Election Day 2004 was a day of mixed messages and, intermittent rains notwithstanding, brisk turnouts at the polls. Almost 375,000 votes were cast in Shelby County, along with 2 million statewide. Both were records, added on to what had already been precedent-shattering totals for early voting.
Though the Big Issue on everybody's mind -- that of the presidency -- remained unsettled until mid-morning Wednesday, when Democrat John Kerry made a surprise concession to President Bush, shake-ups in other races were signaled early on. These were local, where two school-board incumbents suffered reverses, and statewide, where the Republicans added significant legislative gains to Bush's electoral-vote victory in Tennessee.
Local Democratic activist Cheri DelBrocco reported a wait of an hour and a half on Tuesday morning at Temple Israel on East Massey. And her own expectations were stood on their head. Seniors in line, supposedly responsive to traditional Democratic positions, were indicating their intention to vote for Bush, while youngish mothers with children -- the conservative-minded "soccer moms" of yore -- were talking up Kerry.
As local Kerry campaign director David Cocke boasted to the faithful from a stage at Beale Street's Plush Club Tuesday night, Shelby County would go for Kerry by some 52,000 votes -- 2,000 more than separated Al Gore from Bush in 2000. But that was countered by local Republican chairman Kemp Conrad, who presided over a crowded election-watch party at GOP headquarters on Ridgeway.
Conrad, who had set as a goal the cutting in half of Gore's countywide majority, nevertheless professed himself "thrilled" by the election results. "We had an increase of 10 percent in Shelby County overall, and of that new 10 percent, Republicans got 75 percent," Conrad maintained. He further noted that his party had captured a majority in the state Senate and that Shelby County had provided more votes than any other Tennessee locality for Bush, who won the state, Conrad calculated, with "a 13 percent majority."
Though they were moot as far as influencing any local outcomes, both Conrad and Cocke, as well as state representative Kathryn Bowers, the Shelby County Democratic chairperson, were nigh on to apoplectic about what each of them saw as the other party's machinations and about apparent screw-ups in communications between the Election Commission downtown and various local precincts.
For Cocke, the issue was the issuance of provisional ballots to voters whose credentials could not be verified at local polling places. By his estimation, these were mainly Democratic and numbered "in the thousands." Worse, though, was what we called the "confusion" resulting from the communications breakdown. "You have to blame the commission," he said. "There was gross incompetence. It doesn't matter what party was responsible." (Democrats have a 3-2 majority on the panel.)
A corollary to Cocke's concern was one advanced by Probate Court clerk Chris Thomas, a Republican, who claimed that at one precinct at least 75 voters who should have been classified as provisional were allowed to vote by machine. He, too, blamed a communications breakdown between the commission and outlying precincts.
Even as the polls were opening Tuesday morning, Bowers and Conrad were in a verbal tangle over what the Democratic chairman charged were efforts by Republican poll-watchers to intimidate and disqualify obvious Democratic voters -- African Americans in the main. Conrad said the charge was "an attempt to play the race card -- right out of the Kerry/Edwards playbook" and unjustified by any Republican conduct "past or present."
The local controversies reflected some accruing to the Big Issue nationally -- that of who gets to be president for the next four years. All hinged on Ohio, whose vote count had been delayed, contingent on what at first was predicted to be a weeklong counting of provisional ballots in that state. Right up to the point of Kerry's Wednesday-morning concession, Bush maintained a numerically slight lead in that all-important Midwestern state, which even before Tuesday's voting had been generally classified as one of three decisive "battleground states" -- the others being Florida, which went for Bush, and Pennsylvania, which went for Kerry.
In the final mathematics, the winner of Ohio's 20 electoral votes was destined to be elected president. That was the bottom line, and that was the line reluctantly crossed by Kerry -- reportedly at the behest of his wife Teresa.
Though there were several well-watched races on the local ballot, most eyes at the two party election-watch parties -- the Republicans at their Ridgeway headquarters, the Democrats at the Plush Club -- were fixed on the several big TV screens that sporadically presented the presidential results in key states.
Burned in 2000 by what turned out to be premature calls of Florida for both Gore and Bush, the networks were reticent about stating their conclusions. Notable in this regard were CBS News and the Fox News Channel, criticized by Republican and Democratic partisans, respectively, for their alleged biases.
Though he had been billed as one of the star attractions at the Plush Club festivities Tuesday night, 9th District U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr. had decamped earlier in the day for Boston, where, as a national co-chair of Senator Kerry's effort, he intended to share a stage with the Democratic nominee in Copley Square.
Given the incompleteness of the outcome, the Democrats' celebration never occurred, however, nor did the Republicans indulge in one at their national headquarters in suburban Virginia. Local Republicans did whoop it up on Ridgeway, however, claiming victory as soon as the Fox network got over its unaccustomed bashfulness and put Ohio in the Bush column just before midnight, Memphis time.
Though local office-holders were numerous on Ridgeway, Memphis lawyer David Kustoff, Bush's state campaign chairman, joined other GOP bigwigs in Nashville to monitor statewide and national results.
And though Representative Ford was not to be seen at the Plush Club, other members of the Ford clan were. There was, for example, Uncle John Ford, the controversial District 29 state senator, who took the occasion to proclaim to another attendee, "You're looking at the next mayor" -- a boast which underlined the curious absence from political events, this week or at any time in this campaign year, of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.
And Isaac Ford, a sometime candidate for various offices and the congressman's brother, was going about at the Plush, impeccably suited and chanting, somewhat inscrutably, "Hip-hop politics! This is hip-hop politics!"
Whatever it meant, it was a counterpart of sorts to "flip-flop" -- the pejorative used by Bush and other Republicans against Kerry that figured large in this year's presidential campaign. For a while, it seemed that term "flip-flop" might come to describe the outcome of the presidential race. But that was before Kerry resolved on his concession statement Wednesday -- an act that no one could call ambivalent.
Meanwhile, these were the winners and losers in local and statewide voting:
Legislative Races: Potentially dramatic change was in the offing for the next session of Tennessee's General Assembly, as two Middle Tennessee Democratic state senators -- Jo Ann Graves (Clarksville) of District 18 and Larry Trail (Murfreesboro) of District 16 -- fell to Republican challengers Diane Black and Jim Tracy, respectively. As Memphis lawyer John Ryder, the GOP's immediate past national committeeman from Tennessee pointed out, "That gives Tennessee its first elected state Senate majority in history."
A survivor, though, was the Senate's presiding officer, Lt. Governor John Wilder of Somerville, who turned aside a challenge from Republican Ron Stallings. And the speaker of the state House of Representatives, Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, won an easier-than-expected victory over Dr. Jesse Cannon, his GOP opponent.
Although Republicans had a net gain of one seat in the House, the Democrats -- and presumably Naifeh -- will maintain their power, with a seven-vote majority. What happens in the Senate, where nominal Democrat Wilder has in recent years functioned as a de facto nonpartisan leader, is still uncertain. The Senate speaker has had the declared support of three GOP senators, including Shelby County's Curtis Person, but Ryder predicts that there will be a "grassroots" demand from Republicans that the GOP get to name one of its own as speaker.
All the incumbents in Shelby County and its environs held on to their seats. That included Democrat Mike Kernell in state House District 93, who won over Republican John Pellicciotti with somewhat greater ease than he had in 2002, when the two first tangled.
At a Republican rally in Shelby County on Monday night, Pellicciotti had been fatalistic. "I'd like to flatter myself that what I do or what Mike does in our campaigns will make the marginal difference that elects one of us or the other," said the young businessman. "But the fact is, I think these local races, where they're close, will be driven by the Bush/Kerry race. Whoever does the best job of getting their voters out for president will determine the outcome in District 93, too, I think."
Though, as previously indicated, spokesmen for the two parties differed as to which party actually improved its lot in Shelby County, Pellicciotti's stoic forecast might have been on target.
Another Democratic House member, Beverly Marrero, turned back Republican Jim Jamieson's third try for the District 89 seat, and Democrat Henri Brooks easily beat Republican D. Jack Smith, a former Democratic legislator, in District 92. Ditto with Barbara Cooper over George Edwards in District 86.
Two local Republicans, House GOP leader Tre Hargett and newcomer Brian Kelsey won easy victories over Democrats Susan Slyfield and Julian Prewitt in Districts 97 and 83, respectively. Republican state senator Mark Norris and Democratic senator Steve Cohen easily disposed of their opponents. Cohen eclipsed both Republican Johnny Hatcher and Mary Taylor Shelby, a perennial running as an independent. Norris won two-to-one over Democrat Pete Parker.
School-Board Races: Two upsets and one narrow escape dominated results in the five contested elections for the Memphis board.
In the closest race, incumbent Wanda Halbert of Position One, At-Large, profited from the halving of the "anti" vote between her two major opponents, second-place finished Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Robert Spence. But her board colleagues Willie Brooks in District 1 and Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge in District 7 were not so lucky, polling well behind newcomers Stephanie Gatewood and Tomeka Hart, respectively.
Gatewood won outright. Sandridge will get to fight another day, however, since Hart failed to get an absolute majority; the balance of the vote went to third-place finisher Terry Becton.
Patrice Robinson defeated Juanita Clark Stevenson and Annabel Hernandez-Rodriguez Turner in District 3. And Dr. Jeff Warren defeated Rev. Herman Powell in a battle of newcomers for the right to succeed the retiring Lora Jobe in District 5.
Congressional and Legislative Races: All members of the Tennessee congressional delegation won handily or without opposition -- including: 7th District Republican congressman Marsha Blackburn, who was unopposed; 8th District Democratic congressman John Tanner, who buried unregenerate racist James L. Hart, running with the GOP label but repudiated by every Republican in sight; and 9th District congressman Ford, who racked up a better than 4-to-1 majority against Republican Ruben M. Fort.
Oh, and there was an unknown -- because they are so far uncounted -- number of votes for gay activist Jim Maynard, the write-in candidate who was spurred to oppose Ford because of the congressman's support of a federal marriage amendment that would exclude gay matrimony.
In a post-election press release, Maynard said he was considering a formal run against Ford "in the next primary" -- which, given that the congressman will almost certainly next be seeking the U.S. Senate seat which current incumbent Bill Frist has said he will vacate in 2006, would escalate Maynard's goal as well.
Though Maynard's effort this year -- not even noted by most media outlets -- never amounted to more than a blip on anybody's radar screen, he made some effort in his press release to put his own circumstances in a larger context. Referring to Tuesday's overall national outcome as a "sad election," Maynard went on to sum up thusly: "George Bush lost every debate to John Kerry. The exit polls showed that the majority of voters opposed Bush's handling of the economy and the War in Iraq. So why did he win such a large popular vote (51 percent)? The polls show that the most important issue to voters were "moral" issues (i.e. abortion and gay marriage.)
"The Republican Party, under the direction of Karl Rove, strategically planned to use the issue of gay marriage to motivate the Christian Right and to divide the base of the Democratic Party. They succeeded. As I predicted, the issue of gay marriage and gay rights may have played a larger role in this election than the economy or the Iraq War. The political Right uses cultural issues like abortion and gay rights to win the support of people who do not benefit much if at all from Republican economic policies.
" Like the rest of the world, I am baffled by the choice the American people have made today."
One wonders how "baffled" Maynard could actually be, having just pinpointed one of the clear reasons for the seismic, and potentially permanent, shift to Republican control in national and statewide -- and, perhaps even in the long run, local -- politics.
Not long before his death last month, religious right activist Ed McAteer, who had no trouble acknowledging he wouldn't know a Laffer Curve (or any other economic precept) from a laugh track, said his own de facto support for Republican causes and candidates owed almost wholly to social and moral issues. Otherwise, he could be a Democrat. Even Moral Majority mogul Jerry Falwell, on a visit to Memphis some years back, had said much the same thing.
It isn't a matter of better or worse. It's just reality -- which one postmodern school of philosophy defines simply as "that which is the case."
With Bush backing in again and the GOP stealthily gaining elsewhere, Republicanism is increasingly the case.
It was one of those goddamn Holden Caulfield moments. Some local coup de rouge had slapped a "John Kerry: the Terrorist Choice" bumper sticker on the big Kerry/Edwards sign right in front of the offices of the Shelby County Democratic Party. A handful of moist Kerry supporters stood in front of the vandalized billboard soliciting honks from Dem-friendly motorists speeding down Poplar Avenue. Watching the dynamic donkeys cheer in front of that sign was like watching some poor schmuck make his way through a crowd wearing a grin on his face and a "kick me" sign on his back. The sky was the color of wet asphalt and the rain was unrelenting. I wanted to tear the offending sticker down, but how could I? Where there's one bumper sticker, there are hundreds, at least. They were destined to return.
Half an hour earlier, Rush Limbaugh, the right's pill-popping superpundit, had been blathering away on the radio about Osama's most recent video. According to Rush, bin Laden's message was full of "talking points from Michael Moore's damnable cinematic opus Fahrenheit 9/11." He said the al- Qaeda leader made veiled references to Dick Cheney's former company Halliburton and its special no-bid U.S. government contracts, proving once and for all time that one out of one terrorist masterminds recommend the Democratic ticket. It was almost like bin Laden had access to John Kerry's secret diaries. It was almost like bin Laden and Kerry were two sides of the same waffle. Rush stopped short of saying exactly that, but it was a fine and cutting point from the man whose abbreviated career as a racist sportscaster and subsequent drug bust have made him a little less likely to go out on a limb. And like the sign said, "John Kerry: the Terrorist Choice."
"Mega dittos, Rush," said a long-time listener and first-time caller from one of the battleground states. He had phoned in to say that he was working hard to see President Bush reelected. Rush told him, "You're doing the Lord's work."
Early on, it became clear -- at least if you used Limbaugh's logic -- that Shelby County was siding with al-Qaeda and other enemies of the Lord. In spite of the nasty weather, Kerry supporters were waving signs all over town. There were Bush supporters too, but they looked lonelier and somehow wetter. Still, there were no lines outside the polls at Humes Middle School or at the fire station on Thomas near Chelsea. Most of the Democratic campaign workers in these heavily black polling districts blamed it on the rain. Some blamed early voting. Everybody said things would pick up as the day wore on. They repeated this as the day wore on.
By mid-afternoon, Tucker Carlson, Crossfire's boyish Republican shill, looked like he'd lost his best friend. The exit polls spelled bad news for the president, and Tucker seemed ready to concede defeat. The liberal blogosphere was rippling with cautious optimism. BuzzFlash.com, a popular clearinghouse for left-leaning literature posts, included an editorial by Memphis author Jeff Crook:
"The hills have suffered four years of drought and fire. But when it finally rains, you get landslides.
"This morning, I arrived at the polls at 7:30 a.m. It was raining, but there was already a line out the door, people standing under umbrellas, more people walking toward the school, cars parked (and stuck) in the mud along Holmes Road, and a wrecker backing up to pull someone out. I couldn't find a place to park.
"It was a beautiful thing, seeing all those people standing there in the rain waiting to vote. It was a beautiful thing, seeing all those kids staring at us in wonder, the lesson from yesterday's mock election reinforced by seeing their parents and neighbors standing in line to participate in the real thing. And everyone in line was watching the kids too. I don't know what they were thinking, but I was thinking, That's who I was voting for. I was voting for them. I was voting for their future."
The illusion of a high voter turnout taken in conjunction with Kerry's momentum in the polls looked like good news for Democrats. But Sean Hannity had taken the hand-off from Rush and he's on the air repeating everything the fat man has already said about Kerry and bin Laden sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G. It wouldn't be long before Memphis' own Mike Fleming will be offering likeminded opinions live from his lofty perch at Owen Brennan's.
An ad ran on WREC-AM 600 talk radio that marveled at how America hasn't been attacked since 9/11. It praised the American military for taking out Saddam and preventing him from giving aid and comfort to all those terrorists. It went on to say that the American military has something in common with the fine billiard tables offered by a certain East Memphis retailer: They are, without a doubt, the best in the world. It was one of many administration-friendly advertorials placed by local businesses.
On CBS, Dan Rather announced that "Bush is sweeping through the Midwest like a combine." The returns were starting to come in, and Kerry's vaunted momentum was taking him nowhere fast. The networks and the blogosphere scored a virtual tie in announcing that the younger generation, presumed to be fired up and leaning heavily toward Kerry, didn't show up at the polls. Twelve hours later both worlds report that young people did turn out in record numbers, but so did their folks.
As late as 6 p.m., Fox was still touting the phony Drudge story about voting machines in Philadelphia that were loaded up with votes before the polls even opened. By noon, Philly's election officials had confirmed that the phantom numbers were from an odometer that records every vote ever cast on the machine in every election and had no bearing on the election at hand. The blogosphere broke out in goosebumps as news got out about a slew of G.O.P. lawsuits shutting down polling locations in Ohio.
At 10:40 p.m. EST, Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com wrote, "Why no more network coverage of the flurry of lawsuits across Ohio? This is what the election is coming down to. And it's not being reported." About an hour later, Ohio -- the state promised to Bush by Walden O'Dell, the CEO behind Diebold's controversial black-box voting systems -- finally becomes the focus of TV news coverage.
As Ohio went into overtime, the talking heads got busy constructing a narrative that explains Bush's apparent trend-defying victory. Their conclusion: America voted its values. "It turned out to be all about guns, God, and gays," one pundit said in passing. Frequent allusions were made to Karl Rove's ace in the hole, an alleged four million Evangelical Christians who didn't vote in the 2000 election. Given the president's three-million vote lead in the popular vote, that story seemed to make sense but only on a superficial level.
Guns, God, and gays were all in play when Kerry was hailed as the overall victor in the presidential debates. Kerry's message of sending aid to the middle class picked up steam, as job forecasts remained bleak and consumer confidence continued to drop through the floor. And then the bombshell dropped when it was announced that 377 tons of high-powered explosives were missing in Iraq and had likely fallen into enemy hands. For two full days the president and his staff were caught flatfooted. All the momentum was shifting in Kerry's direction, and even polls that oversampled Republicans reflected the shift. Pollmeister John Zogby went so far as to call the election for Kerry on an episode of The Daily Show, which could have sent the wrong message to the show's famously young, liberal, and -- according to Bill O'Reilly -- stoned audience: Stay home and smoke it, kiddos, everything's gonna be copacetic.
Then bin Laden reared his ugly head. And, according to Rush and Hannity and all those guys at Fox, bin Laden's been drinking a little too much of that liberal Kool-Aid. There's a flurry of news stories about possible terrorist attacks aimed at disrupting the elections. The word on the street was "orange." Evidence of organized attempts by the GOP to suppress the vote in places like Ohio, Nevada, and Florida went largely unreported while the media turned its collective attention to Osama's personal endorsement of John Kerry: the Terrorist Choice.
Early Wednesday morning, even as CNN.com was proclaiming, "Bush Camp Certain of a Win," the proprietor of the DailyKos.com, a massive liberal blog, was bitchslapping his readers for bitchslapping each other.
"What I found in my reading [posts and e-mails] was a plethora of bashing Christians, bashing Kerry, bashing gays, bashing Edwards, bashing Kos, bashing America, and bashing each other as well as a lot of people saying they're abandoning the Democrats, abandoning politics, abandoning the country," Kos wrote. "This descent into despair and irrationality and surrender puts icing on the Republican victory cake." His overall message was simple: Shut up and organize.
It's becoming relatively clear that early reports of a record voter turnout were greatly exaggerated in terms of the percentage of eligible voters who actually took the time to vote. Since the Democrats outstripped their opponents in registering new voters, it can be assumed that the majority of no-shows were registered by Dems who failed to get their newbies to the polls.
Morning in America turned to mourning in Democratic circles when news came that John Kerry had conceded the election to President Bush. The incumbent won his second term and his first legitimate victory. So what? America is still deeply and bitterly divided, and as long as half of America represents "the Terrorist's Choice" and the other half is doing "the Lord's work," that's not going to change.
So many willing voters, so many ways to win them.
More than 374,000 people in Shelby County voted Tuesday; 220,000 of them voted in a city-school board race. The fall-off factor itself fell off.
The residency referendum won, the payroll tax lost. Voters apparently are not so intimidated by fine print after all and can distinguish one proposal from another.
The only Ford family candidate was barely visible. So was Mayor Herenton who, according to an aide, spent election night at home. So were those patented and widely distributed endorsement ballots that supposedly swung huge numbers of voters in other elections.
Shelby County Democratic Party headquarters was dark before the 10 o'clock news. That their candidate, John Kerry, handily won Shelby County with almost 58 percent of the vote suggested how little it mattered in the scheme of things.
Electorally, Tennessee looks more and more like Mississippi, based on the 57 percent to 43 percent Bush margin. Without someone like Ross Perot in the race to take votes away from the Republicans, as he did in 1996, Democrats can kiss Tennessee good-bye.
At the Shelby County Election Commission, the day started like a barnburner. All 20 phones were tied up, as were 80 more at another site in East Memphis, with calls from precincts about provisional voters. Election Commission veteran O.C. Pleasant sensed trouble. The provisional ballots would not be counted until the day after the election. "The outcome could be in the balance in close races," said Pleasant.
Poll workers like Darrell Mack, in charge of provisional ballots at Precinct 20-01 in Midtown, were unable to get through on the phones 20 minutes after the polls opened. Fortunately, he said, "People have been very nice. Nobody got aggravated." By that afternoon, the Election Commission had commandeered another 40 phones downtown, and the problem was resolved. And by evening, as the votes came in, there were only a handful of reporters and campaign strategists watching the returns as they were posted on the big screen in the jury room.
One of them was Jerry Hall, a political consultant to school-board candidate Wanda Halbert. Along with Jay Bailey and Ron Redwing, Hall formed a black coalition with wide experience in city and county government to back Halbert and another school-board winner, Stephanie Gatewood.
"We're not rich people," Hall said, taking dead aim at the supporters of Halbert opponent Robert Spence.
Some called the alliance of the Hyde Foundation, Plough Foundation, M-Pact, and white supporters of Spence and school-board candidates Tomeka Hart, Patrice Robinson, Willie Brooks, and Jeff Warren "the green team."
That nonpartisan alliance, however, did not manage to elect Spence, the former city attorney, but it did put another school-board incument, Hubon Sandridge, in jeopardy. Sandridge faces a runoff with Hart, who missed an outright victory by three percentage points. The green team will be back.
Another power-broker with a mixed record was the Memphis Education Association, which endorsed Sandridge, Brooks, Robinson, and Halbert. The old politics of the MEA union and the new politics of the green team will go head-to-head in the December 7th runoff between Sandridge (a minister) and Hart (a lawyer with a firm known for taking on unions).
If provisional voters -- a polite term for people who go to the wrong polling place and take their chances by casting a paper ballot -- did not become the story of the day, some 166,000 early voters, by some accounts, did live up to their, uh, advances.
"Statistically speaking, early voting has already decided these elections," said City Council veteran Tom Marshall. "The old-school campaign strategy was to get your folks out on Election Day. That is going to hurt some folks this time."
That reasoning holds if the early-vote demographic fairly reflects the Election Day demographic. While no candidate or referendum on the local ballot won the early vote and lost the overall vote or vice-versa, the total varied by at least a few percentage points in several cases. Spence, for instance, outpolled runner-up Kenneth Whalum Jr. in the early vote but not in the final vote and finished third. In other words, it still ain't over 'til it's over.
Marshall's colleague Myron Lowery saw a couple of other omens. He noted that Memphis voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum requiring city employees to live in Memphis and even more overwhelmingly rejected a payroll tax on city residents and outsiders who work in Memphis.
Lowery took that as an indication that voters have a longer attention span and more critical judgment than some people think they do. He has a vested interest as both a councilman and a candidate for the proposed charter commission, tentatively scheduled to be voted up or down on December 7th.
"I think the charter commission is good," he said. "I don't think the city should appeal. I think they should look at it as a wonderful opportunity."
The payroll tax was tarred with a charge of vagueness and a "just vote no" campaign led by the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce. At several inner-city precincts, young black men and women carried signs and posters opposing the proposed tax. Pressed to explain her position, a worker at the Dave Wells Community Center simply produced a green handbill urging a "no" vote and featuring a picture of a white man identified as Chuck Strong, "a small-business owner in the city of Memphis for 23 years."
The vagueness charge could return next month to haunt the charter commission, an equally open-ended proposition whose core constituency might be described as Grumpy Old White Men.
In the last analysis -- aren't you glad to hear those words? -- Memphis looks ever more like an island, just like every other Southern and Midwestern city with a large black population. The presidential vote in Shelby County (of which Memphis is 75 percent) was a near mirror image of Tennessee's statewide support for Bush.
The Chamber of Commerce looks like a player, but it will have to make peace with Janet Hooks and her friends on the City Council. Hall and Redwing and Bailey and consultants who play it as it lays are another force to be reckoned with. So are black moderates like Harold Ford Jr., who tone it down to the point of blandness. And I don't know this, but I would bet a nickel that Willie Herenton voted for Bush.
By the end of election night, with all precincts reporting, all but one of the Memphis City School Board races had been determined, giving voters a glimpse of that body's new composition for the upcoming session.
Change is brewing as one incumbent was unseated, another faced a runoff election, and one left her seat for a newcomer. When the board convenes next year, its membership will still reflect the school district's composition, which is majority African-American. But it will also have several new faces and personalities.
As expected, newcomer and physician Dr. Jeffery Warren beat Herman Powell for the District 5 seat vacated by former commissioner Lora Jobe. With Jobe's endorsement, it was an easy victory for Warren. In previous interviews, Jobe said her nine years on the board were enough.
With her departure goes the leading advocate to abolish corporal punishment in the schools. While the issue is not over -- a vote is expected by the newly seated board -- Jobe was its strongest challenger. Warren, also opposed to corporal punishment but with no previous board experience, will be hard-pressed to produce the same amount of influence.
Warren's addition to the board adds another male member to the body, making up for incumbent Willie Brooks, who lost his District 1 seat to Stephanie Gatewood. Brooks and Gatewood had been challengers for the same position just one year ago, after the death of commissioner Lee Brown. Brooks won that special election and served just 11 months.
"I said to myself if I could lose the first election by only 118 votes after having raised only $300, then there was no telling how well I could do this time," said Gatewood from her Marshall Avenue headquarters on election night.
"This time I only raised about $2,500 and won. I didn't have any big endorsements and no money to speak of, but look at what hard work and grass roots can do," she said. "Who knows? Maybe I can be president of the United States next."
Brooks had been endorsed by The Commercial Appeal for his quiet leadership but had been criticized by other candidates and voters for that same demeanor. In a city used to a boisterous and outspoken members, Brooks' character at times seemed out of place. At his North Memphis headquarters, the atmosphere on election night was vintage Brooks: quiet and calm.
"I won't make any comment about what was different in this election than in the last one, but from the beginning it has been about working with the students and building relationships," said Brooks, speaking barely above the noise of supporters standing outside. "I value my time on the board and the work that I was able to do with Superintendent Carol Johnson."
With Gatewood in office, voters can certainly expect more volume. With a high-pitched voice and outgoing personality, she brings her volunteerism and community involvement to the board, tenets of a platform appealing to 59 percent of voters in her district. Still buoyed by the win Tuesday night, Gatewood was quick to highlight the work ahead.
"We have a lot of work to do in my district," she said. "My district is so large and diverse. We've got some schools with zero percent parental involvement and then we've got some with 100 percent parental involvement. We've got to find a way to bring the level of involvement and everything else up to equal levels."
Gatewood, a single mother of two, brought parental involvement for single mothers to the race, which was also a large part of the campaign in the District 3 election. In that race, incumbent and current board president Patrice Robinson beat single parent Juanita Stevenson for another term. Although she lost by more than 20 percent, Stevenson's "Fresh Start" campaign raised voters' awareness to the need for checks and balances with the board budget and spending. Robinson had been criticized when she suggested using school board funds for expensive meeting chairs.
A strong showing by challengers with no previous board experience sent the message to incumbents that no seat was safe. The closest race of the night was the At-Large Position 1 race, in which incumbent Wanda Halbert narrowly beat two challengers. But Halbert downplayed the close vote.
"We had a lot of name recognition and some strong political and financial backing involved in the campaign, also a lot of negative messages that got out there that may have made some decisions," she said. "I just think the numbers are attributed to the dynamics of who was in the race more so than anything anti-incumbent."
Halbert's challengers, Pastor Kenneth Whalum and attorney Robert Spence, had certain advantages, such as their own name recognition and Halbert's reputation for a disrespectful attitude toward fellow board members, district employees, and former superintendent Johnnie Watson.
After finishing second in the race for which there are no run-offs, Whalum's kept open his options for a future race and expressed concern that Halbert will remain on the board. Calling himself the race's "800-pound gorilla," Whalum came within 2 percentage points of an upset, employing mostly church and community volunteers to make up for few endorsements and limited finances.
"From this I hope [Halbert] will say to herself, 'Two-thirds of the voters voted against me and perhaps I need to assess the way I handle myself,'" he said. "I'm hoping the new board will be more civil, but that remains to be seen because Wanda is still there, and Wanda and [fellow commissioner] Sara Lewis have always been the most boisterous and most out of line with school board policy. We'll probably see more of the same, and that's too bad."
Before the new board can be seated, District 7 must hold a runoff, since no candidate received at least 50 percent of the votes. District 7 incumbent Hubon Sandridge faces an uphill battle from challenger Tomeka Hart, who finished the general election 16 points ahead. Reeling from the positive results, Hart stood outside her headquarters with a smile of triumph. "The voters showed tonight that it was time for a change," she said.
Sandridge has already promised a victory in the runoff election, saying his 17 years of school-board service will guarantee the win. Early in the campaign, he dismissed the challenges of Hart and other opponents, saying he found their aspirations admirable but their efforts insignificant.
While Hart's initial victory was helped by support from the New Path young professionals group, Sandridge's own actions may have been more beneficial. Years of discontent and public outbursts on the school board have painted Sandridge as stagnant in the district's attempt to move forward in both achievement levels and public perception.
When asked about his campaign platform and efforts, Sandridge told the Flyer, "You can write what you want, but my 17-year record speaks for itself and the voters in my district know my record." According to the election-night results, the voters in that district may know his record all too well.
Patrice Robinson - incumbent
Dr. Jeffery Warren
District 7 --
Runoff Election to be held December 7th
Hubon Sandridge - incumbent