POLITICS: Democrats Object and Overrule in Judicial Choices 

At a lengthy and boisterous meeting at the IBEW Union Hall Thursday night, members of the Shelby County Democratic Committee overturned several recommendations for judicial endorsements submitted by a party screening committee.  But that wasn't the half of it: The party's innate fault line was laid bare for all to see. Two bloggers have already weighed in with furious outrage at the goings-on. Only problem: They're outraged in opposite directions:

Left Wing Cracker is incensed that...well, as he says in part:

To the members of the ExecCom, you acted like spoiled children, like out-and-out damn fools, and you should be ashamed of yourselves. When we get our asses kicked on August 3, it's partly your fault. Only partly, because, let's face it, the SCDP has a bunch of underfunded, WEAK candidates who only campaign on one side of town because they live under the delusion that enough African-Americans will turn out so that they don't have to get white votes. And again, they will learn (maybe) at their own peril.

   Thaddeus Matthews, on the other hand, sees white racism, not black, as the problem:

This group which many were a part of the election committee proved tonight that racism is alive and well in the party. In some of the races this group tried to vote for No endorsement, than vote for the black in the race. In fact in some of the races where there was a black candidate who was a democract, and a white republican they recommended that the white republican be endorsed.

And there you have it. This would surely appear to be what you would call a hopelessly divided party. But, with all due respect to both gentlemen (who would almost seem to have attended different meetings, or to have seen this one from diametrically different perspectives), there's another way of looking at the results. Yes, the meeting was a non-stop ruckus. Yes, there were catcalls, interruptions, and enough tortuous repetition of already covered procedural points to be considered cruel and unusual at Guantanamo.

Yes, late in the proceedings there was an ejection - sort of - as MSDIA Democrat Pat Primrose hooted at one too many circumstances and, at chairman Matt Kuhn's request, was escorted to the back of the IBEW hall, no further, by party sergeant-at-arms John Bratcher. (Committee member Del Gill, as obstreperous as ever, barely escaped a similar fate five or six times - and almost got it when he shouted, "You shut up!"  at fellow committee member Desi Franklin, chair of the judicial committee. Franklin, no shrinking violet herself, had said, a propos one of Gill's attempts to lecture Kuhn on procedure, "You're not the chairman!")

But there was method to the madness. The party representatives (and remember, this is the same body, elected a year ago, that contains each of the three major Democratic factions - a "Ford" group, a "Chism" group, a "reform" group - in almost equal measure) made decisions according to a sort of understandable calculus.

Things we found out:

It helped for a candidate to be black, but it helped even more to be a known Democrat, and the deciding factor, all else being equal, was - believe it or not, judicial qualifications.

The best example of that occurred with the executive committee's overwhelming endorsement of incumbent Paula Skahan, previously endorsed by the judicial committee,over Tonya Saafir for Criminal Court, Division One. Skahan is white, and Saafir is black. Beyond that, however, Saafir has generous support from social conservatives and has been formally endorsed by several groups on the Republican right; Skahan is being targeted (mainly for an alternate lifestyle) by the same groups. Score a big one for Skahan, whose judicial record has already won her a passel of other endorsements (and no worse than a "no endorsement" decision by the Shelby County Republican Party itself.)

There were other such examples: Incumbent judge Mark Ward, who had been endorsed by the judicial committee, got the nod, if barely, over opponent Alicia Howard in Criminal Court Division Nine when party secretary Norma Lester and chairman Kuhn, during a recount,cast deciding votes in his favor. Ward, who had the highest ratings of any judge in a recent survey of lawyers, had previously appeared to have won the committee's endorsement by a single vote, and had sat, fatalistically in the rear of the room declaring to an onlooker as the recount commenced, "She's going to get it this time." That might have been so, had the issue been determined solely by skin color, but there was enough crossover among the majority-black voters to get Ward, the paleface in this pairing, through. His larger problem might have been that he was previously endorsed by the Shelby County Republicans.

Yet another instance of that principle - party over race as a deciding factor - occurred in the voting for Criminal Court, Division Seven. Lee Coffee, an African American, was the judicial committee's recommendee; his major opposition came from Janet Lansky Shipman, a white. As members of the judicial committee had explained, both candidates were almost equally worthy - enough so that a finding of "No Endorsement" might be the right way to go. That's the way it turned out, in fact, by a bare majority of 23 for not endorsing. Astonishingly, Shipman got 18 votes against none (count 'em, zero) for Coffee, who had received a judicial-committee recommendation - a fact suggesting that her support is far harder than his. But, once again, Coffee's total in the group at large probably suffered from the fact of his prior endorsement by the Shelby County Republicans.

Kenny Armstrong, the current Clerk & Master in Chancery Court and the judicial committee's endorsee, came within a hair of losing the executive committee's endorsement but was saved when Lester cast a deciding vote in his favor. Armstrong, an African American like rival Karen Tyler, seems to have gotten something of a backlash because of his prior endorsement by the Republican Party.

Race may, in fact, have played a major part in deciding several other endorsement contests - including some conspicuous reversals. In Chancery Court Division Two, well-liked and well-respected incumbent Arnold Goldin, a judicial-committee endorsee who had won several prior endorsements, including that of the majority-black National Bar Association, went down in a floor vote to newcomer Carlee McCullough, an engaging if less credentialed challenger.

Other judicial-committee endorsees who suffered a similar fate were Jim Lammey in Criminal Court, Division Five, beaten by Dewun Settle; Karen Massey in Criminal Division Eleven of General Sessions, supplanted by incumbent Judge Michelle Alexander-Best; and incumbent Judge Louis Montesi in Criminal Division Thirteen of General Sessions, outvoted by challenger Terrence Tatum.

In two other races, a "no endorsement" recommendation by the judicial committee was overturned by the executive committee, a majority of whom preferred to endorse Curtis Johnson  (over incumbent Jimmy Russell) in Circuit Court, Division Two, and LaTonya Burrow (over incumbent Fred Axley) in Criminal Court, Division Six. Meanwhile, incumbent Judge Ann Pugh lost her judicial-committee endorsement to a finding for "no endorsement" in Criminal Division Seven of General Sessions. (Under the circumstances, this was a save for Pugh, whose opponent, Tyrone J. Paylor, came within a vote of supplanting her as the executive committee's choice.)

Other contests were decided in favor of the judicial committee's endorsees: incumbents Jerry Stokes in Circuit Court, Division Six; D'Army Bailey in Circuit Court, Division Eight; Carolyn Blackett in Criminal Court, Division Four; John Donald in Civil Division Three of General Sessions; Betty Thomas Moore in Civil Division Five of General Sessions; Gwen Rooks in Criminal Division Twelve of General Sessions; and Donn Southern in Probate Court Two.

Regina Morrison Newman continued her impressive sweep of endorsements in Civil Division Four of General Sessions.

Last but by no means least, given the intense competitiveness of this multi-candidate race, former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman won an endorsement for Juvenile Court Judge with relative ease over adherents of a "no endorsement" vote. The chief loser in that outcome was city judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse, who needed the boost to bolster her claim to be the leading candidate among African American voters. Coleman, who has good crossover potential, can now lay plausible claim to that distinction herself. Left out of the running was another city judge, Jayne Chandler. Thursday night's vote gives Coleman, who will appear with other Juvenile Court candidates at a Public Issues Forum on Sunday, a better chance of going one-on-one against Republican endorsee Curtis Person, who remains the favorite in the general election race.

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