Thursday, July 28, 2005


Shelby County Democrats reshuffle the deck, electing Matt Kuhn chairman.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2005 at 4:00 AM


It was mid-afternoon Saturday, and Harold Ford Jr., who was off somewhere else in Tennessee campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat, was getting a telephone report from his home base in Memphis about the Shelby County Democratic Party’s just-concluded balloting for a new chairman and executive committee.

The Memphis congressman was informed that the vote, conducted in a ballroom of the University of Memphis student center, had been top-heavy against David Cocke, the longtime Ford loyalist and former two-time party head whom Ford had personally endorsed for chairman. The congressman couldn’t conceal his astonishment. “I thought you said it’d be close!” he said. “What happened?”

The trusted aide who had given Ford the bad news followed with the kind of embarrassed shrug that could almost be heard across the long-distance cell-phone-to-cell-phone connection. “A lot of different things. What can I say?,” the aide answered and promised to spell things out in detail later on.

The runaway winner in the chairman’s race had been youthful activist Matt Kuhn, the beneficiary of an ad hoc alliance between a host of newly active Democrats who called themselves “the convention Coalition,” and an established bloc of Democrats – alternately called the Herenton faction, after Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, or the Chism faction, after political broker and Herenton confidante Sidney Chism. The latter group had vied for power with Ford’s own wing of the party for more than a decade.

The former group, the self-described “Coalition,” was one in fact as well as name. It was made up basically of two organizations – Mid-South Democrats in Action, a group of volunteers who’d been active for party nominee John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign and had felt short-shrifted by the established party leadership; and Democracy for Memphis, a local tributary of the reformist movement set in motion by erstwhile presidential hopeful Howard Dean, now national Democratic chairman.

Hard as the reality of Kuhn’s victory might have been for the congressman to swallow, he resolved instantly to accept it. “I can live with that,” Ford said. “Give me Matt’s number. I’ll call him.”

As of two hours later, when the victorious Kuhn was presiding over a Dutch Treat celebration feast with supporters in a sideroom of Zinnie’s East on Madison , the congressman had not yet gotten through. “I was talking on the phone with some Coalition people,” Kuhn explained. “And when I called back, he didn’t answer.” Outfitted with another of the congressman’s numbers, Kuhn promised to keep trying.

“A LOT OF DIFFERENT THINGS,” indeed. Here are a few of the factors that, by the testimony of some of those voting for Kuhn on Saturday, led to defeat for Rep. Ford’s chairmanship candidate, the mild-mannered and generally well-liked Cocke, and, indirectly, for the congressman himself:

*Dissatisfaction with Ford’s increasingly conservative voting record and rightward-tilting campaign strategy. The two groups making up the Coalition are, in the long-accepted vernacular, “yellow-dog” Democrats, convinced that the chief cause of the party’s electoral reverses in recent years has been the accommodationist politics of over-cautious Democrats.

*Resentment of the hardball “tactics” (a word heard incessantly on Saturday) pursued by Cocke’s campaign team, especially by chief strategist David Upton, a veteran activist and Ford loyalist who, rightly or wrongly, was blamed for a short-lived challenge to Coalition members’ party credentials, followed by a whispering campaign directed at the group’s predominantly white membership. “First, they were attacked for being possible Republicans, then they were attacked for being too white” was the scornful assessment of party veteran Calvin Anderson, an African-American member of the state Election Commission and a pro-Kuhn obsever on Saturday.

*A general desire to start afresh, in the wake of the F.B.I.’s Tennessee Waltz sting that netted several prominent local Democrats, including state Senator Kathryn Bowers, who resigned as local party chairman after being indicted with the others for extortion.

*An opportunity for the Herenton/Chism group to settle scores with the Ford faction, which had replaced former chairman Gale Jones Carson with Bowers by one vote in a bitterly contested showdown two years ago.

Carson, Chism, and various other partisans of the mayor’s were high-fiving each other and various Coalition members when the vote tally of the newly seated 67-member executive committee passed the halfway mark.

Heavy applause began when the number reached 38, at which point there were enough uncounted Kuhn voters still standing and uncounted to reach into the 40s. Carson would later put the actual total at 45. Upton insisted the total for Kuhn was "only" 41. (His own tally sheet, noted one observer, who peeked at it, contained the number 13 — presumably the members committed to Cocke — circled prominently.) Both Cocke and the other nominee, Joe Young, withdrew their candidacies before a handcount could be taken — meaning that Kuhn was ultimately elected by something resembling acclamation.

THE ACTUAL CONTEST HAD PROBABLY not been as one-sided as the final outcome favoring Kuhn. When delegates to the convention had earlier gathered in groups corresponding to state legislative districts to select members of the new executive committee, the voting edge was razor-thin here and there. Many a race was decided by the margin of one vote. and one member elected in District 85 – Chism’s home district – was actually determined by a coin toss.when the vote count itself deadlocked.

Even so, what Shelby County Commissioner Deidre Malone, another observer, called a “New Day” had clearly dawned – with new leaders, like the MDIA’s Desi Franklin and the DFM’s Brad Watkins, gaining election to a reconstituted committee that was manifestly weighted in their direction.

State Senator Steve Cohen, who followed up his rousing speech at last month’s party caucuses with another one to the voting delegates Saturday, pointed out the obvious about Saturday’s outcome – that it was hard not to see it as a rebuff to Rep. Ford, who had not only been Cocke’s chief supporter but had sponsored mailers in his favor.

Indeed, there was an undeniable contrast between the statewide and national attention fixed on Rep. Ford’s Senate race and his inability to get his own man elected chairman of his home county’s party. And the congressman’s Democratic primary opponent in the Senate race, state Senator Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville, had been on hand Saturday to give a well-received brief speech to delegates.

In the long run, of course, some of the party divisions on display Saturday will heal over, and a gallant Cocke made haste to congratulate the winner and pledge his support. Kuhn was conciliatory in his own post-election remarks, but was reticent when asked later if he favored giving a few party offices to members of the Ford faction when the new executive committee next meets to complete reorganization.

“I just don’t know if they’d buy it,” said Kuhn, gesturing toward a group of new committee members.

The new Shelby County Democratic executive committee – probably the first in decades to have both a white chairman and a white majority -- promises to be somewhat more militant on political issues than its immediate predecessors, but still might be better positioned than previous committees to challenge Republican domination of the county’s suburbs.

That, of course, assumes that the oft-feuding Democrats will manage to forge a new unity. On a day when a Coalition Democrat like Franklin made a conscious effort to avoid being photographed in the vicinity of a group including Upton, it appeared that make take some doing.

But with a long ballot coming up next year, including races for governor and U.S. Senator, as well as countywide offices, legislative seats, and a lengthy list of judgeships, the incentives for said unity will certainly be there, and Kuhn, who plans to offer an updated party website and other innovations, will have a better than even chance of achieving it.

Kuhn is a relatively new face to some old-line Democrats, the new chairman has a track record in party politics. Son of party activist Nancy Kuhn and county attorney Brian Kuhn, he has served as a major campaign aide to Democrats as diverse as 8th district congressman John Tanner, South Carolina congressman John Spratt, and Nashville mayor Bill Purcell. Kuhn also served as office manager for former Juvenile Court clerk Shep Wilbun.

Financial disclosures for the last quarter show Ford and Republican Bob Corker to be well head of their party rivals in fund-raising. Former Chattanooga Mayor Corker raised $716,000 and reported $2.9 million in his campaign account, while former congressmen Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary each raised slightly more than $300,000 each.

Ford raised $695,000 in the quarter and boasts almost $1.8 million in his general campaign fund. Kurita raised $54,410 and has $221, 134 on hand. n Kurita’s appearance at the weekend Democratic convention in Memphis was not the only point of contrast with Rep. Ford. As Roll Call noted, the Clarksville state senator took a more skeptical position on the issue of President Bush’s new Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts, than did Ford.

Said Kurita: “John Roberts appears to be well-qualified for the Supreme Court in terms of his legal credentials. However, I am disappointed that President Bush would nominate someone whose philosophy seems so far outside the mainstream. Our country deserves a justice in the mold of Sandra Day O’Connor — a moderate who offers a voice of reason on complex judicial issues.”

Ford’s response was more restrained: “I am relieved that the President nominated an accomplished jurist and skilled attorney. Now it is time for the Senate to begin its advise-and-consent process to investigate his record thoroughly.” n Former state representative D Jack Smith was honored earlier this month at an 80th anniversary commemoration of the 1925 Scopes eveolution trial in Dayton. In 1967, Rep. Smith sponsored the bill which finally repealed Tennessee's law against teaching evolution in the public schools.

Next Thursday, August 5th, is primary day in the special elections for state Senate, District 29, and state Representative, District 87. For breaking-news developments on this and other political stories, keep checking this site.

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