 votes for her, 97 for Weiner.
The outcome had to be painful for Weiner, who has certainly paid his party dues in sweat equity for several decades and who, ironically, may have achieved the apex of his influence a few years back when, at the height of the Tea Party surge, he organized a massive turnout of traditional Republicans to turn back an organized effort by the Tea Partiers to wrest elective control of the influential East Shelby Republican Club.
Though the fact surfaced only sotto voce in the run-up to Sunday’s GOP convention, Weiner’s devotion to Republican causes may have been offset — or at least balanced — by the highly idiosyncratic nature of his distinctive and often self-absorbed personality. He is generally regarded as likeable, in the teddy-bear sense, but he managed to seriously undermine that aspect of his reputation by an ill-considered convention-eve innuendo in a Facebook post against a member of his opponent’s slate.
Weiner is nothing if not resilient, however, a point indicated in a post-convention online text from him: “Even though I lost for chairman I was elected district 85 rep on steering committee. I am persistent.” (It should be noted that there was not a Wagner-backed candidate for the District 85 slot.)
There were strange moments at Sunday’s convention, which began at 2 p.m. and drifted well into the evening (though it was nothing like the seven-hour marathon of two years ago). There was the candidate who based his pitch to the delegates on his claimed support for former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton in a past reelection effort against John Ford. Odd, considering that that both of these worthies are Democrats. Even odder, inasmuch as there was never any race in which they ran against each other.
And there was the candidate for party treasurer who rose to say he did not want the position for which he had been nominated but then launched into a vigorous and prolonged accounting of his qualifications for the job. (He lost.)
But mainly, after the long and drawn-out event finally came to an end, Sunday’s convention amounted to one more attempted reaffirmation by Shelby County’s de facto governing party on behalf of GOP talking points and the amorphous concept that Warren G. Harding once famously referred to as normalcy.
: a few non-Wagner choices at the district level. See comments below.)