Last week's set-to in a County Commission meeting featuring Commissioner Henri Brooks against various comers, including a couple of colleagues and a young Hispanic man, has local Democrats seriously worried about repercussions in the next election period, ending August 7th.
It is taken for granted that Brooks' own prospects, as the Democratic nominee for Juvenile Court clerk against Republican incumbent Joy Touliatos, have taken a hit. Latino voters are not likely to forget her public dressing-down of Pablo Pereya, who had intervened on behalf of the minority status of Hispanic workers in a dispute over a roofing contract.
Brooks, who with fellow (African-American) Commissioner Walter Bailey had been making the case that blacks had been short-shrifted in hiring for the project, hit back hard, telling Pereya, among other things, "Your experience does not compare to mine. ... Don't ever let that come out of your mouth again!"
Brooks' acidic remarks occurred in a context of her apparent knowledge that Pereya would be a principal witness against the side favored by Brooks in another, as yet unheard, commission case on last week's docket involving the disposition of a tax-delinquent property.
But the immediate public impression of a hostile black-versus-Latino outburst overpowered such a distinction, and bad became worse in the subsequent debate over the tax-delinquent property, when Brooks, rattled by a side conversation involving Commissioner Chris Thomas, turned toward Thomas and said, "Excuse me, uh, you over there mouthing something? You with the sheet on!"
But Brooks wasn't done. She responded angrily to Commissioner Mike Ritz's attempt to "call for the order of the day," so as to conclude the meeting during a confused impasse after the vote on the property item.
"Ain't nobody asked you what the ... " a conspicuous silence, clearly representing an unvoiced but familiar expletive "... you called for!" Brooks raged.
In subsequent interviews, Brooks stood by what she said. But, whether or not there was a context for Brooks' utterances to Pereya, Thomas, and Ritz became irrelevant.
In a few brief exchanges, she may have destroyed the good will and respect (however grudging in some quarters) she had managed to build up in leading the charge against alleged abuses at Juvenile Court, and forcing a series of Department of Justice-mandated reforms.
In a trice, the reelection prospects of Touliatos, as low-profile as Brooks is in-your-face, were improved to the same degree that Brooks' were dashed. And the public focus on her remarks had other consequences.
Several of Brooks' commission colleagues, long tired of enduring verbal assaults from the outspoken commissioner, which they deemed ideologically hard-edged, self-serving, and personally insulting — not only to themselves but to county employees against whom Brooks had a grievance, began openly venting the idea of censuring their colleague.
County Commission Chairman James Harvey was up front about it. Brooks' behavior had been "extreme ... embarrassing," and showed "a disrespect to the body and a disregard to the public." He acknowledged that a censure resolution would likely be considered at the commission's next meeting and said he personally was inclined to support it.
Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders, concerned about the contagious effect on the party's electoral fortunes by voter animus against Brooks, were huddling about the matter and meditating on actions of their own.
Party Chairman Bryan Carson acknowledged the obvious, that he was being inundated with a variety of suggestions for ways of distancing the party and the rest of its candidates from Brooks, some of them radical, but was not yet prepared to speak on the issue.
There was general agreement on one thing — that Brooks could greatly ameliorate the situation and alleviate the lasting damage to herself and others by the simple expedient of an open and heartfelt apology.
But nobody saw that as a likely option for the proud and headstrong Brooks.
• The race between incumbent 9th District Representative Steve Cohen and lawyer Ricky Wilkins, his latest challenger, has been relatively low-key so far, but finally, in the aftermath of the May 6th county primary election, the congressional race may be heating up.
Wilkins, who was highly visible shaking hands at an entrance of last weekend's World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest, was on the street again Monday morning, this time at a press conference in front of the National Civil Rights Museum, where he was joined by a contingent of local ministers, including Memphis NAACP President Keith Norman of First Baptist Church on Broad, who offered him their endorsements.
Just as in his formal announcement for the congressional race in March, Wilkins continued to eschew an attack strategy, per se, against the incumbent, who has dusted off every primary challenger since his first win in 2006 with margins ranging from 4 to 1 to 8 to 1. Wilkins, in fact, tried out an intriguing line: "If you like Steve Cohen, you're going to love Ricky Wilkins."
Cohen's formal response to the news conference was equally restrained. His office issued a brief statement, saying, "I feel confident in my knowledge of the people of District 9, as well as polling data, that a vast, vast majority, including ministers, approve of my record and performance and will vote to keep me working with President Barack Obama for the benefit of Memphis and the country. I proudly stand on my record."
• When Tennessee Democrats met in Nashville on Saturday for the party's annual Jackson Day Dinner, there were the usual exhortations to the faithful, the mantras to past glory, the paeans to hope. Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Roy Herron made essentially the same speech as last year — and from the same stage (or a facsimile thereof) in the same venue, the expansive interior concourse of the Musicians Hall of Fame building, fitted with chairs and tables and made out as a ballroom venue.
As was the case last year, Herron boasted the fund-raiser's gross receipts — the affair should net a half million dollars, he said — and, as before, he insisted to his audience that the Democratic Party's current low estate in Tennessee was temporary in the same way that a political downturn in the late '60s and early '70s had been. That was a time frame when the Republicans had won the state's two U.S. Senate seats, had captured the governorship for a term, and had even briefly won a majority in the state House of Representatives.
Yet Tennessee Democrats had managed to take it all back, he said, and, as further historical inspiration, he went through the litany of improbable triumphs by the party's national icons— the "crippled" FDR (using the antiquated adjective for effect), the failed haberdasher Truman, the Catholic JFK, the Southerners LBJ and Carter, the dalliance-prone Clinton (who would spawn "the eight most prosperous years in American history"), and, finally, a president descended not from African Americans but from bona fide Africans.
This year, Herron offered as prime exhibit someone seeking an office not yet won — a youngish woman with the unprepossessing name of Alison Lundergan Grimes, currently serving as Secretary of State of neighboring Kentucky but attempting to unseat one of the symbols of GOP congressional power, Senate Minority Leader and Filibusterer-in-Chief Mitch McConnell.
Memphians in attendance at the state Democratic event had special reason to be curious about Grimes, inasmuch as she is a graduate of Rhodes College. But all Tennesseans were made aware of the fact that, astonishingly, Grimes has, as she noted in her speech, run neck-in-neck with McConnell in all the polls taken so far and had led in the last one by a point or two.
Her challenge to the Republicans' main man in the Senate had, indeed, as Grimes also pointed out, become the "number one" Senate race in the country this year. In her speech, she hit McConnell on his obstructionism and his apparent statement that it was "not my job" to make a dent in the Bluegrass State's ominously high unemployment rate.
Grimes spoke in an eloquent and assured manner, and numerous Jackson Day attendees went fishing afterward for an analogue to her. The name most often mentioned: Clement — as in Frank Clement, who won renown for his oratorical skills when first elected the state's chief executive in 1952 at the tender age of 32.