An End to Party Primaries? 

State Democrats overturn Rosalind Kurita's reelection, opening a possible Pandora's box.

UPDATE: As Adam Kleinheider documents here, the Democratic executive committees of the three counties comprising state Senate District 22 have voted 61-4 on Wednesday night to make Tim Barnes the Democratic nominee, completing and certifying the state Democratic executive committee's nullification of incumbent Rosalind Kurita's apparent August election victory.

In the article below, Jackson Baker anticipated the result and speculated on its consequences.:

David Upton of Memphis, who on Saturday had voted with the majority of the state Democratic executive committee to nullify last month's 19-vote win by District 22 state senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville over primary challenger Tim Barnes, was busy explaining the committee's reasoning. As is his wont, Upton would repeat himself, hammering at certain key points over and over.

And, though Upton mentioned, as had Barnes' lawyer George Barrett, a variety of other charges — that officials at various polling places in the three-county Middle Tennessee district had steered Democrats to the Republican primary or Republicans to the Democratic primary and that Kurita had improperly entered one of the polling places (only to use the restroom, she and her attorney, former state senator Bob Rochelle, maintained) — the kernel of his argument was simpler.

It was that by state law, each major party is responsible for the outcome of its own primaries. And, in this case, the state Democratic executive committee happened to be the ruling body. That being the case, Upton was asked, could the committee have nullified Kurita's victory if her apparent margin had been by, say, 300 votes?

Technically, perhaps that would be the case, Upton responded, though he said the closeness of the outcome was the operative factor.

Asked the same question on Tuesday, the state Senate's Democratic leader, Jim Kyle of Memphis, confirmed that the executive committees of either party had sole authority over the outcome of primaries and noted that a former party chairman, Will Cheek of Nashville, had once called for the abolishment of party primaries and their replacement by nominating conventions.

However, Kyle added, U.S. district judge Bernice Donald had ruled two years ago in the case involving Memphis state senator Ophelia Ford that "reasonableness" and "due process" had to be followed in such matters, and there would likely have been no challenge if not for the narrowness of Kurita's apparent win in August.

The fact remains that Barnes never requested a recount, preferring a ruling by the state party machinery instead. For the record, the vote — taken after an all-day hearing in a ballroom of the downtown Sheraton in Nashville — was 33-11 that the outcome in August was "incurably uncertain." The committee went on to rule that the party nominee for the disputed state Senate seat should be resolved by a convention (ultimately set for this Wednesday) in Clarksville involving the three party committees from the counties represented in District 22: Cheatham, Houston, and Montgomery.

Kurita promptly saw the handwriting on the wall. "I'll miss it," she said, concerning her state Senate tenure, then later resolved to fight on, filing papers this week to run as a write-in candidate and telling supporters, "This is America. You don't just let someone steal an election."

There is a backstory to this affair: Kurita's initial fatalism had been based on the fact that she is indisputably persona non grata to the Democratic establishment of Tennessee.

In 2005-06, when both the state Democratic brass and the party's national machinery were irrevocably committed to the campaign of then congressman Harold Ford Jr. as the party's best hope for capturing an open U.S. Senate seat, Kurita, who had been the first to declare for the seat, kept soldiering on, more or less by her lonesome.

"She doesn't take no for an answer very easily," noted Kyle, as the onetime nurse started tuning up for her Senate run in early 2005. "I don't expect to have to," Kurita said at the time.

Even as the likes of former president Bill Clinton and Governor Phil Bredesen were putting themselves at Ford's disposal as hosts for big-ticket fund-raisers, Kurita was getting by on nickels and dimes and the help of a few friends in the state's major population centers.

In Memphis, she had the backing of a small but determined corps of supporters, including several members of the local blogosphere who considered her positions on issues like Iraq and domestic policy shaded just enough to the left of the ever rightward-leaning Ford to be palatable. They also admired the spunk of someone who could say, as she did back then, "I am no stranger to having to push my way in."

Try as she would, though, she couldn't get enough traction with the powers-that-be in her party and had to drop out of that race. It was widely assumed at the time that Kurita would bide her time until this year, when another Senate seat (that of Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander) would be up for grabs and Kurita might fairly lay claim to the Democratic establishment's support.

In reality, of course, that was a trick bag. Alexander's position is almost universally regarded as unassailable, and former state Democratic chairman Bob Tuke, winner of the recent Democratic primary to oppose Alexander, is privately regarded as a sacrificial lamb, even by some of his most fervent public backers.

Kurita had other ideas, which she would unveil on the fateful day of January 9, 2007. After remaining mum on her plans during the preliminary Democratic caucus, she cast the decisive vote for Republican Ron Ramsey of Blountville to become state Senate speaker and thereby Tennessee's lieutenant governor.

Not only did Kurita end the long reign as lieutenant governor of nominal Democrat John Wilder of Somerville, she for the first time since Reconstruction paved the way for Republican domination of the state Senate. She could, and did, make the case that Wilder had overstayed his welcome and that, on purely representational grounds, Republicans were entitled to wield power if they had a nominal majority (they did, though Micheal Williams of Maynardville, then a Republican and now an independent, was prepared to vote with the Democrats for Wilder).

Two root facts could not be brushed aside, however. Kurita had passed on an earlier opportunity to support Democratic caucus chairman Joe Haynes' speakership bid against Wilder, and her support of Ramsey was quickly rewarded with a quid pro quo: She became speaker pro tem of the Senate.

An unforgiving Kyle had a third grudge: He maintained that Kurita had given him a pledge to support the ultimate Democratic caucus choice, and that had been Wilder.

Kyle, who stayed away from Saturday's ballroom tribunal, maintains that he kept an arm's length from the proceedings — fore, during, and aft — and "I don't take any satisfaction in this matter at all."

Granted, he said, if Barnes should end up as the Democratic nominee from District 22 (there is no Republican candidate, thanks to the state Republicans' indulgence of Kurita, Democrats contend) and if there were no pivotal change in the Republican direction from several contested state Senate races, his own chances of becoming speaker and lieutenant governor would be enhanced.

But the two issues were sealed off from each other, said Kyle, who insisted that Kurita's bucking of Democratic solidarity had not been the issue Saturday.

It did come up, however. At one point, Kurita was challenged by Barnes' co-counsel Doug Johnston on her claim that she had been a loyal Democrat. She replied: "I represent my district first. I don't usually ask the other senators what I'm supposed to do."

Whether the issue of party loyalty was the deciding factor or Barnes' claims of misconduct or merely the narrowness of Kurita's 19-vote margin, the verdict of "incurably uncertain" stood, and the results of the primary vote had been nullified, sans recount.

In his own presentation to the Democratic panel on Saturday, Kurita's advocate Rochelle raised the specter that vacating the primary result could set a precedent that would lead to the abolishment of party primaries altogether in state elections — either that or a party-registration system of the sort that voters in Tennessee, historically a back-and-forth bellwether state, have resisted.

• "It's just me and Obama." That was 9th District congressman Steve Cohen on the subject of his involvements in this fall's general election campaigns. The subject came up because of an appearance by Cohen at a weekend fund-raiser for U.S. senator Lamar Alexander at the home of University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari.

Cohen cautioned that his appearance at the fund-raiser shouldn't be misconstrued. "Coach Cal is a good friend of mine. He's Mr. Memphis, as far as I'm concerned. So when he asked me to come by as a courtesy, I said I would." The congressman noted also that he had appeared with Alexander at a joint press conference at the Med earlier Friday and that the fund-raiser had occurred shortly thereafter.

Cohen stressed that he is confining his personal efforts to his own reelection and to the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. Over the weekend, Cohen and 5th District U.S. representative Jim Cooper of Nashville, who was Obama's state chairman for this year's Tennessee presidential primary, held a joint press availability on the Democratic presidential nominee's behalf.

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