Thursday, October 6, 2005


Posted By on Thu, Oct 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Thursday night’s regular meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Party’s executive committee is shaping up to be a partly closed affair. That’s due to a proposal – sure to be controversial and requiring a vote of the full committee Thursday night – to exclude non-committee members from the portion of the meeting dealing with the proposed expulsion of Richard Fields.

Lawyer Fields, a newly elected member of the executive committee, is under fire for his pro bono representation of an ongoing election appeal by defeated Republican state Senate candidate Terry Roland. The hot item on Thursday night’s agenda is a pending resolution to expel Fields from the committee should he not resign either the committee or the case, in which Roland and the state Republican Party claim voter fraud gave Democrat Ophelia Ford her 13-vote victory.

But interested Democrats and the media may be excluded from the discussion and vote on that resolution if a recommendation to that effect made Tuesday night at a steering committee meeting is ratified by the full committee.

Meanwhile, sentiment for and against Fields (and, for that matter, for and against the author of the expulsion resolution, Del Gill) has sharply divided committee members.

Both Matt Kuhn, the local party’s new chairman, and Bob Tuke, state Democratic chairman, have asked Fields to resign from the committee, but he has so far resisted their appeals, contending that his efforts on Roland’s behalf are disinterested attempts to insure that the special election process of September 15 was conducted fairly.

”I told Richard he should resign, but he refused,” Kuhn said Thursday. But he defended the steering committee resolution to close off the disciplinary portion of Thursday night’s meeting. “This is the last matter we should be putting on the front burner when there’s so much else we Democrats should be talking about,” Kuhn said, acknowledging that Fields was more to be blamed than anyone else for the publicity so far bestowed on the affair.

Kuhn also defended the effort to find a compromise solution. He did not, however, explicitly endorse a highly controversial “leave of absence” solution that would allow Fields to litigate on Roland’s behalf, reportedly along with name Republicans like attorney John Ryder and ex-congressman Ed Bryant, and to return to the committee once the results of that litigation were clear. (For the record, Ryder says that his only involvement in the case was to recommend Fields, with whom he had worked on previous civil-rights matters, to state GOP chairman Bob Davis and chief Republican litigant Lang Wiseman.)

”There will be other things discussed at the meeting, including the nature of our bylaws themselves,” Kuhn said. One of those bylaws expressly prohibits activity by a committee member on behalf of a candidate opposing a Democratic nominee.

While of the local party’s three major groups, it is clear that the Ford faction is solidly behind the expulsion of Fields, it isn’t certain how the other factions – the one loyal to Mayor Willie Herenton and to political leader Sidney Chism, as well as the looser one composed of new “third force” reformers elected in July – will line up.

”They’re split right down the middle,” said one key Democrat in a position to know how the Chism group feels. And “third force” members from Mid-South Democrats in Action and Democracy in Memphis are also pulled in both directions.


False Start for a 'Compromise' Plan on Richard Fields

Supposin’ a husband should call a meeting of his wife and kiddies, sit them down, and tell them he’s going to be gone for a few weeks, or until he straightens out the personal burdens of a deserving foxy lady he’s taken up with. “We can just suspend the family until then,” he says with his best sincere smile.


Anybody who thinks this one will fly — or deserves to — is someone who has just come into the world. Born yesterday — and unlikely to see many more days in anything resembling peace and quiet.

But something like that is the nature of the “compromise” proposal being considered by Democratic chairman Matt Kuhn regarding the case of lawyer Richard Fields, who has strayed off the party reservation in order to further a legal appeal by Terry Roland, a recently defeated Republican candidate for the state Senate.

Fields, a member of the Democratic executive committee, has said — sweetly (and perhaps sincerely) enough — that all he’s trying to do is make sure that last month's special election, in which fellow Democrat Ophelia Ford was certified the 13-vote winner over Fields, was “clean.”

So Kuhn — or some as yet unidentified Democrat who dreamed the plan up — has proposed that Fields be allowed to dally in the service of Roland — who if successful in his appeal would further dilute the strength of Democrats, as of now a one-vote minority in the state Senate. The lawyer would accept a voluntary “suspension” of his committee membership for the duration of the case, which would presumably run right up to the convening of the Senate in January.

Then, whatever the resolution of Roland’s appeal, Fields would resume his membership on the Democratic executive committee.

Right again. Sure. That’ll fly.

Cockamamie as it may seem, Kuhn — or whatever Democrat encouraged him to consider that bizarro plan — appears to think so. That was exactly the nature of the compromise being circulated in party ranks on Wednesday, as a means of resolving a pending resolution to force Roland either off the Roland case or off the party committee.

That resolution, brought by perennial party maverick Del Gill (who is supported this time by a growing number of Gill’s fellow Democrats), gives Fields three options: (1) quit the case and remain on the committee; (2) quit the committee and remain on the case; or (3) be expelled. The appeal is based on a local party bylaw forbidding committee members to support Republican opponents of Democratic candidates.

Maybe there’s wiggle room here (this is a post-election appeal, after all, not a contested election in progress), but the spirit of the rule seems clear enough: If you’re on the Democratic committee, you have to support Democratic election efforts, not those of the opposition.

As news of the compromise got around on the eve of Thursday night’s executive committee meeting, numerous critics took potshots at it. One was Democratic blogger Steve Steffens, who said on his site Monday: “What part of Conflict of Interest don’t you understand?… This is a clear violation of the SCDP bylaws. Period. End of discussion.”

Another blogger, Frank Burhart, scourged the compromise on his site, saying, “What is the Shelby County Democratic Party thinking?… I don’t care what his [Fields’] motivation for attempting to give a democratically elected Senate seat to the republicans is. The problem is, he didn’t come to the Party to try to work out his concerns about the vote. If the Party didn’t take action that satisfied him, then Fields should have resigned and then gone to work with the republicans.”

At this point, it would seem that Fields’ best hopes would be to select one of the first two options offered by the resolution — quit either the case or the committee — or to hope that the resolution will be stalled by residual doubts about Gill, who is thought to be gunning next for Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, a declared supporter of Republican District Attorney General Bill Gibbons.

The catch is: Wharton isn’t a member of the committee – though, in theory, he could be denied the party label in next year’s voting. Another catch: that prospect (presumably, not many committee members want to dis Wharton, certainly not on Gill’s say-so) is easily divorced from Thursday night’s voting by a simple motion excluding from the resolution all other actions save that involving Fields.

In any case, the best bet on Wednesday seemed that both the compromise resolution and Fields were doomed. And Kuhn, who erred in his first official appearance as chairman by appearing to endorse U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. in a contested U.S. Senate primary and was forced to recant, will probably have distanced himself from the plan by the time a vote is taken.

Interesting question: How will the sizeable number of “third force” Democrats who were elected to the committee last summer vote, and with what degree of unanimity?

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