Thursday, October 6, 2005


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

Despite having received an abundant amount of advance fanfare, the departure of lawyer Richard Fields from the Shelby County Democratic Party came to pass Thursday night with minimum ceremony. It was announced almost matter-of-factly to the members of the party’s executive committee, gathered for their regular monthly meeting at the IBEW Union Hall on Madison, by one Bob Tuke, the state Democratic chairman visiting from Nashville.

In a calm, pleasant tone that nevertheless had the ring of steel in it, the lawyer and ex-Marine rhapsodized for a minute or two about the graces of the Shelby County party, then segued into his point: “I am pleased to tell you…that the situation that you thought you were going to have to deal with has been resolved. Richard Fields has been gracious enough to offer his resignation as an executive committee member, which we appreciate very much. He will continue to pursue the case that he has now, that he feels strongly convicted about. When that case is resolved, one way or the other, it doesn’t matter which way, he’s welcome to run for that seat again.”

All this, which was followed by other graceful amenities on Tuke’s part, drew appreciative – nay, relieved -- applause from an audience of Democrats who had been divided on the Fields matter for more than a week. Even though word of the ultimate settlement had gotten out before the meeting began, there were still a few zealots on either side of the issue who had proclaimed themselves ready either to denounce Fields for representing defeated Republican state Senate candidate Terry Roland in his election appeal against his victorious Democratic opponent, Ophelia Ford, or to defend him to the rhetorical death.

The understated strength of Tuke, who had planned to be in town anyhow to attend an earlier party fundraiser, was enough to quell in advance any such heroics, while it also complemented the equally measured style of local chairman Matt Kuhn, who had begun to take brickbats from assorted bloggers for reputed “weakness” in dealing with the crisis but came off instead as simply being properly restrained.

The center of all this controversy, Fields, seemed to understand that any words from him would be anti-climactic, and departed quietly shortly thereafter as the meeting went on to other matters.

Before he, too, left, Tuke granted a few press interviews, during which he made it clear that, in telephone conversations that morning, he had told Fields he had to go, that, however praiseworthy his pro bono legal concerns might be in the abstract, it was inappropriate for him to continue litigating for the GOP’s Roland while serving as a Democratic Party official.

How long did it take to get this point across? “Five or ten minutes,” Tuke said mildly. Once again the understatement. In his few words, the party chairman had not only defused the crisis, he had left in his wake a party that suddenly looked-- and sounded -- united again.

And the divisions had been quite real — some of them based on principle, some on personal politics, and most on a hybrid of those two motivations.

The dividing lines of last summer’s reorganizational elections were to some degree reflected in the differences of opinion in the Fields affair. There was no disputing that the local party’s long-dominant Ford faction had taken a licking during the party caucuses of June and the elections of July. Both the party’s Chism/Herenton faction and its emergent “newbies” (mainly members of Mid-South Democrats in Action and Democracy for Memphis) had been at odds with such longtime Ford standbys as David Upton, John Freeman, and David Cocke, the latter of whom had been defeated for chairman by compromise candidate Kuhn.

The hard-core defenders of Fields on the committee — several of whom were prepared to speak on his behalf if the expulsion issue had come to a vote — represented him, correctly enough, as a veteran public-issues attorney of conviction and courage and suggested that efforts to purge him came down to some kind of witch-hunt.

But that was more than a little disingenuous, given that Fields had a history vis-à-vis both the Fords and the state Senate seat that was the subject of his current litigation. He had in fact run against Ophelia Ford’s brother John in the 2002 Democratic primary — though neither as diligently nor as successfully as Roland did this year.

Even more to the point, it was a fact that Fields had been recruited for the Roland appeal by Memphis lawyer John Ryder, the longtime state Republican national committeeman who remains one of the GOP’s major strategists. Ryder not only scouted out Fields for his availability but touted him as a likely team member to state Republican chairman Bob Davis and Lang Wiseman, a lawyer and party activist who was already on the case.

It was that circumstance, coupled with the obvious one that state Republicans had a partisan interest in making political whoopee over the election dispute, and employing a bona fide member of the Democrats’ governing committee to do so, which soured even some reformist Democrats who might otherwise have kept to the mid-summer alignments.

One such, David Holt of Democracy for Memphis, characterized the issue as simplicity itself: “It’s in black and white, and it’s common sense. You can’t serve on the Democratic committee and work against Democratic candidates!”

Added Jeannie Richardson, a longtime party activist: “The whole point of being on the committee is to elect Democratic candidates. It sure as hell isn’t to get them disqualified!”

Ultimately the issue came down to something that basic. And, just in case Fields had not been amenable to withdrawing voluntarily, Tuke was prepared to join any debate on an expulsion resolution. Reportedly at the request of the aforesaid Upton, who, with sidekick Freeman, had managed Ophelia Ford’s campaign, Tuke had agreed to be the final speaker on behalf of offing Fields, if push came to shove. Ultimately, Richard Fields would save him, and the Democratic Party as a whole, the trouble, and the party was free to experience the rest of Thursday night’s session as a relative Kumbaya. No doubt Tuke was quite sincere when he told Fields publicly how much he “appreciated” it.

Want to respond? Send us an email here.


State Democratic Head Says Fields Solution Reached

The shell game that has been the local Democrats’ Richard Fields controversy may have come to at least a temporary stop as of Thursday afternoon, according to state party chairman Bob Tuke of Nashville, who says that he, local Democratic chairman Matt Kuhn, and lawyer Fields have reached an agreement on the issue of Fields’ further membership in the party’s executive committee.

”I’m hopeful that it will be mutually acceptable to all parties and am confident it will be,” said Tuke, who would not give details but promised to reveal them at the Thursday night meeting of the local Democratic executive committee at the IBEW building on Madison.

Previously scheduled for that meeting was a debate on a resolution to expel Fields from the committee for taking part in Republican Terry Roland’s appeal of his 13-vote election defeat by Democrat Ophelia Ford in last month’s special state Senate election.

According to one informed source, Fields has agreed to resign from the local committee with the option to run again when a vacancy occurs. Meanwhile, he is apparently free to continue litigating on Roland's behalf.

Tuke, who seemed confident that the previous expulsion resolution, which had bitterly divided the committee, would not need to be voted on, also said that Thursday night's meeting would be fully open to the media. Earlier indications were that discussion of the Fields issue at least would be closed, both to the media and to non-committee members.

Tuke, who was already scheduled to be in Memphis Thursday for meetings with Democratic finance council members, had previously let it bve known that he wanted Fields to withdraw from the committee.


Dems May Resolve Fields Issue Behind Closed Doors

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?

Want to respond? Send us an email here.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.



Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment


Top Commenters

© 1996-2019

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation