The special election to pick a successor to District 89 state Representative Carol Chumney, who has been elected to the City Council, has so far fixated -- some would say, foundered -- on the issue of one candidate's residency. This is Jeff Sullivan, who with his wife owns a house a few blocks outside the lines of the Midtown district. Under challenge from State Senator Steve Cohen, who is vigorously promoting the interests of Sullivan's Democratic primary challenger, Beverly Robison Marrero, Sullivan has rented a guesthouse within the district lines and says he and his expectant wife plan to move there. If Sullivan is elected and the move occurs, as planned, within 30 days of his taking the oath, he will have satisfied state law on the matter.
Another Marrero backer, outgoing city councilman John Vergos, weighed in on the issue, saying, "We have allowed politicians in this system to not live in the district or have some sort of sham seat, and we do it all the time, and that doesn't make it right. We shouldn't let them cherry-pick an area like that."
There is merit to this view, whether or not it turns out to apply to Sullivan. It certainly applies to a number of sitting legislators -- state Senator John Ford and state Representative Joe Kent being cases in point -- whose primary residences would seem to be elsewhere than those which they list within their nominal districts. What is indisputable, however, is that the constituents of these two legislators seem to know the score and keep re-electing Ford and Kent anyhow. It can be argued that, so long as the letter of the law is fulfilled, the voters have a right to choose whomever they wish to represent them. Ultimately, it is up to the District 89 voters to decide the outcome in next week's special primary.
But a law's a law, and since this particular one happens to be honored as much in the breach as in the observance, it needs to be changed. The residency requirement should either be dispensed with altogether, reflecting the current reality of no-fixed-abode legislators, or replaced with a more stringently enforced one that candidates for state legislative office do actually live in the districts they supposedly represent.
Now that the matter has received a fuller-than-usual airing, District 89 voters can decide on Thursday how important the residency issue is to them.
Another issue needs to be resolved by the Shelby County Commission. Since there is no Republican primary challenger, this means that either Marrero or Sullivan will be named by the voters to go to Nashville. And, though Chumney has made a spirited pitch to members of the commission to name as an interim representative her erstwhile campaign manager, the no-doubt deserving activist Jay Sparks, we think that whoever wins the Democratic primary should be appointed instead.
Less than a month will transpire between the convening of the General Assembly in January and the formal general election vote of February 10th. Since the chances are infinitesimally small that a write-in candidate might prevail, the primary winner should be allowed to hit the ground running.