Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Former Councilman Davis, Political Pioneer and Business Leader, Dies

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 7:49 PM

Fred Davis - JB
  • JB
  • Fred Davis
Fred Davis, a political pathfinder and a gentle but effective presence in Memphis affairs for more than half a century, died Tuesday at his home. In 1967, he achieved two milestones: He founded the Fred Davis Insurance Company, one of the largest and most influential such black-owned enterprises in the South, and he was elected as a member of the first Memphis City Council under the current Mayor-Council form of government.

He became a leader of the Memphis African-American community during a crucial phase of local history and helped ease the city through the period of crisis that included an epochal sanitation strike and the tragic death by assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, whom Davis had marched with.

Then and later, he would remain one of the most well-liked people in public life. Remembers Memphis Congressman Stever Cohen: “I’ve known Fred Davis for close to 50 years. There wasn’t a finer, nicer gentleman in politics and government during that period. Mr. Davis brought people together. He was a strong voice for Orange Mound and he was an important member of and was devoted to his beloved Beulah Baptist Church.

“Mr. Davis encouraged young African Americans to study hard and be successful. It’s a shame he won’t have the large public funeral he deserves during this ongoing pandemic because it would have been immense in numbers and diversity, and a tribute to a life well-lived. He will be missed.”

As Mayor Jim Strickland noted, the Innovation Center at the Entrepreneurs Network Center was named for Davis, acknowledging the inspirational force of his example as a black business owner.“

Davis was a longtime deacon and board member of Beulah Baptist Church in Orange Mound for 60 years. He leaves his wife, Ella Singleton Davis, and three children: Michael Davis, Marvin Davis and Sheila Davis.

Suit Filed to Extend Tennessee Citizens’ Right to Vote by Mail

Posted By on Tue, May 12, 2020 at 9:37 AM

An important suit has been filed in Chancery Court in Nashville, seeking, in the words of its title page, “to expand access to vote-by-mail procedures to all registered Tennessee voters who wish to vote absentee during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Steve Mulroy
  • Steve Mulroy
The suit is filed on behalf of plaintiffs Hunter Dempster, Rev. Earle J. Fisher, Julia Hiltonsmith, Ginger Bullard, Jeff Bullard, and Allison Donald, "all currently registered Tennessee voters, including both Democrats and Republicans," with the defendants being Governor Bill Lee, Secretary of State Tre Hargett, state Director of Elections Mark Goins, and state Attorney General Herbert Slatery III.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs are Steve Mulroy and Jake Brown.

The suit seeks to transcend both the narrow definitions of who may seek to vote absentee (currently restricted by such factors as hospitalization, school residence, and absence from one’s home base) and the time frame for filing for such status, expressed this way in current state law: “A voter who desires to vote absentee shall request an absentee ballot not more than ninety (90) and not later than seven (7) days before the election.”

In the language of the suit:

“Plaintiffs contend that, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and the uncertain but growing population distribution of the novel coronavirus (the “Virus”), restricting Tennesseans’ vote-by-mail access to voters over sixty years of age, or who otherwise meet one of the other absentee-ballot qualifications enumerated under Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-6-201, would impose impermissibly burdensome conditions on the Individual Plaintiffs and others’ right to vote under the Tennessee Constitution … .

“[E]ach of the Individual Plaintiffs has an objectively reasonable fear that voting in person in the 2020 Tennessee elections would endanger his or her personal health and the health of those sharing these voters’ households, by exposure to the Virus. Each is also concerned about the extent to which his or her appearance at a crowded polling location may contribute to the community spread of the Virus. They sue on behalf of themselves and all similarly situated Tennessee voters who are currently ineligible to vote by mail.”

Several states already extend universal rights to vote by mail to their citizens, including Ohio, whose Republican government has recently successfully concluded a statewide election under those conditions.


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Monday, May 11, 2020

Further Questions About Linda Phillips

Posted By on Mon, May 11, 2020 at 10:15 AM

As previously indicated in this space, the controversy over selection of new election machinery for the August and November rounds of voting in Shelby County has involved potential conflict-of-interest issues. 
Linda Phillips
  • Linda Phillips

One such issue involved the fact that John Ryder, attorney for the Election Commission,
shares office space in Nashville with the lobbying firm MNA Government Relations, headed by his longtime friend Wendell Moore, who represents ES&S, a major election-machinery vendor. (The voting machines currently in use in Shelby County are ES&S manufactures, and a majority of the Election Commission voted last Thursday night to award the company a contract for the new machines to be purchased this year.)

Ryder responded that his law firm, Harris-Shelton, is merely a tenant of MNA and, beyond that rental arrangement, has no direct working relationship with MNA. He said further that he had no involvement with the Election Commission’s decision process on vendors of new machines and did not even know at that point which vendors had bid on an RFP (request for proposal) sent out by Election Administrator Linda Phillips.

The other conflict-of-interest question continues to develop and concerns Administrator Phillips herself.

The first revelation regarding Phillips had to do with the fact that a contract for new voter-registration software approved by her office in 2017, a year after she began her work in Shelby County, was awarded to Everyone Counts, the firm she had worked for in Indiana before taking the Shelby County job. There is no evidence that she disclosed that relationship to the Election Commission, and then-Commissioner Norma Lester is adamant that Phillips did not disclose either that fact or the further one that Phillips had a son then working for Everyone Counts.

Asked about this, EC public relations consultant Suzanne Thompson, passed on the following explanation: “For the purchase of the VR equipment, a scoring machine [sic] made up from county IT reps and the Election commission. Each ranked the equipment …. She [Phillips] didn't make a recommendation for the Voter's Registration System because it was all up to the folks in Purchasing.” That Election Commission itself, as Lester indicates, seems not to have been asked to make a judgment about the contract.

Previous to the purchase, Phillips had inquired of Marcy Ingram, then ethics officer in the Shelby County Attorney’s office, whether she had a duty to disclose her previous relationship with Everyone Counts or the fact of her son’s employment with the company.
On the first matter, Ingram responded, “As you are involved in the evaluation of the proposals, you should disclose this former employment relationship to the other evaluators to avoid an appearance of impropriety.” On the second, she advised, “[A}s you are involved in the evaluation of the proposals, you should disclose this familial relationship to the other evaluators prior to exercising any discretion in the matter to avoid an appearance of impropriety.”

In her request to Ingram for an ethics ruling, Phillips had said, “I’m not going to be making the final decision on what to purchase; that will be the Election Commission decision to recommend the vendor.” [Our italics] As indicated, there is no record of any such recommendation from the Election Commission.

After the software contract was awarded to Everyone Counts, that company experienced financial difficulties and was purchased by Votem, which in its turn sold the Shelby County voter-registration contract to KnowInk. Records show that both of Phillips’ sons, Andrew and Chris, were employed by Everyone Counts when the contract was let, and son Chris was employed successively with both Votem and KnowInk, as each obtained the voter-registration contract.  [See below.]
In maintenance of the contract, the county still pays an annual fee to KnowInk, as it did to Votem. In April 2018, in apparent anticipation that the voter-registration contract would be made over to KnowInk in 2019, Administrator Phillips had purchased KnowInk e-poll books for $175,000 on a sole-source contract.

About the sons’ employment history, PR consultant Thompson had this to say:

“At the time the VR equipment was purchased, one of her two sons was working for KnowInc.

"The other son worked for the ES&S. He's no longer employed there. He left the company some time ago. The selection the company used to provide software for the voting equipment we currently use was made years ago., long before Linda came to Shelby County. I don't know this for sure, but that son was probably still in college when that long-gone group of commissioners made the decision on the software for the voting machines we currently use.”

For the sake of clarity a fuller version of the communication from Thompson, relating as it does to matters of public information, is appended below. Deleted from her statement are personal remarks and a discussion of another matter unrelated to the immediate one of public contracts.

The current process of purchasing voting machines, as you know, the Commissioners decide which company to select. Linda makes the recommendation. We don't even know what they will decide - it's up to them. Her son works for KnowInc., as a desk tech - a low level position. The company he works for has nothing to do with the voting equipment or software….

The county's system for the purchase of Voter's Registration equipment was quite different from the process currently underway. All the decisions go through purchasing. At the time the VR equipment was purchased, one of her two sons was working for KnowInc.

The other son worked for the ES&S. He's no longer employed there. He left the company some time ago. The selection the company used to provide software for the voting equipment we currently use was made year's ago., long before Linda came to Shelby County. I don't know this for sure, but that son was probably still in college when that long-gone group of commissioners made the decision on the software for the voting machines we currently use.

This is all laid out in the attached e-mail. The attachment is a memo that came from the Ethics officer for the Shelby County Attorney, Marcy Ingram, which pre-dates the issuance of the RFP for the Voters Registration system. For the purchase of the VR equipment a scoring machine made up from county IT reps and the Election commission Each ranked the equipment. Each member rated the system independently. That's about the only similarity in the two system' purchase - a scoring team.

She didn't make a recommendation for the Voter's Registration System because it was all up to the folks in Purchasing.

I thought it was probably best to sit down and write this out for clarity's sake….

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Administrator Phillips is Target at Zoom Seminar

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2020 at 10:09 AM

The minds of most people concerned about essential threats to the country are still focused on the coronavirus outbreak and the harm it can bring, but there is a dedicated band of activists whose concerns are threats to the validity of our elections through the means we provide for voting.

Linda Phillips
  • Linda Phillips
This is a group that communicates and compares notes with some regularity — mainly these days through Zoom or some other form of virtual web seminars. No few of them are residents of the Memphis and Shelby County communities, and, joined by sympathizers across the nation, they are focusing on the coming round of elections here scheduled for August 6th and on whatever voting apparatus is chosen to count the ballots.

Almost universally, they are suspicious of those in charge, notably of Shelby County Election Administrator Linda Phillips, and of the voting-machine manufacturer, ES&S, that they fear she will steer the contract for Shelby County’s forthcoming voting devices to.

The group, including both local citizens and ballot activists from around the nation, convened again Tuesday night on a Zoom event billed as National Forum on Government Transparency & Election Security, with the subhead “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy on Shelby County Elections.”

Co-moderating the affair were Erika Sugarmon, locally, and Susan Pynchon of AUDIT Elections USA. Among the participants were, locally, Shelby County election commission member Bennie Smith, former EC members George Monger and Norma Lester, former Shelby County commissioner and University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, and, tuning in nationally, Jennifer Cohn; San Francisco attorney, ballot-security writer, and election-integrity advocate Bev Harris of Black Box Voting; John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT USA; and TV actress Mimi Kennedy.

Though all of the participants were proponents of hand-marked paper ballots as the safest and most effective election mode and a fair amount of commentary was turned in that direction, a good deal of the conversation concerned the background and presumed current attitudes of Administrator Phillips.

A point raised by several of the speakers was what they saw as potential conflicts of interest on Phillips’ part, citing her alleged affinity for products of the ES&S Co., manufacturers of the kind of ballot-marking devices she has expressed an open preference for, and noting, among other things, that the first major purchase she oversaw after being hired as Shelby County Election Administrator in 2016 was for voter-registration software manufactured by her then most recent employer, a company called Everyone Counts.

Everyone Counts, which Phillips left in the spring of 2016 to take the Shelby County job, was one of five companies bidding on a contract for voter-registration software, and Lester, a Democratic Election Commissioner at the time, remembers Phillips as having put a rush on for purchasing the software and making the selection without polling commission members for their preference. Nor did she disclose the fact of having an immediate past relationship with the company.

Harris characterized the Everyone Counts company as one without a reputation in the field at the time and which went out of business shortly thereafter, selling its assets to another buyer.

Philips was also taken to task by Mulroy and others for making unsubstantiated claims that fraud and voter error are both enhanced or even enabled by the use of hand-marked paper ballots

The Election Commission has a meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday of this week to hear Phillips’ recommendation for new voting devices for use in Shelby County elections, and participants in Tuesday's Zoom seminar were encouraged to audit those proceedings and to participate in them to the degree permitted.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Private School Vouchers Held Unconstitutional

Posted By on Tue, May 5, 2020 at 2:19 PM

Governor Bill Lee’s 2019 voucher bill allowing taxpayer money to pay for private school attendance in two Tennessee localities — Shelby County and Davidson County — has been ruled unconstitutional by Nashville Chancellor Anne C.
Chancellor Anne C. Martin
  • Chancellor Anne C. Martin
Martin because it violates the two counties' constitutionally granted “home rule” status.

The controversial bill — whose adherents referred to vouchers as “education savings accounts” — notoriously passed the Tennessee House last year by a single vote, which was bargained for by then-Speaker Glen Casada, who kept the chamber’s voteboard open for an extra hour.

Ultimately, Casada was able to prevail on Knoxville state Rep. Jason Zachary to change his no vote to aye upon the Speaker’s pledge that the voucher bill would not apply to Knoxville or anywhere else other than Shelby or Davidson Counties.

New House Speaker Cameron Sexton, who opposed the voucher bill last year, has been resisting Governor Lee’s efforts to fast-track implementation of the measure. Those efforts would no longer appear necessary.

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray called the ruling "excellent news," as did state Senator Raumesh Akbari of Memphis, who said, "Public school tax dollars are meant for public schools, to serve every kid with a high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code. Private school vouchers break that shared promise by defunding our neighborhood schools, student by student and brick by brick. That's why so many school districts wanted no part of this faulty program."

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Election Commission Attorney Shares Office with Voting-Machine Lobbyist

Posted By on Wed, Apr 22, 2020 at 8:10 PM

In advance of a scheduled meeting Thursday afternoon at which county Election Administrator Linda Phillips was expected to reveal her preference for a vendor of new election machines for Shelby County, proponents of hand-marked paper ballots expressed alarm over a potential link between an Election Commission lawyer and one of the vendors bidding on the county contract.

plaque outside the MNA office in Nashville - SELENE MCCLURE
  • Selene McClure
  • plaque outside the MNA office in Nashville
The ES&S company, vendor of the controversial Diebold election machines now in use county elections and known to be a bidder for the contract on behalf of a line of devices that mark ballots by mechanical means, is represented by the lobbying firm of MNA Government Relations, which leases space in its Nashville office to the Memphis-Nashville law firm of Harris-Shelton.

Both John Ryder and Pablo Varela, attorneys for the Election Commission, are principals of the law firm, and Ryder’s name appears in tandem with that of MNA on the interactive glass register in the lobby of Nashville’s Bank of America Building. Upstairs on the 10th floor, a metal plaque outside the office door of MNA lists the two companies together, with the company name of MNA followed by a forward slash and then the name of the law firm. [See photos.]

The photographs were supplied by Selena McClure, the daughter of Erika Sugarmon, a Memphis activist, high school government teacher,  and advocate of hand-marked paper ballots.

Asked about the nexus between the two firms, Ryder said that the relationship was solely that of landlord and tenant, with Harris-Shelton leasing the space but having no involvement in the ownership of MNA and possessing no partnership with the lobbying firm. He acknowledged being a longtime friend of Wendell Moore, the senior official at MNA but said he had had no knowledge about MNA’s client base and, in particular, did not know whether that company had a client bidding for the Shelby County voting-machine contract.
  • Selena McClure

Nor, said Ryder,  
John Ryder - JB
  • JB
  • John Ryder
did he have any awareness of who the respondents were to the RFP [request-for-proposal] sent out by Phillips seeking bids on the contract.

Ryder could offer no explanation for the linking of his name — (twice; once in an apparent list of MNA employees) —— with that of the lobbying firm on the lobby register. “That’s just a mistake,” he said. He repeated that there was no working relationship between MNA and Harris-Shelton and therefore no reason for him to have made a public disclosure.

Besides being an attorney for the SCEC, Ryder has long been an eminence in the fields of law, where he specializes in bankruptcy and has won several awards for his expertise, and politics, He served in the recent past as general counsel of the Republican Party, nationwide, and was his party’s principal adviser on reapportionment matters in the wake of of the post-2010 census. He currently serves on the board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, having been appointed by President Trump.

another view of the interactive lobby register in the Bank of America building - SELENE MCCLURE
  • Selene McClure
  • another view of the interactive lobby register in the Bank of America building
As indicated, however, advocates of voter-marked ballots are not so sanguine about the apparent relationship between Ryder’s law firm and MNA, however coincidental or incidental it might be. “All the companies bidding on the machines are entitled to be on equal footing, and the public needs to be assured that it’s getting a fair deal,” said Carol Chumney, a lawyer and former public official who favors voter-marked ballots.

Chumney said she had respect for Ryder but felt strongly that he should have made some sort of disclosure about the relationship between his law firm and MNA.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Harris Teases Austerity Budget He'll Present to Commissioners

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2020 at 2:01 PM

In advance of Monday’s regular meeting of the Shelby County Commission, County Mayor Lee Harris released a brief summary of the budget proposal that he intends to lay before the Commission.

Headed “Shelby County’s Come-back,” Harris’ summary advised that “serious cuts” are coming, but said that “the proposed budget meets our obligation to our retirees by fully funding our pension” and “includes strategic investments in education, public safety, public health, emergency preparedness, and in strengthening the social safety net.”
County Mayor Lee Harris
  • County Mayor Lee Harris

The proposed $1.4 billion budget, said Harris, would make it possible to “hire more social workers, more personnel to assist our veterans’ population, and create a new COVID-assistance fund to provide direct assistance to families hard-hit by this worldwide public health emergency.” It would also “fully fund ... our commitment to Public Health.”

Additions in this budget would include approximately $4 million to fund 30 new additional patrolman positions in the Sheriff’s Department, needed “to patrol the soon-to-be de-annexed areas” of Memphis.

On the education front, the budget would allocate $8.5 million to Pre-K and early Pre-K, as well as “$427 million for schools, in addition to $33 million in school construction needs this year.”

“[T]his budget requires us tighten our belts,” Harris said. “This budget proposes serious cuts. This budget will require us all to make some tough decisions, like everyone else in America right now.”

A fuller presentation of budget specifics (and the Commission’s reaction) will be noted in the wake of Monday’s Commission meeting.

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

County Commission Readies Actions on Budget, COVID, Voting

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2020 at 6:27 PM

In a sprawling, nearly day-long session of committee meetings, the Shelby County Commission on Wednesday decided to authorize a hiring freeze, finally designated a formula for payments to COVID relief, and began a move for state approval of expanded absentee voting and voter-marked election ballots.

The commission also continued to examine ways of dealing with an ever-growing deficit crisis, one that County Financial Officer Mathilde Crosby now reckons at $39.1 million without “a trimming out of our budget.” County Mayor Lee Harris reinforced Crosby's forecasts with the warning that there was “a real possibility” of layoffs. “We have to assume the worst in some ways,” he said.

The problem, as Commissioner Michael Whaley noted, is complicated by the fact of pending additional expenses for the Sheriff’s Department as it gears up for enlarged responsibilities in portions of Shelby County de-annexed from the City of Memphis, or about to be.

Harris indicated he would be consulting with other county officials this week preparatory to making a major budget statement on Monday, when the commission will be holding its next regularly scheduled public meeting.

The promise of imminent focus on budget matters was uniformly welcomed by Commissioners. “The public understands the severity of the situation,” as Commissioner Brandon Morrison noted. As well, County CAO Dwan Gilliom said he supported “any action to mitigate spending and find a way out of the fiscal situation. The hiring freeze, good until at least June 20th, was proposed by Commissioner Mick Wright.

In a special ad hoc meeting that followed the committee sessions, the commission returned to the matter of appropriating $2 million to assist in responding to the COVID-19 epidemic. The appropriation was rejected in regular session last week when commissioners failed to agree on a source for the funding.

In Wednesday’s reconsideration of the matter, Commissioner Tami Sawyer proposed a direct outlay of the previously considered $2 million for PPE equipment, personnel, and overtime expenses, as well as an additional $500,000 to the Christ Community Health Service to support testing for coronavirus at its outlets. Her resolution passed unanimously.

All of the matters discussed and approved on Wednesday will be revisited for formal approval at Monday’s regular commission meeting.

That includes a resolution on voting matters, proposed by Sawyer Whaley and Van Turner that 1) seeks an executive order from Governor Bill Lee to allow expanded absentee voting in light of the ongoing pandemic; and 2) urges again, as the commission has already done once, that machines allowing voter-marked paper ballots be purchased to replace the Diebold machines currently in use.

That resolution received a favorable recommendation on a vote of 7 for, 3 opposing, and 1 abstaining.

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It's No Go for Three Democrats Appealing Ban from Primary Ballot

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2020 at 11:48 AM

M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams
  • M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams
Oh-for-three. That’s how things turned out Wednesday Night, April 15th, as a trio of would-be penitents — most notably 13-term State Representative John DeBerry — pleaded in vain for the members of the state Democratic executive committee to restore them to the positions on the August 6th primary election ballot from which they were purged last week.

In the course of a virtual meeting of the state committee that was conducted by telephone and sprawled for nearly four hours, DeBerry's pleas were rejected for reinstatement in the House District 90 race, as were those of Michael Minnis for House District 93, and M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams for the 9th Congressional District. All the appellants were from Memphis.

Although the cases against DeBerry and Minnis were of a radically different nature — DeBerry’s consisting of alleged anti-Democratic votes and actions, Minnis essentially of not meeting the requirement of having voted in 3 of the last 5 Democratic primaries — the votes against them were remarkably similar — DeBerry’s appeal falling short by a vote of 24 Yes to 40 No, with one abstention, while Minnis’ failed 24 to 39 with two abstentions. Alexandria-Williams went down 8 to 34, with 14 abstaining.

Although DeBerry’s chances for reinstatement on the primary ballot were not regarded as strong (he had been voted off the week before by a vote of 41 to 18 with two abstentions), he probably did not help them much by declining, unlike Minnis and Alexandria-Williams, to take part in a pre-vote Q-and-A with state committee members.

In the five minutes granted him by state party chair Mary Mancini to make a verbal appeal, DeBerry talked about his past chairmanships on legislative committees and his efforts on behalf of civil rights. He asked that committee members look at “my record in toto, my character, the way I carry myself, and my ability to build a consensus when Democrats are a super-minority.”

Among the minority of yes voters were state Senator Raumesh Akbari of Memphis and Representative Mike Stewart, the House minority leader, both of whom said the question of DeBerry’s party bona fides should be settled by the voters in a primary. The nay-voting majority coalesced around complaints about DeBerry’s seconding Republican positions on abortion, vouchers, guns, and much else; his acceptance of support from GOP financial sources; and his participation in the right-wing ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council).

Committeeman Will Cheek of Nashville said his vote of no was not predicated on matters of party “loyalty” but on Democratic “resemblance.”

Though several members commended Minnis for his involvement with a nonprofit working on behalf of criminal justice, the outcome for him, as indicated, was similar to that for DeBerry.

The debate over the appeal of Alexandria-Williams was both the strangest and the lengthiest. At root the issue with the candidate (formerly known simply as M. LaTroy Williams) was his historical involvement with pre-election sample ballots from the “Shelby County Democratic Club,” a shell organization unaffiliated with any organ of the actual Democratic Party and the occasion of several lawsuits pitting Williams against the Party.

Though, as was attested to in the debate, these “ballots” — many of which have favored the candidacies of Republicans as well as Democrats — bore his name as “coordinator,” Williams persisted in denying any ownership of involvement in them. Unspoken to in the committee’s discussion was the fact that the favored candidates featured on them pay considerable sums to have themselves so listed.

Besides denying his central relationship with the sample ballots, Williams mentioned his alleged past association with the athletes Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and, strangely, conservative Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. “Nobody’s done more for the Democratic Party than I have,” Williams insisted. To no avail.

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Rep. DeBerry to Appeal Removal from Democratic Ballot, Has Black Caucus Support

Posted By on Fri, Apr 10, 2020 at 2:46 PM

Rep. DeBerry - JB
  • JB
  • Rep. DeBerry
It ain’t over yet. Apparently, state Rep. John DeBerry, who was voted off the August Democratic primary ballot by the state Democratic Committee on Wednesday, has legal recourse against that action, as well as support for his intended appeal from within party ranks, notably from the legislative Black Caucus.

DeBerry said Thursday he had not yet, as required by statute, received a formal letter from the committee notifying him of its action and of his right to appeal but that he is already busy preparing that appeal, which apparently would need to be completed and submitted to the committee by Thursday of next week.

The 13-term legislator said he had been “ambushed and blindsided” by the action against him, which had been “timely done” from the standpoint of his critics, put before the committee “after the filing deadline and in the middle of a pandemic.”

DeBerry said he had received no advance notice and learned of the pending removal action only on Monday night, not in any official way from the committee itself, but from his House colleague G.A. Hardaway, chair of the Back Caucus, which would go on to send the committee a letter of support for DeBerry as someone who had “faithfully served his constituents in the 90th House District” and “had earned the respect of his Democratic colleagues and the respect of other lawmakers across the aisle.”

Opponents of DeBerry had cited a pattern of his votes they declared to be in violation of the party’s interest, on such subjects as abortion and private-school vouchers, of receiving significant financial support from Republican sources, of voting for Republican Glen Casada over Democrat Karen Camper in the 2019 House Speakership race, and of making a substantial cash contribution to an election campaign of Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson.

The case against DeBerry had been formally submitted to the Democratic Committee in an April 1st letter by Memphis activist Janeita Lentz. The letter said that DeBerry had “utilized the power of his office to work against the constituents in which he serves, undermining the voice of the people and the ‘vision’ of the Tennessee Democratic Party.”

The committee would end up voting to oust DeBerry in a virtual session on Wednesday morning by a vote of 41 to 18, with two abstentions. Among those publicly opposing the ouster move were members of the Back Caucus, including the aforesaid Camper, as well as Hardaway and state Senator Raumesh Akbari, both of whom were no votes on the committee.

Echoing an accusation made by another Black Caucus member, state Rep. Joe Towns, DeBerry said the case against him was supported by “a group of people who don’t look like us,” suggesting that there was an element of racial bias in the removal action.

He denied absolutely the alleged financial contribution to Sanderson and said his 2019 vote to make Republican Casada Speaker of the House was in conformity with an arrangement made between Democratic leaders and Casada in which House Democrats were promised a number of perks. The arrangement was later disavowed by the party caucus, which opted to support Camper, “but I had already given my word to Casada,” DeBerry said.

As for his votes on various subjects, DeBerry defended those as expressing the wishes of his constituents. On the voucher issue, he added that he had himself, as a high schooler in Crockett County, had the opportunity to attend a school previously reserved for whites, had profited from the experience, and thought vouchers would open such opportunities for others.

Aside from his formal appeal of the committee’s action, which he seeks to have reversed, DeBerry said he was also interested in investigating whether the Anti-Skulduggery Act of 1991, sponsored by then state Senator (now Congressman) Steve Cohen, might apply to his situation. The Act was prompted by a last-minute withdrawal of candidacy in 1990 by then state House incumbent U.A. Moore of Millington, whose friend, then Millington alderman Ed Haley, became an automatic primary winner by virtue of being the only remaining candidate on the ballot.

The purpose of the Act, which allows a seven-day grace period for new filings past the withdrawal deadline, was to prevent such de facto prearrangements. Whether the act applies to this week’s committee action, which theoretically might favor one of the remaining Democrats on the primary ballot, would have to be adjudicated.

DeBerry said that he had no intention, however, of spending months before the election researching other legal loopholes that might invalidate his removal from the ballot.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

DeBerry, Four Others Dumped from Democratic Ballot

Posted By on Wed, Apr 8, 2020 at 6:24 PM

John DeBerry
  • John DeBerry
State Rep. John DeBerry, who has represented District 90 in the state House of Representatives for 26 years, has been voted off the August party primary ballot by the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. The committee, meeting online in virtual mode Wednesday, voted 41 to 18, with two abstentions, to oust DeBerry.

The board also acted to remove four other candidates from the party’s primary ballot. They were: William Frazier, in State House District 84 seat; Michael Minnis, state House district 93; M. LaTroy Alexandria-Williams, 9th Congressional District; and Tharon Chandler, U.S. Senate.

DeBerry’s comeuppance was long in coming. Democrats, including local ones, had been vocal for years about the businessman/minister’s tendency to vote as a de facto ally of Republicans on a variety of issues, notably on bills to outlaw abortion and to legalize taxpayer-supported private-school vouchers.

Michael Minnis, who filed to run for the Tennessee State House District 93 seat, was removed without a vote of the board.

The now ex-Democratic candidate expressed himself stoically about the ouster vote: “The Tennessee Democratic Party has decided that a 26-year representative that spent 12 years as a committee chairman, conducted himself with integrity, served the party well, sponsored meaningful legislation, and built bridges across the aisle to get bills passed is no longer a Democrat. And so, I’m not," he said.

Since the two major parties have control over their own primary ballots and the deadline for filing, even as an independent, has passed, DeBerry's only option for re-election is via a write-in campaign, a very long shot. The remaining Democrats on the ballot are Torrey C. Harris, Anya Parker, and Catrina L. Smith.

State Democratic chair Mary Mancini of Nashville said, apropos the ouster of the five candidates from the party’s ballot: "After a long meeting in which we heard challenges and evidence, we did what we thought was best to protect the Tennessee Democratic Party and the values we stand for.”

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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Lee Firms Up Previous Order, Makes 'Stay-at-Home' Mandatory

Posted By on Thu, Apr 2, 2020 at 2:39 PM

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced Thursday he would sign Executive Order 23 requiring that Tennesseans "not carrying out essential activities" must stay at home as data shows an increase in citizen movement across the state.

Until now, the Governor had resisted mounting pressure to issue such an order, having previously contented himself with "urging" Tennesseans to stay close to home.

In his statement Thursday, Lee said, “Over the last few weeks, we have seen decreases in movement around the state as Tennesseans socially distance and stay at home. However, in recent days we have seen data indicating that movement may be increasing and we must get these numbers trending back down. I have updated my previous executive order to clearly require that Tennesseans stay at home unless they are carrying out essential activities.”

The press release containing the new order cited data from the Tennessee Department of Transportation regarding traffic patterns for March 2020. "While safer at home measures and further restrictions on businesses showed a steep drop-off in vehicle movement from March 13-29, data beginning on March 30 indicates travel is trending upwards, again."

Analysis of cell phone mobility and other "movement trends" in the population, "trending toward pre-COVID-19 levels," figured into his reasoning, Lee said.

The new executive order will remain in effect until April 14, 2020 at midnight. 

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Election Commission Hears from Public, Will Delay Vote on New Voting Machines

Posted By on Wed, Apr 1, 2020 at 3:29 PM

The outlook for proposed new voting machines looks more muddled than ever after a virtual telemeeting of the Shelby County Election Commission (SCEC) Wednesday that was marred by the frequently indistinct audio transmission.

But numerous testimonies from participating citizens were noted, most of them being read into the record from written statements supplied to the SCEC. The great majority of comments were in favor of equipment allowing hand-marked paper ballots, with arguments ranging from cost savings to transparency to an alleged greater safety factor relative to touch-screen alternatives during the coronavirus pandemic.

The roster of citizens calling in or contributing statements ranged far and wide and included sitting public officials and a bevy of well-known activists.

Originally, the five election commissioners were scheduled to vote Wednesday on a recommendation by Election Administrator Linda Phillips of a specific machine vendor, but a vote was postponed to allow the meeting to substitute for a previously promised public comment meeting that had been sidetracked by the onset of the epidemic.

It is taken for granted that Administrator Phillips favors machine-marked voting instruments outfitted so as to allow for a paper trail, but no details on her preference were presented Wednesday.

At the end of the meeting, Commissioner Brent Taylor, one of the three Republican representatives on the five-member commission, moved to postpone any voting until whatever turns out to be the Phillips/staff recommendation can be presented to County Mayor Lee Harris, who can then certify it and call for a vote by the County Commission, which has the responsibility of funding the new machines.

That strategy, which was adopted by the Election Commission, would not directly alter Phillips’ choice, regarded as likely to be endorsed by the SCEC, but it would enable the results of the SCEC-ordered RFP (request for proposal) to be made public, and it would give the County Commission, which had previously voted in favor of hand-marked paper ballots, some means of expressing its collective mind — and possibly its will — on the matter.

As it happened, the County Commission, which was meeting in committee simultaneously with the Election Commission, had on its agenda yet another resolution endorsing hand-cast paper ballots but agreed to send the issue down to its Monday public meeting without a recommendation after hearing of the Election Commission’s action.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

More Voting Machines Controversy

Posted By on Tue, Mar 31, 2020 at 4:28 PM

Among the potential local casualties of the coronavirus, there is an unexpected one — the democratic process itself. At this week’s scheduled virtual meeting of the Shelby County Election Commission, the five Commissioners —three Republicans and two Democrats, in conformity with state regulations regarding majority party/minority party ratios — are primed to vote on Election Administrator Linda Phillips’ recommendations for new voting machines.

Phillips has declared that the members of the Election Commission must take a definitive up-or-down vote on the vendor, whom she will recommend from among those manufacturers who responded to an RFP (request for proposal) issued earlier by the SCEC. She has declared that the decision must come now so that the machines can be in use for August voting in the county.

For years, and for the last several months in particular, controversy has raged between activists who insist on voting machines that permit voter-marked ballots and advocates of machine-marked ballots. Phillips herself has expressed a preference for the latter type, equipped with paper-trail capability. By a narrow, party-line vote, the majority-Democratic Shelby County Commission, which must approve funding for the purchase, has expressed its own preference for hand-marked ballots.

Given the fact that Phillips’ choice of machine type is more or less predictable, and that the cost factor will be built into the selection of vendor, that will put the County Commissioners in an awkward position of having to rubber-stamp whatever choice the SCEC passes on to them.

“The process is backwards,” says GOP Election Commissioner Brent Taylor, who say,. “The Election Commission should not have initiated the RFP and passed the decision about funding on to the County Commission. What we [the Election Commission members] should have done is come to some broad general decision ab out the kind of machines we wanted and then let the County commission issue an RFP, make the choice, and then vote on the funding.”

In that regard he agrees with law professor and former County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, an exponent of voter-marked paper ballots who points out further that what got skipped in the process was a promised public meeting of the Election Commission at which the public could offer input on the desirability of various types of voting machines.

Such a meeting was to have taken place in the last month or so, or in any case before a vote on the vendor was taken by the Election Commission. Or so it was announced at a February meeting of the SCEC. What intervened — and ended up scotching the meeting — was the coronavirus epidemic.

So there will be not opportunity for direct public input concerning the specifics of Phillips’ recommended purchase, a fact further complicated by the awkwardness of the virtual telemeeting process, which, in conformity with cautionary official rules against public assemblies, precludes an actual gathering with the attendant opportunity of easy back and forth interaction between Election Commissioners and the public.

GOP Election Commissioner Brent Taylor
  • GOP Election Commissioner Brent Taylor

And it seemingly assures that something of a contentious showdown will ensue at the subsequent County Commission meeting, itself convened as a telemeeting, at which funding for the ultimately selected voting machines will be on the agenda. Back when the Commission voted a preference for hand-marked paper ballots, County Commissioner Van Turner made a point of telling Phillips, who was in attendance, that the Commission had ways of exercising its disapproval of a choice.

That memorable and perhaps prophetic exchange went this way: “We can deny the funding,” said Turner. “We can sue you,” Phillips said in response.

The progress toward a new voting system has encountered other obstacles. One was a bombshell ruling by the County Commission legal staff in mid-February that state law — to wit, TCA 29-111 — forbade any purchase of new voting technology without a prior voter referendum. As County Commissioner Mick Wright noted at the time: "It's disappointing that the state has this rule in place, that the voters would have to vote using the system we want to replace in order to have the system that we want to replace be replaced."

The aforesaid Mulroy, however, spurred further research that eventually led the County Commission to create a capital source from existing contingency funds that could bypass the need for a referendum (and incidentally buttress the County Commission’s proprietary sense of the matter).

Another late snag, with partisan overtones, developed from a letter sent to the three GOP Election Commissioners from state Senator Byron Kesey and other Republican legislators calling for the new voting machines to involve machine-marked ballots.

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Lee Issues Order "Urging" Statewide Shutdown, Stops Short of Mandating It

Posted By on Mon, Mar 30, 2020 at 6:22 PM

Under increasing pressure from numerous quarters, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee on Monday issued what he called “safer at home guidelines in every Tennessee county as a response to the coronavirus pandemic."

But the Governor stressed, “This is not a mandated shelter in place, but instead urges Tennesseans who are in non-essential roles to remain at home….The executive order restricts businesses that cannot safely operate during COVID-19 including businesses like barber shops, salons, recreational and
entertainment outfits. It also provides for the continuation of essential businesses throughout every county to protect the economy.”

The “order” will go into effect at midnight Monday and will extend for two weeks, until April 14 at midnight.

Typical of those asking for stronger action was 9th District Congessman Steve Cohen, who issued a letter this afternoon containing this statement:

“I write today to urgently request you issue a mandatory shelter in place order for Tennessee and prohibit gatherings of more than ten people. I am proud to represent the Ninth District of Tennessee that connects Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi, but I fear that, without these preventative measures, it will become a hub of illness that will quickly overcome Memphis’s health care facilities. I commend your decision to urge Tennesseans to shelter in place, but this virus crosses state and county lines and it is already claiming Tennessee lives. Your order must become mandatory.”<

Meanehile, the entire Tennessee congressional delegation — Senatyors Lamar Alexander and Marsha Blackburn and the nine members of the House — asked President Trump for additional disaster aid to the state, saying in part: "...On behalf of the State of Tennessee, we are writing to express our support for Governor Bill Lee’s request to declare a major disaster pursuant to the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief Act as a result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic beginning on January 20, 2020....."

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    • Further Questions About Linda Phillips

      Election Administrator and her sons had previously undisclosed connections with firms that got Shelby County contracts.
    • Administrator Phillips is Target at Zoom Seminar

      As selection of voting machines nears, ballot activists see potential conflicts of interest in background of Shelby County elections head.
    • Private School Vouchers Held Unconstitutional

      Governor Bill Lee’s 2019 voucher bill for Shelby County and Davidson County has bern ruled unconstitutional by a Nashville chancellor because it violates the two counties constitutionally granted “home rule” status.

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