A group of 75 to 80 people showed up at the Steamfitters Union Hall Monday night for a session which was billed in advance as a "debriefing" with state Democratic Party chairman Mary Mancini — the first of several such affairs which Mancini intends to hold all across the state of Tennessee.
As the westernmost part of the state, Shelby County was as logical a starting point for such a mission as any. There were good reasons other than the strictly geographic for Mancini to start off her tour in Memphis, however.
One reason is that Shelby County is one of three counties — Davidson (Nashville) and Haywood (Brownsville) were the other two — carried by the party's presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 election. For the record, those three counties, plus Hardeman (Bolivar), were the only counties in 2012 that went for President Obama, the party's standard-bearer that year.
Shelby County — on the strength, essentially, of its large African-American vote — is something of a bedrock constant for Democratic presidential candidates, though not necessarily anymore for statewide candidates. Or, for that matter, for countywide candidates, given that Republicans have been accustomed, for the last several countywide elections, to get electoral sweeps, or near-sweeps.
A second reason is the fact that in January the state Democratic executive committee will meet in Nashville and elect a chair for the next two years, and it makes sense for Mancini, who intends to run for reelection, to touch base with Democrats in Shelby County, which is still the state's largest county, population-wise.
This is especially the case inasmuch as wealthy businessman Bill Freeman, Mancini's fellow Nashvillian and Tennessee's most active donor to Democratic candidates and causes, made a conspicuous pre-election foray into Memphis in early November, during which he let it be known that he intended to run for governor in 2018. In the wake of the statewide election results, in which the Democrats lost one seat overall in the state House of Representatives and failed to gain in the state Senate, Freeman said point-blank that the party needed a new chair.
At this point, it remains to be seen whether there will be a Freeman-backed candidate for the chairmanship as such, but, given his gubernatorial ambitions and his known history as a generous source of party funds, Mancini is in no position to take Freeman lightly. That's especially the case, since, as she acknowledged Monday night, the party had not possessed the $5 million or so this year that she estimated would have been necessary to provide full backing for all the candidates who ran in Tennessee under the party label.
And a third reason why Memphis was a logical starting place for Mancini's debriefing tour is the embarrassing one that there is at the moment no formal Shelby County Democratic Party, as such, the party organization here having been decertified by Mancini herself back in August, in the aftermath of a lengthy dispute between herself and an SCDP majority over the issue of whether and how to settle an ongoing financial scandal in the local party.
The local party had also, as Mancini pointed out at the time, endured "many years of dysfunction," involving internecine warfare of various kinds, and there were any number of local party members who were more than ready to throw in the towel.
In any case, there is a clear and present need for local Democrats to have an umbrella organization serving the entirety of Shelby County, and Monday night's turnout was surely hearty enough to offer them some encouragement — especially since a goodly portion of the attendees seemed to be new faces, and several of those were willing to offer their own thoughts about how to develop a strong Democratic base in Shelby County.
Typical of these was Sean MacInnes, who introduced himself as a Christian Brothers University employee and suggested that there were numerous potential members of the Democratic base who were not being tapped and should be invited into active participation.
Referring to statistics showing that 45 percent of the state's electorate had not become involved in this year's election, MacInnes said, "Those are the voters we should be reaching out to. We should be saying, 'Why are you not involved in the political process? What is it that the Democratic Party should be should be doing for you and [to] represent you?'" He suggested more concerted party effort to reach potential party cadres on the internet.
And there was Alison Berger, an activist in efforts to curb gun violence, who said she discovered in her outreach efforts that it was the Democratic Party which seemed most to concur with her point of view and her goals. As a result, she said, she had become involved with "Pantsuit Nation" and other party-oriented organizations and causes. "Now, I'm a staunch Democrat," she said, recommending that the party expand by seeking out alliances with single-issue groups like her own. On one key question, when the Shelby County Democratic Party might be able to reconstitute itself, Mancini pinpointed March as the normal time for local party reorganizations and the likely date for Shelby County as well.