Memphis’ Senate District 30 Tangle 

Naming a state Senate successor to judge-elect Jim Kyle is only half the battle; figuring out how to do it is the hard part.

click to enlarge State Senate District 30
  • State Senate District 30

As many have noted, there is virtually never a time when an election isn't happening or getting ready to happen in Shelby County. There are, however, brief spells of relative inaction in the aftermath of elections, and it might have been expected that, following the election cycle ending August 7th, the rest of the month might have constituted one of those spells.

But no, political candidates in the county's three major suburbs — Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown — busied themselves trying to meet last Thursday's filing deadline for municipal elections in November; other candidates, like Knoxville lawyer Gordon Ball,  the recently nominated  Democratic opponent for Republican GOP incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander, spent the time putting together campaign organizations for the fall; and Tennesseans at large, in Shelby County as elsewhere, girded for November 4th showdowns on four proposed constitutional amendments.

And there was the matter of a pending vacancy in state Senate District 30, about to be created by the resignation from the seat of chancellor-elect Jim Kyle this Friday. This set off a jostling in Democratic ranks for the right to succeed Kyle. In a sense, that was odd — given that one of Kyle's motives in seeking another office had to be his unease in remaining where, even if he continued as Senate Democratic leader, he was likely to be one of only five relatively powerless Democrats in the GOP-controlled 33-member body.

Even so, several local Democrats began eyeing the Senate vacancy as a prize. Among those who declared themselves was former Senator Beverly Marrero, who in 2012 was narrowly bested by Kyle for the right to serve in the newly gerrymandered district. Another was the retiring Senator's wife, Sara Kyle, a former member of the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) who has reportedly missed active politics since the old Public Service Commission, to which she'd been elected, was transformed in the 1990s, at the behest of then Governor Don Sundquist, into the appointive TRA.

Two Democratic members of the state House of Representatives — G.A. Hardaway and Antonio "Two-Shay" Parkinson — were also looking at the seat — the latter openly, the former through the guise of "people-are-urging-me." Both state representatives had to be cautious, since the timetable of the election calendar apparently meant that either's conversion to Senate candidate would leave his place on the House ballot unfilled.

That circumstance would seem to necessitate the hatching of a write-in campaign for a replacement. In Parkinson's case, the local Democratic and Republican parties would each be in that predicament; in Hardaway's, a Democratic write-in would be matched against an existing Republican nominee, Colonel Gene Billingsley.

The timing of the Senate vacancy seemed to obviate the calling of a special election process by Governor Bill Haslam, invoking instead a precedent whereby the Shelby County Democratic executive committee would name a successor to Kyle on the November ballot, with the local GOP steering committee following suit. This had been the formula that had resulted in the elevation of then county commissioner, now Congressman Steve Cohen, to the state Senate in 1983. 

At first, it seemed that the Democratic committee would meet to choose a replacement at its regular meeting of Thursday, September 4th. But county Democratic Chairman Bryan Carson then set a committee selection date of this Thursday, August 28th. Others pointed out that it would be cart before horse, a legal anomaly, to appoint a successor before Kyle's planned resignation this Friday, August 29th, when he is sworn in as judge.  

A fair amount of confusion and disputation then beset Democratic ranks, prompting state Democratic Chairman Roy Herron in Nashville to research the matter.

Though District 30 is heavily Democratic, Republicans, too, have a right to contest for the seat, and it seemed a logical next step when Kyle himself last week requested an opinion on the process from state Attorney General Robert Cooper. That is where matters stood as the current week began.

Whatever the ordained pathway, political complexities will abound. A contest between Marrero, a Cohen protégé, and Sara Kyle, would reactivate a longtime blood feud between former senatorial colleagues Jim Kyle and Cohen. Other candidacies could both cause and exploit splits in Democratic party ranks. Tempers will flare; rivalries will fester. The famously sure-fingered Election Commission will get its hand in.

It's shaping up as a typical Shelby County election donnybrook.

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