Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Other Commission Race

Reinvented Democrat Henri Brooks vies with underdog Novella Smith Arnold of the GOP

Posted By on Wed, Jul 19, 2006 at 4:00 AM

A local wag (okay, it was me) used to jest that Henri Brooks was so determined to get busy pursuing a career in public service that she dropped out of charm school early.

And there was a time when such a characterization rang true of a legislator who often appeared humorless and single-minded as she pursued goals that revolved around themes of racial justice -- especially the application of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill to all public issues where racial discrimination appeared likely or even possible.

That Brooks commanded respect was a given; but so was the fact that she often rubbed her colleagues -- and especially members of the state House of Representatives hierarchy -- the wrong way. All that came to a boil back in 2001, when Brooks was publicly chastised by House speaker Jimmy Naifeh for her refusal to stand and participate in the chamber's daily pledge-of-allegiance ritual.

Brooks' response was that from the third grade on she had regarded the flag as an emblem of erstwhile slaveholders. The issue was later defused somewhat as Brooks -- whose constitutional right to act as she did was acknowledged by Naifeh as well as others -- either stood during the pledge or came to the chamber after it was recited. But the publicity given the issue, like that for her advocacy of reparations for descendants of slaves, stamped her in some quarters, in and out of the legislature, as a zealot.

The impression lingered even as, in recent years, Brooks evinced a widening ability to act in concert with her colleagues on issues like the defense of TennCare. And her attention to the needs of her mid-city District 92 constituents provided her a base that landed her within a few votes of winning last year's special Democratic primary for the District 29 state Senate seat eventually won by Ophelia Ford (who had to surrender the seat when, amid allegations of election fraud, the Senate voided her election).

Many were surprised when Brooks, instead of filing again for the state Senate seat, decided to run for the County Commission (she has also raised a few eyebrows by running again, simultaneously, for her House seat).By way of explanation, Brooks professed a desire to work more directly on behalf of inner-city needs. Her decision may also have owed something to a near-tragic mishap last winter. On an icy day, she fell in her back yard and lay unconscious for some 10 hours before, near death, she was discovered by a neighbor, who summoned an ambulance.

Whatever the cause, the Henri Brooks who recovered from that ordeal (and won a contested primary for the District 2, Position 2 commission post) has seemed less confrontational and more accessible, even capable of something resembling charm. An example of that came at this year's St. Peter picnic, where she made a point of introducing around "my newest family member," a frolicsome dog with an elongated name ("W.E.B. DuBois" was part of it).

Some of her former baggage remains. Asked at St. Peter's how she would handle the pledge-of-allegiance issue on the commission, she deflected the question on the grounds that she was focusing on issues relating more directly to district needs. And she still has her critics -- some old, some new, like the Memphis Stonewall Democrats, a gay coalition that regards Brooks as indifferent, if not an adversary, and has endorsed the Republican nominee.

That nominee, Novella Smith Arnold, has an uphill battle, if for no other reason than that District 2 is rock-solid Democratic in its sympathies. At a recent all-candidates forum, she appeared after Brooks had made a point of repeating her Democratic affiliation.

When it came Arnold's time, she rose and said, "I'm a Martin Luther King Republican," a reminder that there was a time when politically conscious African Americans in the South -- like the Kings of Georgia and the Hooks family of Memphis -- voted Republican in opposition to the segregationist Democratic power structure.

Arnold definitely belongs to that species of Republican, and it is probably true that her support stems as much from local Democratic sources as from the GOP -- a reason why she and her supporters continue to believe she has a chance in this commission race, the only seriously contested one besides that between Democrat Steve Mulroy and Republican Jane Pierotti in District 5.

Formerly the chaplain at the Shelby County Jail during the tenure of former sheriff A C Gilless, Arnold, a pioneer broadcaster in black radio, was temporarily banned from that facility for reasons having to do with her ministry toward prisoners she felt were being systematically ignored or mistreated -- the mentally ill and HIV/AIDS-afflicted, especially.

A plucky person of commitment and humor, Arnold hopes that a coalition of regular Republicans, independent Democrats, and admirers of old-fashioned social activism add up to an upset win. But, again, that hill is fairly steep.

More 9th District Profiles

These are the last three 9th District congressional candidates to get a look-see in this space. Yes, there are a few others on the ballot, both Democratic and Republican, but those few have been sufficiently invisible as campaigners as to keep them off our radar screen. (Damned if we'll be the lightning they expect to be hit by!)

Bill Whitman is either a throw-back to a previous Democratic Party era, he is a sign of some shift yet to occur, or he is an irrelevancy in the 9th District congressional constellation. All three of these formulations could be correct, and there is yet a fourth possibility, consistent with the first two possibilities but not the third: Lawyer Whitman, a squeaky-clean ex-Notre Damer with the aura of a (pre-political) Nader's Raider, could attract enough attention to grab more than a few votes in Midtown and East Memphis from presumed ticket-leader Steve Cohen's total.

There are still some Democrats who hearken back to an earlier time, when a Democratic candidate could be pro-life like Whitman, who is actively and consistently so -- opposing both abortion and the death penalty. Whitman also talks up healthcare and a higher minimum wage. And the young former Catholic Charities activist, whose sincerity and idealism are obvious, has spoken well at a variety of forums, laying his issues on the line without being over-provocative. Moreover, he has campaign signs, lots of them, along the Poplar corridor and in other white middle-class pockets.

If there were a congeniality award, he'd be a contender for it.

Jesse Blumenfeld has materialized unexpectedly now and then with hard-core progressive issues that might attract a following if Cohen, a liberal's liberal of established pedigree, weren't already in the race. But Cohen is in the race, so Blumenfeld, a self-styled "citizen advocate," has few places to go to for votes. Much in the manner of Tyson Pratcher (a recent dropout), Blumenfeld would have had his potential constituency spoken for even if he had enough funding and organization to pitch it some serious woo. But his themes are the kind that warm a progressive's heart -- renewable energy, "healthcare for all," disaster preparedness, privacy advocacy, "economic justice." He eschews "special interest" money, accepting only private contributions of $50 or less -- which is either high-minded or making virtue of necessity.

What makes Cohen Cohen, of course, is not just the issues he advocates -- which are anchored here and there with conservative positions like support for the death penalty and the Second Amendment -- but long and practical experience with the quid pro quos of government. It's difficult to see how the Jesse Blumenfelds of the world, however promising, can get there from here.

Joe Towns -- as in "Whatever happened to Joe Towns?" For the last decade or so, Towns has represented District 84 -- which comprises a lateral hunk of South Memphis -- in the state House of Representatives. The fact of his being an elected public official already representing a part of the 9th congressional district (albeit the merest sliver) should have given him a leg up in the race. But, aside from his filing and his having appeared at one well-attended public forum, Towns has done little to suggest that he's actually running.

Indeed, aside from modest publicity given his legislative activity during the session that ended in late May (on behalf of expanding lottery benefits and other measures), Towns' main notice of late came from his having been mentioned during the extortion trial of former state senator Roscoe Dixon. The good news: bagman Barry Myers advised his supposed confederates against trying to involve the independent-minded Towns in illicit activity. The bad news: Myers' argument, disingenuous or not, was that Towns lacked the kind of clout that would justify it.

What Towns does have enough clout to do, along with the various other African-American candidates with established constituencies, is further carve up a voter base that is already well-sliced.

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