Friday, December 10, 2004

A Runoff Rundown

There's a case against it, and a case for it. Sometimes it's the same case.

Posted on Fri, Dec 10, 2004 at 4:00 AM

As this edition of the Flyer was getting ready for press, voters were heading to the polls to determine whether incumbent school board member Hubon "Dutch" Sandridge or his runoff opponent, Tomeka Hart, would represent District 7 on the Memphis school board for the next four years. Hart came within a hair of winning outright on November 2nd, polling 12,691 votes or 47 percent. Sandridge lagged behind, with only 8,807 votes or 33 percent, and qualified for the runoff round only because a third candidate, Terry Becton, managed 5,578 for a 21 percent showing -- enough to deprive Hart of an absolute majority and force a Sandridge-Hart runoff.

In some quarters, this circumstance has caused a good deal of hand-wringing and tut-tutting about the unfairness of it all. Though Sandridge clearly garnered something less than a vote of confidence from his constituents last month, and Hart, just as clearly, tapped a wellspring of genuine support, the challenger was in danger of losing to the incumbent because of the special circumstances of a runoff election -- in which, without another major race to help drive a large turnout, Sandridge's long-established connections might outweigh Hart's demonstrated grass-roots appeal.

So went the theory, and it was buttressed by the appearance, late in the runoff campaign, of a controversial Sandridge flyer emphasizing his party credentials in a district heavy with Democratic voters. Dirty pool, said Hart's supporters, on the grounds that A) the school board election was formally nonpartisan; and B) the local Democratic Party itself had taken no position on the candidates.

The fact remained that it was up to Hart's team, in the runoff as on Election Day, to get her voters out and to win at least a modicum of the votes that went originally for Becton. If she did (and her popularity on November 2nd certainly indicated her capacity to do so), she had little to worry about. If she couldn't, then that fact would suggest that her initial edge over the somewhat tarnished Sandridge had been ephemeral.

The idea of a runoff remains controversial. The original objections to it locally were based on its onetime usefulness to a white political establishment as a means of keeping prominent black candidates from getting into office via the achievement of a mere plurality in a crowded field. The way things now stand in local elections -- runoffs mandatory in district elections but impermissible in at-large races -- is the result of the late federal judge Jerome Turner's Solomonic way of halving the baby when faced with plaintiffs charging racial bias a decade ago.

Now that demographics have shifted locally, the racial argument aganst runoffs is either moot or it works the other way. Some of those who are boosting City Council member Carol Chumney for city mayor in 2007, for example, are frank about their hopes that she, as a white female, could win a plurality in a field that is likely to draw several male African-American candidates.

And sometimes other factors clearly outweigh race in the debate over runoffs. Take a situation from 1992: Local Republicans were revving up to change the way county elections were held, instituting a local party primary for the first time and using the election for General Sessions Court clerk to put the hammer on local office-holders. The genial long-term incumbent in that race was Gene Goldsby, who had been urged to run as the GOP's candidate but preferred to run, as he always had, as a political independent. There were two other candidates -- state senator John Ford, a Democrat, though running without party label as such, and Republican party activist Shirley Stone, who owned her party's nomination. Stone, though a virtual unknown to the population at large, drew enough party-line votes from Goldsby to give Ford a plurality.

The lesson took: Immediately thereafter the remaining white county office-holders climbed off the fence and discovered that they were, in fact, "Republicans" and would henceforth run as such. When Democrats later followed suit with their own local primaries, black office-holders and office-seekers decided they were "Democrats." The argument could be made, in fact, that the absence of a runoff in that three-way 1992 race actually worked to exacerbate racial polarities rather than to relieve them. (There is, however, one conspicuous exception to the party-line/racial-line rule: Rita Clark, a white suburbanite who has now won three consecutive races as a Democrat for county assessor.)

I leave it to the partisans for and against John Ford to fight it out as to whether his 1992 victory was an argument for or against runoff elections. In any case, Ford was defeated by current General Sessions clerk Chris Turner in 1996, when both ran as party nominees. Republican Turner barely survived his general election contest this year, winning over the Democratic nominee, state senator Roscoe Dixon, by a hair as Harvey Branch, an independent African American, garnered 1,738 votes -- somewhat more than the 1,461-vote differential between Turner and Dixon. It is generally believed that Dixon, now an administrative assistant to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, could have prevailed in a runoff.

• The Shelby County Commission, which on Monday made the latest of several past and pending decisions about appointments -- naming Steve Summerall, an assistant administrator, to the position of chief administrator -- faces another potentially vexing choice in January as commissioners contemplate the question of who should succeed Dixon as state senator from District 33.

Commissioner Michael Hooks, now serving as commission chairman, wants the seat and would be a sure thing to get the appointment from his commission mates. But Hooks knows that if he's in office as of January, when Dixon will be taking leave of his seat, he'll be subject to legislative rules against doing any fund-raising while the General Assembly is in session. That would put Hooks at a disadvantage in next year's special election for the seat, and so he is believed to favor the appointment of a strictly interim appointee -- former state representative Alvin King being the most probable candidate.

That solution would enable Hooks to run on even terms against likely opponent Kathryn Bowers, a state representative and the current chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

• The selection of Summerall came after a bit of bartering that resulted in two other new appointees: Floria Todd, who takes Summerall's old job as deputy administrator, and Frances Elkins, executive secretary. Clay Perry continues in his role as a second deputy administrator. Though the general public remained largely ignorant of, and indifferent to, the outcome, there had been a good deal of partisan maneuvering in the several weeks since former chief administrator Grace Hutchinson announced her resignation to serve Mayor Wharton as his chief budget officer for the schools, a job bearing the title of deputy director of the division of administration and finance.

Summerall wanted to move up and had the support, it appeared, of six of the commission's seven GOP members -- all save maverick Republican John Willingham, who favored Winslow "Buddy" Chapman, a city police director three decades ago. Chapman had been an applicant for the job when Hutchinson first got it in 2003. She had succeeded Calvin Williams, who resigned under pressure and was later indicted an accessory in the case of misconduct charges against former Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun.

Besides Chapman, another former applicant seeking the chief administrator's job was City Council staff administrator Lisa Geater, who started out with solid support from the commission's six Democrats. There things stood for the last few weeks: six for Summerall; six for Geater; and one for Chapman. The logjam began to break when Democrat Cleo Kirk expressed interest in giving an assistant's position to Todd, who had a background in budgetary matters. Additional pressure was put on newly appointed commissioner George Flinn, who had been weighing all contenders, not to break ranks with his fellow Republicans. The long and the short of it: Summerall got his majority, Todd got her job, and two commissioners -- Democrat Julian Bolton and Republican Willingham -- ended up going along with the arrangement after first complaining.

Chief broker in the deal was first-term Republican David Lillard, who played a somewhat similar role in lining up votes last month for Flinn as the replacement for departed commissioner Linda Rendtorff, now Wharton's director of community affairs.

• Flinn, by the way, took his first major political step on Monday as a commissioner, announcing during a debate that he would vote against a zoning proposal by Wayman "Jackie" Welch, a developer with more than usual political clout, out of sensitivity to neighborhood residents' concerns. (A vote on the proposal was deferred, pending further negotiations between Welch and opponents of the proposal, which would add a car-wash to an existing project in Cordova.) Coupled with his deliberative course of action on the Summerall appointment, Flinn demonstrated something of an ability to tread the line between independence and collegiality.

• State senator Steve Cohen, who waged a 16-year legislative struggle on behalf of legalizing a state lottery, may be in for another long-odds, long-term battle. Cohen plans to introduce legislation in the coming session on behalf of legalizing medical marijuana for patients whose doctors recommend it. •

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