Pre-Summer Heat in Memphis Politics 

A picnic, a poll, and some political pot-shotting in the wake of the Orlando tragedy.

Chism picnic attendee Gale Jones Carson takes a selfie with Mayors Herenton and Strickland

Jackson Baker

Chism picnic attendee Gale Jones Carson takes a selfie with Mayors Herenton and Strickland


On Saturday, a day in which the afternoon temperature soared into the 90s, the annual "community picnic" sponsored by longtime political broker and former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism took place, as usual, on the grounds of the Horn Lake Road Learning Center in South Memphis. 

And, as usual, the event attracted active politicians, candidates for political office, and a politically oriented crowd, though attendance seemed somewhat down this year, whether because of the excessive heat or by the relative scarcity of blue-ribbon political contests to come — at least among Democrats, who are normally predominant at these events.

Even so, there were several such pairings to be glimpsed. District 85 District Johnnie Turner was there, for example, as was one of her primary opponents, pastor Keith Williams. General Sessions Clerk Ed Stanton Jr. was there with a sizeable support group, and one idependent opponent, William Chism, was also there — though not Republican challenger Richard Morton.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, his stock buoyed by a recent poll made an appearance, as did former Mayor Willie Herenton, who made a point of praising Shelby County Commission Chairman Terry Roland for supporting the former mayor's proposal on behalf of two proposed model youth detention facilities in Frayser and Millington.

(Though the proposal was approved 8-2 in a commission vote last Monday, Roland came in for criticism and accusations of "bullying" from a minority of his fellow Republican members who either voted against the proposition or abstained.)

• On the eve of what could well turn out to be a long, hot summer, and with all the crises, ongoing and potential, affecting Memphis, how is the approval rating of Mayor Strickland holding up?

Rather well — or so would a fresh new poll taken on the mayor's behalf seem to suggest.

A new sampling of public opinion by Public Opinion Strategies, the firm relied on for the Strickland campaign during the 2015 mayoral race, shows the mayor's approval rating, as of May, 2016, to be 68 percent, with only 15 percent of those polled disapproving.

The sampling is broken down three ways:

*By gender, with 66 percent of men approving and 15 percent disapproving, and with 70 percent of women approving, against 14 percent who disapprove.

*By political party, with 89 percent of Republicans expressing approval and a statistical sample small enough to register as zero disapproving; 65 percent of approval from Democrats, with 17 percent disapproving; and 63 percent of independents approving, as against 19 percent disapproving.

*By race, with whites approving at a rate of 80 percent with only 5 percent disapproval, and with an approval rate of 62 percent among African Americans, 20 percent disapproving.

*And, rather oddly, the poll offers figures for "Northern Districts" (73 percent approval, 13 percent disapproval) and "Southern Districts" (61 percent approval, 17 percent disapproval).

According to Steven Reid, the consultant whose Sutton-Reid firm represented Strickland during his successful 2015 mayoral race, the poll, with a margin of error estimated at 4.9 percent, was conducted with "likely voters" by telephone from May 15th to May 17th, with 25 percent of those sampled contacted by cell phone.  


• The office of State Representative Andy Holt (R-Dresden), in an email addressed to the Tennessee media, claimed to have received "death threats" from a Memphis telephone number in the 487 exchange.

According to Holt assistant Michael Lotfi, whose voice is heard along with that of the caller in an MP3 audio sent along with the email, the caller was first heard from at about 5 p.m. on Monday on Holt's Nashville office telephone and phoned repeatedly thereafter.

In an audio portion of one of the calls, the caller is asked by Lofti whether he owns guns. The caller says he has several, though he does not directly threaten either Holt or Lotfi with them. He does say he intends to be in Nashville on Tuesday morning to "beat [the] ass" of Lotfi, whom he addresses as "bitch."

The caller does not seem to make a specific death threat, nor does he profess to be a "Democrat," although Lotfi's email attempts to brand the caller that way.

A voice similar to that heard on the recording answered when the Flyer called the number listed in the email as the source of the phone calls from Memphis. The person on the line declined to identify himself or to comment on the several alleged conversations with Lotfi, but an online number-tracing service appeared to lead to an individual whose Facebook page is replete not with threats to anyone but with numerous anti-gun postings, including some directly relating to Holt.

The bizarre conversation with Lotfi, the only one of the several allegedly received by Holt's Nashville office from which a recording was offered, took place in the aftermath of Holt's announced plan to give away an AR-15 at a forthcoming fund-raiser of his, a pledge Holt (literally) doubled down on a day after the weekend massacre at an Orlando, Florida, gay nightclub that resulted in some 100 casualties, including 50 deaths. An AR-15 was the assassin's weapon of choice.

In response to the atrocity, Holt promised to give away two such automatic assault weapons for self-defense purposes along with other firearms, as de facto door prizes for attendees at his fund-raiser, entitled "Hogfest."

As frequently chronicled by the Flyer's "Fly on the Wall" columnist, Chris Davis, Holt, a pig farmer, has become something of a cynosure for media attention, much of it negative. In 2015 he was threatened with a $177,000 fine by the Environmental Protection Agency for illegally dumping 860,000 gallons of hog waste into a public stream.

The EPA dropped the fine, conditional upon Holt's acceptance of a consent decree requiring him to close two lagoons from which the waste had been emptied. The agency reserves the right to re-institute the fine if the agreement is breached.

As Davis noted in an online post on Monday, "Holt, who's introduced his share of faith-based anti-gay legislation, burned his traffic tickets on YouTube, and showed support for antics perpetrated by the Bundy Ranch militia," has also made virulent attacks on Ninth District Congressman Steve Cohen (D-Memphis), who, in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, called for legislation banning "all assault weapons and high capacity magazines."

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