Get It Together 

Politics at the Shelby County level have become worryingly partisan and split along racial lines.

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Four aspirants to succeed local Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson, who resigned under pressure recently (though his term was about to expire anyhow), made their cases Saturday in a forum at the IBEW Union Hall. They were

Reginald Milton, Jackie Jackson, Randa Spears, and Del Gill.

Party caucuses will be held on March 14th, a party convention to name a new executive committee and a new chairman on March 28th.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Republicans caucused at Bartlett Municipal Center on Monday night of this week, selecting delegates for their own convention at the Bartlett location on March 29th. There are two declared candidates for chair to succeed the outgoing Justin Joy: Arnold Weiner and Mary Wagner.

All the names mentioned here, be they sinners or saints, are committed activists, with personal histories that indicate that they possess the energy to acquit themselves well in the positions they are seeking. "Zeal" might even be a better descriptor in some cases. There's the rub. Particularly if partisanship per se commands the electoral environment, the nature of our political debates is often nothing less than poisonous.

Strong feelings have always been a feature of political life in Shelby County, but only since the mid-1990s, when first the Republicans and later the Democrats adopted partisan primaries as a means of selecting preferred candidates for local office, have local political contests become as divisive as they are today, at least at the level of countywide elections. Until the advent of local partisan primaries, it was the rule, not the exception, for various components of the body politic to form coalitions behind this or that candidate. Blacks, whites, Democrats, Republicans, atheists, Christians, and Jews, plus whatever other categories come to mind — the more different sectors of the community were accounted for in a political campaign, the greater the likelihood for that campaign to succeed.

These days, that situation is reversed. One of the questions asked of the Democratic chairmanship aspirants at Saturday's forum was how each of them would deal with the flight of white former-Democrats into the Republican Party. One of the candidates rejected the question as irrelevant. He was in error, as would have been demonstrated by a look at Monday night's GOP caucus crowd — almost entirely white, though there is presumably some variance in their political complexion. That configuration was an inverse mirror image to Saturday's predominantly African-American Democrat crowd.

This is not a suggestion that either of the county's parties avows or practices racism, as such. The increasing racial polarization of the local parties is largely a result of the primary process — which has magnified ethnic and social differences that have always existed and assigned them to opposite ends of the spectrum.

Contrast this troublesome phenomenon with the city elections — including the one to be held this fall — where the absence of party affiliation will, as it always has, encourage some serious coalition-building across party and ethnic lines.

In the long run, we'd like to see local partisan primaries done away with as detriments to the political process. In the short run, we would merely express a wish that whichever of the chairmanship candidates mentioned above actually ends up at the controls of our two major parties understand that we all are — or should be — a single community.

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