It had been a feel-good Democratic rally in Whitehaven last Sunday — replete with rah-rahs and collective self-congratulations and nifty munchables and a laundry list of party politicians pleased to be there — when it came city councilman Myron Lowery's time to speak. And, depending on one's taste for verisimilitude, Lowery either broke the mood or enhanced it with some bona fide straight talk.
First off, he noted something publicly that had been on the minds of almost all the Democratic cadres at the event: "Tennessee has been given up by Barack," Lowery said bluntly. He thereby gave voice to what everybody knew — that the Obama-Biden campaign organization, despite having laid claim to Democratic national chairman Howard Dean's concept of a "50-state strategy" and despite having raised a formidable amount of money, including a record $150 million in September alone, had decided to bypass Tennessee, doling out only a modest amount of expense money for Nika Jackson (the campaign's representative in Memphis) and one other state employee.
No money for anything else, meaning that those Obama-Biden signs you see here and there were paid for by private fund-raising activities here and elsewhere in Tennessee. Just as Lowery said (and despite conjectures, based on a favorable poll or two, that the state could be competitive in the presidential race), Tennessee had indeed been given up by Obama's campaign. Nor was the Republican McCain-Palin ticket pulling out the stops.
Turning to Bob Tuke, the Nashville lawyer and former state Democratic chairman who took up the Senate race when few others were willing to, Lowery complimented the candidate for taking his challenge to Republican Lamar Alexander seriously and excoriated those Democrats who were "hanging on to the coattails of our incumbent senator, Bob, and they really let you go."
That was after Tuke had earlier said this: "When Barack Obama becomes president of the United States, he's going to need to have 60 senators in the United States Senate in order to vote for his legislative agenda, so that it's more than just a promise and more than just a dream, but a reality. And, ladies and gentlemen, I volunteer."
A late-coming dignitary, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, would, some minutes later and with evident enthusiasm, make the same point that Tuke had — that the candidate, if elected, could be number 60, the filibuster-killer. But even Cohen, though no coattail-grabber, has been careful to observe the amenities with his colleagues in the Tennessee congressional delegation, and a courtesy visit of his to a fund-raiser for Alexander (following a joint visit to the Med by the two) had not exactly been treated as a secret by the senator's people.
Another late arrival at the rally, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, was asked at one point by event impresario Bret Thompson to list for the crowd's sake the four magic names of Democratic candidates who needed full-fledged support. That might have been a stumper in any case, but the mayor's prolonged hemming and hawing, which required Thompson himself to do fill-ins on the list, might have owed something to the fact that Wharton, along with Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and a number of other name Democrats, had formally endorsed Alexander.
Which is as good a way as any of pointing out one of the anomalies of the current political season. At a time when, if the pre-election polls are to be believed, the rest of the nation is trending — even racing — toward the Democrats, Tennessee not only holds fast to its status as a Republican state, it seems to be getting redder.
Some of this conundrum is due to purely personal factors. Tuke is the Democratic Party's official alternative to Lamar Alexander because, as the former chairman and genial ex-Marine himself confesses, the party had trouble finding someone to take on an incumbent with so formidable a pedigree in the Volunteer State.
In the late '70s, while still in his 30s, Alexander had become governor, succeeding a corrupt good-ole-boy Democrat (Ray Blanton, who did prison time for selling favors). In office, he sponsored educational reforms and went on to serve as president of the University of Tennessee and secretary of education under Ronald Reagan. In 1996, Alexander mounted a serious run for the presidency, losing the vital New Hampshire primary by inches after Bob Dole, ultimate winner of the Republican nomination, put non-stop ads on TV accusing the ex-Tennessee governor — unjustly — of having been a mad taxer in office.
Elected to the Senate in 2002, Alexander had succeeded by 2008 in both creating an image of a moderate who could work across the aisle and becoming the GOP caucus chairman — i.e., his party's point man. No mean trick, that, and a tribute to his versatility.
One example of the man's prowess: He took on Democratic majority leader Harry Reid over the issue of appointing the Rev. William Graves, a Memphian and C.M.E. bishop, and (assisted by Cohen) won that showdown, thereby scoring with both African Americans and his Republican peers in Congress.
Hence the polls showing Alexander over Tuke by a two-to-one margin and hence a staggering fund-raising edge over Tuke, a man of parts but still a relative unknown.
But that's just one case. It remains a mystery why the Obama-Biden campaign should be forsaking Tennessee. The campaign, after all, has targeted such hitherto red states as Virginia and North Carolina and, with recent help from former president Bill Clinton himself, is gaining toward a possible upset even in next-door Arkansas. It's especially puzzling given the campaign's momentum, record bankroll, and the fact of a highly motivated African-American voter base in Tennessee's urban centers.
And the national party's reticence toward Tennessee isn't helpful for either the state Democratic Party's tenuous hopes of regaining control of the state Senate (three key races are at stake statewide, and the party must win all of them) or the local Democrats' hopes of getting their act together.
For all the exuberance of that Sunday rally on Elvis Presley, the Shelby County Democratic Party is a divided house — riven periodically by factional strife, most recently over an "official" sample ballot that includes among its mugshots of party nominees and other recommended candidates a box which, without any authorization whatever, calls for the defeat of each and every one of 10 referenda on the November 4th ballot. At press time, there has not yet been a full explanation for this mysterious event. (See memphisflyer.com for more coverage.)
The Shelby County Republicans have their own case of Ballotgate — a free-booting Germantown group having, according to Chairman Bill Giannini, misappropriated the party's name and logo to issue a sample ballot pushing its own unauthorized slate of alderman candidates.
So much for old-fashioned party discipline.
And, symbolically, at least, the ballot confronting all Memphis and Shelby County voters begins with a choice of no fewer than eight presidential tickets, electors for pairs of presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Topping the list are Democrats Obama and Joe Biden and Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. With time running out, and with the Electoral College system requiring them to fry their fish elsewhere, no member of either ticket has bothered to campaign locally.
Of the six choices which follow the two major-party tickets, three have attracted some note, in Tennessee or elsewhere.
The Libertarian Party slate of Bob Barr (a former Republican congressman from Georgia) and Wayne Root has made modest inroads on the national consciousness for its damn-their-eyes attitude toward both Democrats (too much government) and Republicans (too much social control). Neither Barr nor Root has made a local campaign visit, however, so far as is known.
Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney, yet another former member of Congress from Georgia, has been here, however — though without her running mate, Rosa Clemente.
Another visitor to Memphis was the venerable Ralph Nader, running again on the fumes of his reputation made long ago as a consumer advocate par excellence. Nader's veep partner, Matt Gonzalez, hasn't come this way, however.
Other pairings are Chuck Baldwin and Darrell Castle, Charles Jay and Thomas L. Knapp, and Brian Moore and Stewart Alexander — all listed on the Tennessee ballot as "independent candidates," whatever their doctrinal claims.
Outlook: Though Tennessee seems locked up for McCain-Palin, according to the polls, Obama-Biden should win the nation. Skeptics are well within their rights to make arch references to Presidents Dewey and Kerry. For what it's worth, early voting in Memphis and Tennessee, as elsewhere, has been brisk.
The U.S. Senate race is listed next. Besides Democrat Tuke and Republican Alexander are candidates Edward L. Buck, Christopher G. Fenner, David Gatchell, Ed Lawhorn, Daniel Towers Lewis, and Chris Lugo. Lugo, a Nashvillian, represents the Green Party and made a run-through, in tandem with McKinney, back in August.
Outlook: If Tuke is a praying man, he might qualify for a miracle. Otherwise, Alexander would seem to be a shoo-in. Aside from a certain potential in Shelby County and in Davidson County (Nashville), Tuke, whose name recognition remains minute, has limited prospects.
OTHER CONTESTED RACES
Congress, 7th District: Democrat Randy Morris is a name on the ballot, little more. If Republican incumbent Marsha Blackburn is ever to be challenged, it won't be this year.
Congress, 8th District: Democrat John Tanner, a blue-dog perennial from Union City, is all by himself on the ballot. Literally, no contest.
Congress, 9th District: Steve Cohen, the first-term Democratic incumbent who now hovers on the edge of national stardom, scored a 4-to-1 win over primary opponent Nikki Tinker, who made a serious, if misdirected, run at him.
None of the three opponents running as independents against him in the general can expect to do better. Not Dewey Clark, Mary Taylor-Shelby Wright, or Newton Jake Ford — though the latter has planted some prominent yard signs of late. Some of these bill him as "N.J. Ford," which may stir echoes of his late grandfather, the founding patriarch of the well-known funeral home which bears his name. There is no evidence, however, that candidate Ford is drawing support from his extended family, still a political clan to be reckoned with.
State House of Representatives, District 86: For some reason, Republican George T. Edwards feels obliged to challenge Democratic incumbent Barbara Cooper every two years in this reliably Democratic inner-city district. It won't work this year, either.
State House of Representatives, District 88: Another inner-city district — this one, like Cooper's, mainly north-side — and another slam-dunk for the Democratic incumbent, Larry Miller. Independent David Vinciarelli's only hope was his legal challenge to Miller's somewhat uncertain residential status, which failed. (Vinciarelli, who had the Republican endorsement in a previous race, was erroneously referred to as the Republican nominee in an earlier draft of this article. A spokesman insists that he shares some of the precepts of both parties.)
State House of Representatives, District 91: This centrally located district is the bailiwick of House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry. Republican Tim Cook Jr. has negligible hopes.
State House of Representatives, District 93: Tim Cook Sr. has somewhat better prospects for the GOP against longtime Democratic incumbent Mike Kernell, whose son David Kernell, a student at UT-Knoxville, is currently under indictment for hacking Sarah Palin's e-mail account. Kernell has turned away many a challenger of yore, though, and should do so again.
City Council District 9, Position 1: There's a real race on here in this special election to replace former councilman Scott McCormick, now president of the Plough Foundation. The main contestants are businessman Kemp Conrad and IBEW business manager Paul Shaffer. Conrad, who started with a wide lead, has official support from the GOP, and Shaffer from the Democrats, but the issue in a somewhat narrowing race will likely be decided by nonpartisan voters. Arnett Montague, an unknown, and former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham, a perennial, are not expected to figure.
Memphis School Board, At Large Position 1: Incumbent Freda Williams should be well-positioned to hold off challengers Menelik Chiremba Fombi and Cynthia A. Gentry.
Ordinance No. 364: This ordinance basically recreates, with more or less the same defined duties, the five positions — sheriff, trustee, assessor, register, and county clerk — which the state Supreme Court ruled did not qualify as constitutional offices on grounds of a technicality. Prospects for passage are good.
Ordinance No. 365: More controversial is this one, which establishes limits of two consecutive four-year terms for the five newly recreated offices. Though favored to prevail, the term-limits ordinance — and only it, along presumably with a companion referendum, City Charter Referendum No. 1, which prescribes similar limits for city officials — has been formally opposed by the Shelby County Democratic Party. Resistance to the term-limits provision among inner-city Democrats is so virulent that, in a controversy that still rages, some unauthorized person or persons succeeded in grafting a box onto the party's published sample ballot stating opposition to all referendum items, city and county.
Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, a proponent of City Charter Referendum No. 5 (see below), had offered to defray the cost of affixing labels to the party's sample ballot obscuring the offending box. But apparently copies of the original, unauthorized ballot were being passed out as recently as Sunday, at the Democratic rally mentioned earlier in this article.
Ordinance No. 5232: This ordinance allows for recall elections of City Council members on the basis of petitions bearing a number of qualified signatures equivalent to 10 percent of those voting in the preceding municipal election. The recall election would take place during the next succeeding general election and, if successful, would create a vacancy that would be filled by vote of the remaining council members.
Ordinance No. 5265: This would require all non-civil-service city employees, including members of city boards and commissions (the board of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art excepted) to live within the city limits of Memphis under pain of discharge. New employees would have six months to arrange compliance.
CITY CHARTER COMMISSION REFERENDA
2008 Referendum No. 1 (Term Limits): Establishes two consecutive four-year terms as the limits for the mayor, council members, and the city court clerk.
2008 Referendum No. 2 (Staggered Terms): Mandates staggered terms for the above offices and proposes a formula to begin the process with the elections of 2011. It also would cause future municipal elections to be held in even-numbered, rather than odd-number, years.
2008 Referendum No. 3 (regarding the potential sale of MLGW): Mandates that any such sale of the city utility or any of its facilities would require prior approval of city voters in a referendum.
2008 Referendum No. 4 (Suspension from Official Duties): Reads "Any elected or appointed official charged with or indicted for official malfeasance or misconduct shall be suspended with pay pending final resolution of the charge."
2008 Referendum No. 5 (Instant Runoff Voting): Provides a mechanism whereby voters can list candidates in a multi-candidate race in order of preference, so that in cases short when one candidate doesn't gain a majority, the rankings are weighted so as to produce a winner, obviating the need for a subsequent runoff election.
2008 Referendum No. 6 (Filling Vacancy in the Office of the Mayor): Provides that the City Council chairman, bearing the title of Mayor Pro Tem, shall fill any mayoral vacancy for as much as 180 days, after which another mayor will be elected, either by special election or in the next general election if it occurs within the 180-day period.