Out Through the In Door 

Shelby County Republicans consider ditching their countywide partisan primary.

click to enlarge Republican chair Lang Wiseman: "What we're doing doesn't work." - JACKSON BAKER
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  • Republican chair Lang Wiseman: "What we're doing doesn't work."

Say this for Lang Wiseman, the Shelby County Republican chairman. He can count. Which is to say, he knows the demographics of Shelby County have turned against the GOP and now favor the Democrats in countywide elections.

In a candid talk last week at Germantown's Pickering Center to members of the East Shelby Republican Club, the largest assemblage of his partymates in the county, Wiseman characterized the elections of 2008, when Barack Obama won Shelby County big and Democrats captured the offices of trustee, assessor, and general sessions clerk, as "low-water marks" in his party's recent history.

"Our turnout was extremely low, and we're drawing from a pile that's increasingly shrinking. That's a double whammy," he told the group at Pickering.

"We don't have the luxury of numbers, and we can't just trot our people out and expect to win." That meant that Republicans now have to "rejuvenate our party," and that means, "We have to work."

From there, Wiseman went on, via a PowerPoint presentation, to outline a strategy of highly organized grass-roots organization, complete with precinct captains, block captains, and itemized street-by-street voter lists.

It meant, for the forthcoming elections of 2010, when the great majority of countywide offices will be up for grabs, that "we've got to do something different, because what we're doing doesn't work."

Among other things, it meant maximizing the GOP vote, reaching at least the total of 95,000 hard-core Republican votes "at the top of the ballot." And it means also going after "Democrat crossover votes."

As Wiseman suggested, that means a redefining of the Republican Party's basic positions. For almost a generation, the local GOP has subsisted on a prescription of low taxes, less government, and a more conservative attitude than the Democrats toward a variety of social issues.

Wiseman isn't proposing a renunciation of any of this, but he would redefine Republican attitudes toward a more mainstream-sounding tripartite goal of "protecting our neighborhoods, educating our children, and providing value for the tax dollar."

And it also means another vital change — which would amount to a reversal of one of the fundamental Republican Party positions of the last 20 years. It was roughly a generation ago that militant party activists began to agitate for holding partisan primaries for countywide elective positions — county mayor, sheriff, trustee, assessor, the various clerkships, commission seats, etc. In short, for the core positions of Shelby County government.

Phil Langsdon, the chairman who was elected at the local Republican convention of 1991, responded to the pressure by petitioning the Shelby County Election Commission to hold a local Republican primary in 1992, when the positions of assessor and general sessions clerk were on the ballot.

The GOP held primaries for all countywide positions, beginning in 1994, when it swept the board, and Democrats were forced to respond with their own primaries for countywide offices.

All this came at a time when political power in Memphis itself was largely passing over to African Americans, Democrats in the main. Willie Herenton, later in 1991, became the city's first elected black mayor, and African Americans commanded a majority on the Memphis City Council as well.

But the population of the county at large remained predominantly white, and suburban whites, increasingly conservative, were moving into the Republican Party.

To their credit, the local Republican chairmen over the years eschewed overtly racial rhetoric. And, as the demographic gap in Shelby County narrowed, with whites finally losing an outright majority there as well, there were increasing calls within the party for racial outreach.

So here was local GOP chairman Wiseman, circa 2009, with the party defeats of 2008 behind him, and with new ones looming ahead in 2010, telling a tale of Ludakris, the black rapper, talking up self-reliance last year at the Ronald Reagan Center in Washington, D.C.

"He believes what we believe!" marveled Wiseman. But the chairman noted ruefully, "He's not going to vote Republican, and there are a lot of places where having an 'R' beside your name is a handicap."

The bottom line of that, Wiseman said, was "I'm not convinced that the primary system does work for us. It makes it harder to get crossover votes. There are a lot of places in the county that you don't want to go and say you're a Republican."

At that point, Bill Giannini, the current election commission chairman and Wiseman's predecessor as county GOP chair, chimed in. "If we had partisan elections in the city," he said, "we would not have a single city councilperson. We can continue to elect Republicans in countywide elections for years going forward if we can eliminate partisan elections. Shame on us for initiating those ... and now we are left with that albatross."

An energized discussion ensued among the East Shelby Republicans, and, though a voice or two demurred — a Tea Party advocate warning against "watering down" the party principles and a Christian activist insisting that the Republican Party stay "real" — the consensus seemed to be, as one member put it, "Our goal is to elect good people to office. We don't have to necessarily say they're Republican."

Wiseman characterized the matter as "a conversation we need to be having in the Republican Party," and there was a good deal of thinking out loud about the best means for the Shelby County Republican Party to divest itself of the local primaries it has conducted since 1992.

The answer to that, of course, is that the party need only formally declare to the election commission that it chooses not to hold a countywide primary next year. And if that conversation is had, it will need to be had soon, by the local Republican steering committee.

• One of the dissenters at the East Shelby Republican Club had complained that if Republicans surrendered too much specific identity, "someone like A C Wharton starts to look like a Republican."

Unquestionably, Wharton's 60 percent winning total in the recent special mayoral election included many Republicans. But the new Memphis mayor, formally a Democrat, isn't averse to lending his coattails to fellow Democrats running for office. Wharton was the guest of honor at a meet-and-greet on Sunday on behalf of Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, Democratic candidate in the December 1st special general election for the state Senate in District 31.

At the affair, held at the Countrywood home of Brian and Nancy Kuhn, Wharton praised Pakis-Gillon for her willingness in 2002 to support the candidacy for county mayor of "a little skinny black guy with gray hair," i.e., himself, Shelby County's Public Defender at the time.

Pakis-Gillon's Republican opponent is former state representative Brian Kelsey, who recently resigned his House seat in District 83 in order to facilitate an election there prior to the convening of the General Assembly in January.

• Also to be held on December 1st are the Republican and Democratic primaries for District 83, with the general election to follow on January 12th. The GOP candidates are Mark White and John Pellicciotti. Democrats running for the seat were Guthrie Castle and Ivon Faulkner, but Faulkner withdrew Tuesday. John Androcetti is an independent.

• Up until last week, the question of who would succeed acting mayor Joyce Avery at the helm of Shelby County government was confined to two prospects — county commissioners Joe Ford and J.W. Gibson, both Democrats. Then Republican commissioner George Flinn formally applied as a candidate. Other candidates, including businessman/activist Anthony Tate, also have applied.

The latest possibility to succeed Avery is Avery herself. The acting mayor, a Republican, said Tuesday she had been encouraged by "numerous" women and by two Democratic colleagues on the commission to become a candidate for the interim job, which would run until the election of a new mayor in August.

"I'm enjoying the job," said Avery, who added she would make herself available in case of a stalemate.

After conducting interviews with candidates on Wednesday, the commission will elect an interim mayor at its regular Monday meeting.

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