Friday, May 16, 2003

Who's Aboard?

New party chair Bowers beseeches divided Democrats to get on her

Posted By on Fri, May 16, 2003 at 4:00 AM

As they say, it ain't over 'til it's over, and there's no guaranteeing that the intra-party squabble among local Democrats is. But there is, as of Monday night, a new chairman of the Shelby County Democrats. It is state Representative Kathryn Bowers, elected by a vote of 21-20 by the 41-member party executive committee in a special meeting at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall on Madison.

Monday night's special meeting had been agreed upon by the party's two warring factions -- one supporting the now-former chairman Gale Jones Carson, the other backing Bowers -- after the two rivals for the chairmanship deadlocked 20-20 at the regularly scheduled party convention on April 12th at Hamilton High School.

But the factions had disagreed seriously about an intervening event, a meeting May 1st at which Carson, still holding office, had presided over the election of other officers, most of whom were her own partisans. (She had offered some positions to supporters of Bowers, all of whom declined in a show of factional solidarity.) Carson's contention was that party bylaws called for such an election following the convention; the Bowers faction countered that it was up to the new committee elected on April 12th to set its own schedule.

In any case, the work of May 1st was undone Monday night with the election of Bowers -- whose support came principally from the party's residual Ford and Farris factions, from her fellow legislators and their allies on the committee, and from the new committee's white minority. Carson, who serves as Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's press secretary, had strong support from the mayor's wing of the party. (Herenton himself had put in an appearance on Carson's behalf at the party's pre-convention March caucus at Hamilton.)

A slate of new officers, composed overwhelmingly of Bowers supporters, was also elected as the election of the Carson-approved slate on May 1st was formally rescinded.

Among the highlights (or lowlights) of the evening:

™ As soon as the vote totals were announced, Carson offered perfunctory congratulations to Bowers then stepped down from her presiding seat on the platform of the IBEW hall. As Bowers began to officiate in her role as newly elected chairman, a Carson delegate moved to adjourn the meeting and was seconded. But then, before a vote could be taken on the motion, most members of the Carson faction -- notably including the now-former chairman herself -- began to exit the building, thereby abandoning any chance of a favorable vote for adjournment.

™ At one point, Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone, an observer and close friend of Carson's, busied herself trying to finger for the media a committee member -- and Bowers supporter -- named Renita Scott-Pickens. Pickens, it seemed, was a county jailer who had taken off from work so as to be on hand to cast her vote. Asked about that, Pickens answered mysteriously that she had a "legal action" pending against the sheriff's department and would "refer questions to my lawyer."

™ At another point, police officer Robert Gill, one of the diehard Carson remnant who stayed behind to contest various issues (or to "agitate," as Bowers would term it), raised one of his several objections to a procedure under way, and the new chairman directed her newly appointed parliamentarian, Del Gill, to adjudicate the issue. Unsurprisingly, the parliamentarian ruled decisively against the officer, who happened to be his brother.

™ Committee member Marianne Wolff issued two apologies -- one public and one private. To the assembly at large, Wolff said, "I really feel I caused a lot of this by being sick." Wolff's illness at the party convention of April 12th had caused her to leave early and prevented her tie-breaking vote on Bowers' behalf. And to a reporter she attempted to explain away her attempts to misrepresent to the media the spelling of her name and her address this way: "I said I lived in Germantown and I spelled my name with one 'f'," said Wolff of Cordova, adding with an exotic ex post facto logic, "I thought you would know better if I put it that way."

Committee member Janie Orr, nominated at one point for the position of assistant treasurer, declined, saying forthrightly, "I'd be a disaster doing anything with money!" The nominating process had included several such moments over the past several weeks. At the May 1st meeting, when it was the Bowers faction's time to obfuscate, committee member Darrell Catron, one of the state representative's supporters, had ducked out of the meeting long enough to pull himself a Diet Coke and returned to hear what he thought was an attempt to nominate him for an office. "I decline!" he shouted, to general amusement, as his name had not in fact been mentioned.

On Monday night, Carson supporter Malcolm Nelson, who had earlier lambasted Bowers backer David Cocke for moving to disapprove the minutes of May 1st (Cocke's point being to nullify that meeting's election of the Carson slate), was nominated for an office by a Bowers supporter and was asked if he had anything to say to the committee. He rose and said gravely, "Good evening," then withdrew. (Later, though, both he and another Carson diehard, Leenard Jennings, seemed uncertain as to whether they should accept such goodwill nominations. Jennings finally allowed himself to be voted on for an at-large post on the party steering committee but went down 13-12 to Jesse Jeff, his fellow Carson supporter.

Considering that one of the bones of contention between the two factions had been Carson's insistence that party bylaws called for meetings on the first Thursday of each month (hence her decision to schedule the disputed May 1st meeting), it was ironic that Bowers supporter Duane Thompson moved successfully, late in Monday night's meeting, to schedule the new committee's regular meetings on -- guess what? -- the first Thursday of each month.

As the Old Guard yielded to the New, there were some moments of minor pathos. Freelance journalist Bill Larsha, a committee veteran, had been appointed by Carson as parliamentarian to succeed Del Gill at the May 1st meeting. As he took his seat on the dais before Monday night's meeting, Larsha beamed and showed off the proud possession he had armed himself with. It was a vintage, dog-eared copy of Robert's Rules of Order, the parliamentarian's bible, and he pointed to a faded signature on the inner leaf of the volume.

"Look," Larsha had said excitedly, "this is signed by the last surviving member of the Robert family!" But when Bowers took over, her first act as new chairman was to depose Larsha, whose tenure in office therefore ended up being measured in minutes, and to rename Gill. Larsha looked forlorn as he gathered up his literary treasure and stepped off the officers' platform.

At the May 1st meeting, ex-Teamster leader Sidney Chism, a close ally of both Carson's and Herenton's, had held out the prospect that if Bowers' people were successful in both electing her and rescinding the Carson slate of other officers elected at that meeting, then the factions might, as the succeeding months wore on, take turns voting each other out of office.

Chism, who is not a committee member, was not on hand Monday night, but another spokesperson for Carson, Norma Lester, one of the former chairman's slate, joined Bowers in an appeal to set aside such differences in the common interest of defeating Republicans. But Lester's proposed remedy -- the appointment of a five-member special committee composed of two Bowers supporters, two Carson supporters, and a neutral (whoever that might be, under the highly polarized circumstances) to select a slate of new party officers -- was rejected, and the election of a Bowers-dominated slate went ahead as planned.

Upon formally taking office, Bowers had given an exhortatory speech in which she promised to establish a local Democratic headquarters, to raise $250,000 for the party's 2004 general election fund, and to preside over "not one group but a unified party." Likening the Shelby County Democratic Party that she foresaw to a locomotive, Bowers urged Democrats at large to climb aboard and declaimed, "It's going to be a moving train!"

That remains to be seen. On Monday night, in any case, the train left the station without its full component aboard.

Flinn Again?

MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE GOP: Shelby County Republicans were preparing this week to hitch their train to the city council hopes of George Flinn, the radiologist/broadcast mogul who ran unsuccessfully for county mayor last year.

Flinn, a novice candidate, won the Republican nomination with a well-financed and -- said his critics -- abrasive media campaign against then-state Representative Larry Scroggs. Resultant party division was one factor in Flinn's lopsided loss in the general election to Democratic nominee A C Wharton.

"I think he intends to run a different type of campaign this year," said GOP party chair Kemp Conrad of the bid by Flinn for the District 5 seat being vacated by two-term councilman John Vergos. Conrad was taking no sides in advance of Tuesday night's vote on potential GOP endorsees by the local Republican steering committee, but he did not dispute reports that Flinn had the inside track.

Conrad pledged upon taking office this year that the party would endorse candidates for selected seats and aggressively promote their candidacies. In the morrow of Monday night's Democratic meeting, he could not resist this dig at the rival party's highly public difficulties: "It's unfortunate that the Democrats seem to be more consumed in power struggles and personal agendas than they are in the lives of Shelby Countians."

Among other hopefuls so far acknowledged as seeking the District 5 seat are Jim Strickland, Mary Wilder, Jay Gatlin, and John Pellicciotti. Pellicciotti, Gatlin, and Strickland, like Flinn, had preliminary interviews last week with the GOP candidate-recruitment committee, but each had handicaps to overcome in gaining the endorsement of the full Republican committee.

Gatlin's was that he is a relative unknown; Strickland's was that he served a term as chairman of the Shelby County Democrats; Pellicciotti's was, ironically enough, that he ran a tight race against Democratic state Representative Mike Kernell last year and is counted to do so again next year. Several leading Republicans have said they would prefer that Pellicciotti keep his powder dry until then.

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