Friday, July 29, 2005

New Deal

Shelby County Democrats reshuffle, electing Matt Kuhn chairman.

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 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 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?"

As Ford was informed, 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 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 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.

Surprised as he was by the apparent dimensions of Kuhn's victory, Ford resolved instantly to accept it. "I can live with that," Ford said to his aide. "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 at Zinnie's East, 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."

These are a few of the factors that, by the testimony of those voting for Kuhn on Saturday, led to defeat for Representative 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 alleged against Cocke's campaign team, especially on the part of chief strategist David Upton, a 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.

• A general desire to start afresh in the wake of the FBI'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, who doubles as the mayor's press secretary, with Bowers in a bitterly contested showdown two years ago.

Carson, Chism, and various other partisans of the mayor were high-fiving each other and various Coalition members Saturday 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. Both Cocke and the other nominee, Joe Young, withdrew their candidacies before a hand count 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 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 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 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 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. "I just don't know if they'd buy it," said Kuhn, gesturing toward a group of new committee members.

The new Shelby County Democrats 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 assumes that the oft-feuding Democrats will manage to forge a new unity. When a Coalition Democrat like Franklin made a conscious effort to avoid being photographed in the vicinity of a group including Upton, that may take some doing.

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

Though they were stymied in their first attempts, Kuhn and Ford have talked since Saturday, and both seem avid to establish a show of amity. Ford, in fact, will play host to Kuhn and the newly elected Democratic committee at a "unity reception" and party fund-raiser this Saturday at Café Francisco downtown.• Though 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 ahead 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.• Kurita's appearance at the weekend Democratic convention in Memphis was not the only point of contrast with Representative 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."• Thursday, August 5th, is primary day in the special elections for state senate, District 29, and state representative, District 87. For developments on this and other political stories, see •

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