This week's special-election Democratic primary in state Senate District 30 has engendered much more than the normal quota of divisiveness in party ranks.
Both former city attorney Robert Spence and state representative Beverly Marrero have significant support from established political and civic figures; both also have highly animated opposition, and some Democrats privately worry that enduring hostilities will hobble the winner in the March 13 showdown with Republican Larry Parrish.
The battle is for the Midtown-based seat given up by new 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, and Cohen is on record as endorsing Marrero, a longtime political ally. But Cohen aide Randy Wade has made a series of statements tempering that endorsement as more pro forma than active -- perhaps in acknowledgement of a potentially combustible racial issue.
So far, there is no such fire, but there was enough smoke that activist Jerry Hall, upon learning of Cohen's endorsement plans on New Year's Day, made a point of saying to the then congressman-elect, "I hope this doesn't become racial."
Neither Marrero, who is white, nor Spence, an African American, has encouraged any such split, and both have both white and black backers, but the fact remains that the cores of their respective support bases are somewhat racially divergent.
Besides Cohen, other leading supporters of Marrero are City Council member Carol Chumney, Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, and Memphis school board member Jeff Warren, all of whom are white. Marrero, however, has also been endorsed by black legislative colleagues John DeBerry, Joe Towns, and Larry Turner.
For his part, Spence is supported by city councilman Myron Lowery, county commissioners Deidre Malone and Sidney Chism, and other prominent African Americans close to Mayor Willie Herenton.
Race has become a serious factor on the Shelby County Commission, where Democrat Steve Mulroy and Republican Mike Carpenter, both new members elected last August, have emerged as potential swing voters.
Carpenter's role was showcased late last year when he was the only Republican voting with the commission's seven Democrats to establish a second Juvenile Court judgeship. As of this week, he still favors that move -- delayed by legal and procedural obstacles and requiring at some point a re-vote -- but he shifted back into the company of his fellow Republicans Monday during a party-line committee vote deferring approval of a formal study of Juvenile Court procedures.
The Democrats won that vote, 7-6, after a stormy discussion that had racial overtones (as one example, Commissioner Sidney Chism charged that disproportionate incarceration of blacks might be related to the issue of "making money") and focused on whether Juvenile Court judge Curtis Person should appear before the commission to answer questions.
Afterward, Carpenter made it clear that he regarded the demand, made chiefly by Chism and fellow Democrats Henri Brooks and Deidre Malone, as bordering on uncivil.
Mulroy, the lone white among the commission's majority Democrats, took the lead Monday in several black-white matters, voicing his concern over an issue that is normally Brooks' province and forcing a party-line roll-call vote overturning what had earlier been a unanimous committee vote approving a minor contract. The issue? Whether the company receiving the contract employed a proportionate number of African Americans.
Up to this point, the commission, eight of whose members are new, has experienced an unusual degree of comity. But both the current raging matter of reorganizing Juvenile Court (see Editorial, page 14) and various Title VI issues raised by Brooks relating to (equal-employment) clauses of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, have brought the potentially divisive question of racial inequity to the fore. Said Chism: "Whether we like it or not, it does exist." Brooks: "I'll go further. ... It's on this commission."
It seems to be a factor as well in the current session of Congress. Congressman Cohen got some more this week with the debut issue of a much-heralded new online publication.
Politico.com reported that "several current and former members" of the Congressional Black Caucus had "made it clear that a white lawmaker was not welcome" in its ranks, and that Cohen, accordingly, had dropped whatever plans he had to seek membership. Cohen was quoted as saying that attempting to join the caucus would be a "social faux pas."