Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Jennifer Lawrence: Vote 'No' on 3 Referenda on November 6 Ballot

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2018 at 10:51 AM

Think we don't have clout in the entertainment world? Jennifer Lawrence, than whom no movie star is bigger, has chosen to add her advice to Memphis voters on whether they should approve three amendments on the November 6 ballot. She says NO! Let her explain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"Sham" or Shaming?

A bare-bones forum at Lakeland gets even leaner as one candidate answers an uncomfortable question by making a bee-line out the door.

Posted By on Tue, Oct 16, 2018 at 12:59 PM

Bunker, Burnett, and Dial at Lakeland forum - JB
  • JB
  • Bunker, Burnett, and Dial at Lakeland forum

The ongoing election in suburban Lakeland involves a controversy over a plan by the current administration, headed by Mayor Wyatt Bunker, to construct a new Lakeland High School and pursue various other aspects of urban development. That issue was the main subject Monday night at a forum held at Lakeland Elementary School.

The main participants were Bunker and two incumbent city commissioners in general agreement with him — Michelle Dial and Jeremy Burnett. Absent were mayoral candidate Mike Cunningham and several other commission candidates.

A fourth attendee, briefly, was City Commissioner Clark Plunk, who left the forum after the first question, pulled out of a hat, was read by moderator Frank Colvett. The question was: “Would you favor censure for a government official who uttered public racist remarks?”
"I've done nothing to apologize for": Plunk makes his exit.
  • "I've done nothing to apologize for": Plunk makes his exit.
The others present said “Yes” to that. Plunk responded by calling the forum a “sham” and making his departure. As it happens, Plunk is the subject of a formal inquiry by the NAACP after the publicizing of a Facebook exchange in which Plunk touted a friend on a Memphis restaurant because “there aren’t a lot of [n-words] there.”
(The Commussioner has maintained that his Facebook account was hacked.)

Plunk had previously been involved in an incident in which he publicly opposed a gay youth taking his boyfriend to a Christian Brothers High School prom and characterized gays as “mean, cruel, spiteful people with an axe to grind.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Quo Vadis, Scott?

Democrats go in search of GOP House Candidate McCormick's School-Board attendance records

Posted By on Thu, Oct 11, 2018 at 10:00 PM

The race for the District 96 state House district came down to a matter of whereabouts this week, as Mike Stewart of Nashville, the Democrats’ caucus leader in the House, came calling at the offices of the Shelby County Schools board on Avery.

The object of Rep. Stewart’s search was Republican House candidate Scott McCormick. Actually, the question of where McCormick was didn’t concern Stewart so much; his stated purpose was to find out where McCormick had been in the four years of his service as 
Stewart outside SCS Hq with thumb drive - JB
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  • Stewart outside SCS Hq with thumb drive
an elected member of the SCS board.

Or, more exactly, whether McCormick had been. At Board meetings, that is. The Nashville Democrat was inquiring about McCormick’s attendance record at Board meetings on behalf of the campaign of GOP nominee McCormick’s opponent in the District 96, incumbent Democrat Dwayne Thompson. In 2016, Thompson had won an upset victory over then incumbent Republican Steve McManus in the district, which straddles Cordova, southeast Memphis, and Germantown, and has been a marked man ever since to Republicans, who want the seat back.

As Stewart explained, first to the media at a Wednesday morning press conference and then to members of the SCS building’s reception tier, Democrats, tracking down what Stewart described as reports of McCormick’s absence from duty during “critical meetings” of the Board, have for some time been requesting McCormick’s attendance record and have been frustrated.

At one point, Stewart said, he had been told that SCS could not oblige his request because the school system’s office did not possess a storage drive on which to record the requested records. At his press conference held in front of the SCS office building, Stewart scoffed at the explanation and brandished a thumb drive he had paid a few dollars for at a supply store. “Since they claim not to have something so basic, I bought one for them to use,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, accompanied by members of the media, Stewart was inside the building, where he was greeted first by a genial security officer and then by a series of reception employees. To each of them he repeated what he’d said to the press members — namely, that he regarded it as essential for the public to know whether Scott McCormick would be attentive to duty as a legislator and that his attendance record as a Board member was a key to such a question and that he and others had been asking to see the challenger’s attendance record for some time and had been consistently blown off.

What happened afterward had a Kafkaesque tinge — meaning that it was hard to tell whether the SCS response to Stewart’s in-person renewal of his request was just plain bureaucracy or actual enemy action (Stewart wondered out loud if there was a connection between the difficulty he was having and schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s reported endorsement of Republican Bill Lee for Governor.)

In any case, the SCS personnel were uniformly cheery and accommodating, asking Stewart et al. to take seats in the lobby while the fulfillment mission was under way. Periodic
McCormick with co-host Billy Orgel at Wednesday night fundraiser - JB
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  • McCormick with co-host Billy Orgel at Wednesday night fundraiser
ally, someone would come down from upstairs and tell the waiting group that their request was being dealt with and would just take. A little bit. Longer. And Longer.

The wait went on past the time when Stewart et al. had to go to lunch. They returned in the afternoon and still no records. Ultimately, after Stewart and a party aide were on their way back to Nashville, the Office of Communications would release this statement:

“Shelby County Schools abides by all laws and policies with regard to open records procedures. As communicated to the requester on multiple occasions via email and phone since this open records request was received on September 13, this is a highly complex request due to the volume of files requested over a five-year period and the requirements for an approved device that can store digital recordings or over 150 Board Committee meetings.”

Stewart’s take was somewhat different:

“This morning we were told that we would receive the records and asked to wait for them. Hours later, officials changed their position and said they would get them to us days from now. It appears that higher ups intervened to delay disclosure to cover McCormick’s record of absences.”

As it happened, McCormick’s whereabouts on Wednesday night were easily pinpointed. He was the guest of honor — the beneficiary, as it were — of a campaign fundraiser at the East Memphis home of Cathy and Craig Weiss. A sizeable crowd of well-wishers were on hand for the event, and, in his remarks to the crowd, McCormick acknowledged the visiting Democrat’s quest for his records, making no secret of his view that the effort was politically motivated and bordering on the frivolous.

Somewhat earlier, he had told the Flyer that he doubted he had missed more than four Board meetings during his School Board tenure, and none that could be regarded as “critical,” although he acknowledged that he could make no exact count of committee meetings he attended.

In any case, Stewart has indicated that the hunt for McCormick’s records will go on and no doubt intensify as the campaign year heads into the first week of early voting.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Plaintiffs Seek to Alter or Remove Two Referenda on November 6 Ballot

Referendum to lengthen term limits and one to repeal Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Runoff Voting) are cited for "materially misleading" language and lack of state-required fiscal impact statement.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2018 at 4:29 PM

Attorney Randall Fishman backgrounds reporters on election suit as plaintiffs look on. - JB
  • JB
  • Attorney Randall Fishman backgrounds reporters on election suit as plaintiffs look on.

The courtroom of Chancellor Jim Kyle, which has seen its share of adjudications regarding controversial public issues, will be the site of another one next Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

The nonprofit organization, “Save IRV”, and four potential city council candidates in the election of 2019 are suing the city and the Shelby County Election Commission, seeking a a declaratory judgment and injunction against two referenda on the forthcoming election ballot of November 6th.

The two referenda are Ordinance 5669, which would repeal a previous ordinance passed in 2008 allowing Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Runoff Voting) to be employed in city elections; and Ordinance 5677, which would abolish altogether the use of runoffs to settle city elections in which there is no majority winner.

In the case of both ordinances, the plaintiffs — Erika Sugarmon, John Marek, Sam Goff, Raquel Collins Milinkovich, and Save IRV — seek a temporary injunction mandating the correction of “materially misleading language” that would result in “incurable inconsistency” if both should be passed. In the case of Ordinance 5669, the plaintiffs seek a further revision to provide a fiscal impact statement required by state law in the case of “amendments to the charter of a home rule municipality.”

Should these corrections not be feasible, the plaintiffs ask as an alternative that the two ordinances be struck from the ballot.

As explained to reporters on Friday afternoon, the plaintiffs’ petition for relief states several points of confusion in Ordinance 5677 — most obviously that it prescribes a limitation of three four-year terms for the mayor and city council members in Memphis city government, and thereby obscures the reality that a two-term limit already exists and that the ordinance, if enacted, would actually extend the amount of time in office possible for these officials.

The affidavits of the individual plaintiffs list other points of confusion in both referenda, as worded. Plaintiff Milinkovitch alleges this, for example: “The current Memphis City Council is pointedly attempting to confuse the citizens of Memphis with a poorly-worded referendum. The reason is obvious: the current Council knows that overturning IRV ‘protects’ their incumbencies.”

Ordinance 5669 freads as follows on the November 6th ballot:
“Shall the Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to repeal Instant Runoff Voting and to restore the election procedure existing prior to the 2008 Amendment for all City offices, and expressly retaining the 1991 federal ruling for persons elected to the Memphis City Council single districts?”

Ordinance 5677 reads as follows:
“Shall the Charter of the City of Memphis, Tennessee be amended to provide no person shall be eligible to hold or to be elected to the office of Mayor or Memphis City Council if any such person has served at any time more than three (3) consecutive four-year terms, except that service by persons elected or appointed to fill an unexpired four-year term shall not be counted as full four-year term?”

The urgency of the issue is underscored by the fact that early voting for the November 6th ballot begins on October 17 and will last through November 1st.

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It's Raining Politics II: High Visibility and Hard Choices

Posted By on Fri, Oct 5, 2018 at 11:43 AM

This was the Week of Coin Flips for serious followers of politics locally. On Tuesday evening, one night after Donald Trump had held one of his patented rallies in Johnson City, some 500 miles away, the President came all the way to suburban Southaven for a sequel. But simultaneously, the two major-party candidates for Governor — Democrat Karl Dean and Republican Bill Lee — were holding their one and only West Tennessee debate at the University of Memphis.

It was a dilemma: Which event to go to?

For the deep-of-pocket types, especially those whose political sympathies can run in more than one direction, there was an even more challenging choice on Wednesday, the next night. Of the four candidates running in the top statewide races, three (count ‘em, 3) held big-ticket fundraisers in Memphis. 
Dean at Railgarten - JB
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  • Dean at Railgarten

The aforesaid Dean was feted by a group of lawyers at the Crescent Club, Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen was the beneficiary of an event at the home of Ron Belz, and GOP Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn had a fundraiser not three blocks away at what her invitation referred to as “the historic home of Dr. George Nichopoulos” on Cottingham Place.

Dr. George Nichopoulos, it will be remembered, was the personal physician of the iconic late singer Elvis Presley. Deceased himself since 2016, “Dr. Nick” was at the center of serious controversy, stemming from his role in prescribing uppers and downers to the King, and ultimately was stripped of his medical credentials. That fact made the location of Wednesday night’s fundraiser the subject of gibes from Bredesen supporters who note that legislation sponsored by Blackburn may have contributed to the over-supply of opioids in society at large during the last few years.

Dean vs Lee

Of the two Tuesday night events, the more sedate by far was gubernatorial debate at the UM, sponsored by The Commercial Appeal, WMC-TV, and the League of Women Voters, among others. Both Dean and Lee were in good form, and the choice of a winner for most observers probably hewed fairly closely to their partisan loyalties.

Rhodes College political science professor Michael Nelson had a take on the debate that reasonably well described the difference between the two contenders. It was a case of Agenda (Dean) vs. Personality (Lee), said Nelson, who maintains (correctly) that, inasmuch as ultimately you vote for a person, the two factors tend to balance out in any fair metric.

Unsurprisingly, the go-to guy for issues per se was former Nashville Mayor Dean, whose answer to the first question of the night, about Medicaid expansion, was a resolute call for the state’s acceptance of the annual $1.5 billion offered by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act and an unequivocal statement that the Republican-controlled state government has committed a major mistake in blocking Tennessee’s participation in the Act so far.

Failure to accept the proffered aid, 
Lee with reporters - JB
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  • Lee with reporters
 said Dean, had left 300 thousand Tennesseans needlessly uninsured, had turned away by now some $4 billion in funding due Tennessee without saving the state's taxpayers a penny and had resulted in financial hard times and instances of closing for the state's hospitals.

Lee has an undoubted ability to suggest a solid character through both word and deed. That fact, plus an agreeable square-jawed look and a reassuring manner, was a key to his come-from-behind victory over more highly touted candidates in the Republican primary, and it came through again both on stage and to a watching television audience. He demurred on the value of Medicaid expansion, contending on the basis of his own experience as the owner of a construction and equipment company employing some 1200 people that the state’s existing medical-insurance system was “fundamentally flawed,” and said he would “execute a different plan.”

Though he would provide a bit more reasoning during a Q-and-A with reporters after the debate, Lee has never quite articulated a definitive remedy of his own for the shortcomings of medical coverage for the masses of Tennesseans. In this respect, as in most others, he seems content to offer his own evident sincerity and good intentions as alternatives to sketched-out specifics.

Aside from the issue of Medicaid Expansion, there were few dramatic differences between the two candidates,though Dean posited the lack of Medicaid expansion as a major factor retarding progress in several other spheres — including industrial recruitment and educational achievement — and implicated it as a problem exacerbating the state’s unresolved transit issues.

The two candidates agreed that TNReady in its present form was failing , that there should be more emphasis on
Blackbun at Owen Brennan's on Wednesday - JB
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  • Blackbun at Owen Brennan's on Wednesday
vocational education, and that alternatives to the state’s ASD handling of “priority” (i.e., failing) schools like Shelby County Schools’ home-grown IZone schools are promising.

There was one moment of exuberant reaction from the audience following the two candidates’ discussion of MeToo and gender issues in general. Lee worried about the prospect of divisiveness, but Dean went full tilt for equalizing incentives and opportunities for women and for making Tennessee the friendliest and best state for women.”

Although Dean followed up his good showing with the previously mentioned fundraiser on Wednesday, followed by a meet-and-greet at Railgarten, he is regarded at this point as sill behind in the polls to Lee, who has the Red-State factor in his favor.

Trump at Southaven

Although, as usual, the President’s Tuesday night rally at the Landers Center in Southaven, ostensibly to lobby for Republican Senator Cindy Hyde-White’s reelection, was a parade of his Greatest Hits talking points, one moment in particular would strike the entire nation’s attention.

That was Trump’s employment of verbal mockery to question the bona fides of Dr.Christine Blasey Ford, whose accusations of sexual assault against Trump Supreme Court designate Brett Kavanaugh would throw that nomination into doubt.

Riffing on the weak points of Ford’s memory of the 36-year-old incident, Trump reeked with sarasm, doing his obvious best to make Ford appear to be not only an unreliable but a dishonest accuser. He characterized the Senate Democrats contesting Kavanaugh’s nomination as practicing a strategy of “resist, demolish, destroy, and delay.”

The capacity crowd at Landers responded with cries of “Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh, Kavanaugh!” and “We Want Kavanaugh!”

Those were not the only chants to be heard from the assembly at Southaven. There were such blasts from the past as “Lock Her Up!” in relation to Trump’s erstwhile Democratic presidential opponent. And there were numerous refrains of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” and “Build That Wall!” (the latter a reference to the President’s dogged insistence on erecting a 2000-mile barrier on the nation’s southern border.

It was a typical Trump performance — not so much a speech as a performance in which he aroused and stroked the emotions of his base. Along the way he boasted a litany of claimed achievements — including tax cuts, a booming economy,rising employment, his new trade deal with Mexico and Canada, his opening to North Korea, and the opening of an American embassy in Jerusalem. He blasted such adversaries as the aforementioned Hillary Clinton, Senator Richard Blumenthal, the lawyer Michael Avenatti, and Democrats in general.

The President went so far as to suggest that the Democratic Party (or “Democrat Party,” as he says it) is a threat to the future of Medicare, although Democrats by and large seem committed to the expansion of Medicare, the creation of Democratic President Lyndon Johnson. And Trump tried to link Republicans as a whole to the continuation of insurance coverage for people with previous medical conditions, though there is serious sentiment among GOP opponents of Obamacare to forgo that aspect of the Affordable Care Act.
As usual in the case of a Trump rally, truth was not the essential agreement. Rather, it was raw emotion, stoked by preambles of patriotic music and fueled by multiple helpings of impassioned rhetoric from the President.
There was no doubting, however, that Trump can wow a crowd like few others. He concluded, as usual, with a promise that, under his policies, America would be “wealthy again...strong again...great again.”

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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

County Commission in Busy Reorganization Session

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 11:34 PM

Announcing joint Commission-Council initiative on police shootings were, l to r: Commissioner/Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., and Commissioners Tami Sawyer, Mickell Lowery, and Van Turner (Commission chair). - JB
  • JB
  • Announcing joint Commission-Council initiative on police shootings were, l to r: Commissioner/Councilman Edmund Ford Jr., and Commissioners Tami Sawyer, Mickell Lowery, and Van Turner (Commission chair).

Anyone who wondered if District 7 County Commissioner Tami Sawyer would maintain her social activism in office can rest assured: She’s still on the case.

The point was made over and over on Wednesday during the second committee session held so far by the group of Shelby County Commissioners elected on August 2 and installed on August 30.

The well-known all-purpose reform advocate, best known for spearheading last year’s citizen campaign to remove Confederate statuaries downtown was much in evidence on Wednesday in numerous ways. These ranged from an insistence that routine county lawn-mowing contracts up for renewal be open to racial minorities to a repudiation of the former County administration’s wish to end federal oversight of Juvenile Court to an add-on resolution that would seek the automatic involvement of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in shooting incidents involving local law enforcement.

The add-on resolution, keyed to the Monday shooting of Martavius Banks, was intended as a joint one to be coordinated with the Memphis City Council. It was co-sponsored by District 9 Commissioner Ed Ford, who for the time being continues to serve as the District 6 member on the Council and, at the behest of new Commission chair Van Turner, is serving as a kind of official liaison between the two elected local bodies.

Sawyer and Ford were joined at a mid-afternoon announcement of the joint initiative in the lobby of the Vasco Smith County Administration Building by Commissioner Mickell Lowery of District 8 and chairman Turner, who represents Commission District 12.

Ultimately, noted Turner, the involvement of the TBI in investigating shooting cases, once approved by the Council as well as the Commission, would require action by the General Assembly in Nashville to become official.

Wednesday’s committee sessions were notable also for the presence of Mayor Lee Harris and County CAO Patrice Williamson-Thomas, who announced the appointment of former Juvenile Court magistrate Marlinee Clark Iverson to be new County Attorney. Harris also made known his intention to appoint an educational liaison official to coordinate communication between the various individuals, agencies and institutions involved with public education in Shelby County.

The Mayor also formally affirmed his decision, announced earlier, to name former Memphis City Attorney Herman Morris as Settlement Coordinator for the 2012 Memorandum of Agreement between Shelby County, the U.S Department of Justice, and Juvenile Court. Morris will replace Judge Paul Summers, whose contract for that role will expire in October.

Harris’ announcement, coupled with the Commission’s vote on Wednesday to formally recall the second of two letters written by former Mayor Mark Luttrell last year seeking an end to federal oversight of Juvenile Court operations, formally denotes a renewed solidarity of Mayor and Commission in committing Shelby County government to the path of reform mandated by DOJ. The 2012 Memorandum came in the wake of an investigation by the Justice Department that found a pattern of racial inequities and administrative irregularities in need of correction.

In one of several reorganization measures approved on Wednesday, the Commision authorized Chairman Turner to select an Assistant County Attorney to serve as Legislative Services Director to the Board of Commissioners. Turner announced that his choice for that position would be current Assistant County Attorney Marcy Ingram, who, he said, had been unjustly passed over twice for the position of County Attorney.

It would appear that Ingram’s appointment to directly serve the Commission in that capacity, officially fulfilling a desire held by the former Board of Commissioners and resisted by former Mayor Luttrell, would require at least the tacit consent of Mayor Harris and County Attorney Williamson-Thomas.

Turner also announced committee assignments for the new Commission on Wednesday. These, several of which gave Sawyer ample scope, were:

Budget and Finance — Eddie Jones, chair; Edmund Ford, vice chair.
Public Works — Mickell Lowery, chair; David Bradford vice chair.
Hospitals & Health — Reginald Milton, chair.
Law Enforcement, Corrections & Courts — Tami Sawyer, chair; Mark Billingsley, vice chair.
Land Use Planning, Transportation & Codes Enforcement — Edmund Fordk chair; David Bradford vice chair.
Education — Michel Whaley, chair; Tami Sawyer, vice chair.
Economic Development and Tourism — Willie Brooks, chair; Mickell Lowery, vice chair.,
Community Services — Brandon Morrison, chair; Tami Sawyer, vice chair.
Conservation — Mick Wright, chair; Amber Mills, vice chair.
General Government — Mark Billingsley, chair; Mickell Lowery, vice chair.
Legislative Affairs — Amber Mills, chair; Mark Billingsley, vice chair.
Audit — Eddie Jones, chair; Edmund Ford, vice chair.
Delinquent Tax Property — Amber Mills, chair; Reginald Milton, vice chair.
Equal Opportunity/MWBE/LOSB — Van Turner, chair; Tami Sawyer, vice chair.
Facilities, Real Property and Capital Improvement — David Bradford, chair; Michael Whaley, vice chair.
Workforce Development and CEP Grants — Eddie Jones, chair; Brandon Morrison, vice chair.

And the chairman also made appointments to various inter-agency boards and commissions. These were:

Aging Commission of the Mid-South — Reginald Milton
Agricenter Commission — David Bradford
Chickasaw Basin Authority — Amber Mills
EDGE Board — Willie Brooks
EOC appeals board — Tami Sawyer, Eddie Jones, and Commission CAO Quran Folsom
Downtown Memphis Commission — Mickell Lowery
Juvenile Court Committee — Tami Sawyer
Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau Board — Eddie Jones
Public Records Commission — Commission CA Quaran Folsom
Shelby County Agricultural Extension Committee — Mick Wright, Amber Mills, David Bradford
Shelby County Beer Board — Brandon Morrison
Shelby County Retirement Board — Commission CAO Quran folsom, Eddie Jones
Shelby Farms Park Conservancy — Mark Billingsley, Michael Whaley
Tennessee County Commissioners Association — Amber Mills

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Bredesen Has a Crowd to Himself at Rhodes

Posted By on Fri, Sep 14, 2018 at 8:09 AM

Bredesen at Rhodes - JB
  • JB
  • Bredesen at Rhodes
At one point during Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen’s solo appearance at Rhodes College on Thursday night, a Q&A affair that was originally intended to be a debate between himself and Republican opponent Marsha Blackburn, a questioner in the audience suggested that, if 80 percent of succeeding at something consisted of just showing up, the former two-term Governor might get 80 percent of the votes from those who turned out.

Bredesen suggested hopefully that, if he did really well, he might get as much as 82 percent of the audience vote. In retrospect, either figure seemed entirely reasonable.Not unexpectedly under the circumstances, it was clearly a Bredesen crowd, warmed up by lengthy preliminary remarks from young Rhodesian Democrats and, as the tenor of audience questions indicated, unmistakably partisan in its expectations.

Indeed, Bredesen — as cautiously centrist in his remarks at Rhodes as he is in his TV ads — may have been the most moderate Democrat present for the affair, held at the McNeil Concert Hall at Rhodes.

Example: Asked his attitude toward President Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court, Bredesen delivered the distinctly nonpartisan answer that it was not the business of the Senate to “re-play previous elections” (i.e., to attempt to void the preference of an elected president) but rather to “advise and consent” on a nomination, with primary regard to questions of qualification, ethics, and temperament.

In so saying, however, Bredesen availed himself of a mild reproach of opponent Blackburn for declaring herself for Kavanaugh within “minutes” of Trump’s nomination of the jurist. For the record, she has only this week in a press release demanded that Bredesen also declare himself on Kavanaugh, a request unlikely to be honored.

Blackburn’s disinclination to accept what had been an invitation from Rhodes and other sponsors to debate Bredesen remains something of a mystery. The 7th District congresswoman has also turned down an invitation to a debate in Chattanooga, but has accepted later debate opportunities scheduled for Nashville and Knoxville.

Hence the reconfiguration of Thursday night’s event as a “‘Memphis Matters’ Ideas Forum” — an hour-long well-attended affair moderated by veteran Democrat Deidre Malone and featuring Bredesen alone, The ex-governor was consistently middle-of-the-road in his responses but took such shots at Blackburn as that posture permitted.

As an example, his very first answer — to a question about the most important thing he could do for Memphis — was simple and to the point: “show up and listen to what people in Memphis have to say” (a sally which, appropriately, earned him a hand from the audience).

What Bredesen himself had to say was, as indicated, somewhat circumspect and non-controversial. He repeated one of his TV commercials almost word-for-word as he explained that he was running for the Senate not to offer ritual opposition to Trump but to represent Tennessee, and that, for example, he could give the President “elbow room” and support his efforts to reach an understanding with North Korea but oppose Trump’s tariff-based trade war.

Dutifully, Bredesen offered understanding and support when asked about Black Lives Matter and the “moral obligation” to assist Dreamers. His most distinctive proposal (and one no doubt aimed at his audience) was to reduce student-loan debt by stripping the infinite varieties of available loan packages down to a single variety with a 3 percent long-term interest rate and without any means testing. That latter provision would make possible simplified loan applications of “three or four lines," Bredesen said.

Asked what the nation’s biggest problem was, Bredesen said it was the inability of Washington to get anything accomplished, and he boasted his own ability to deal with things “where the rubber meets the road,” citing as an example his handling as governor of TennCare, maintaining the state healthcare system but cutting the ever-burgeoning program down to size, budget-wise.

The verdict of state voters, Bredesen said, had been to reelect him to a second term with a majority in every one of Tennessee’s 95 counties. To be sure, that outcome, in 2006, was over a GOP sacrificial lamb — not a high-profile Republican like the self-declared Trumpian Blackburn — but it was still memorable (and recent) enough to encourage not only local and statewide Democrats but those in the nation at large, to dream the dream of a party restoration in border-state Tennessee.

Which is why Jonathan Martin of The New York Times was on hand for Thursday’s event at Rhodes and why pundits and reporters from all over will be following this race to its conclusion.

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Friday, August 31, 2018

Outgoing Mayor and Commission Engage in One Last Final-Day War of Nerves; Then a Veto

Out with the old? In with the new? Prior to a mayoral veto, the issue was in doubt as Mayor Luttrell and the Heidi Shafer-led Commission, both outgoing after the swearing-in of new officials on Thursday, wrangled Friday over two controversial issues.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 31, 2018 at 10:52 AM


It was Friday, August 31. A new Shelby County Mayor and County Commission had been sworn in, but all the talk was of a possible veto of two items by outgoing Mayor Mark Luttrell. Meanwhile, Commission chair Heidi Shafer stood ready to reconvene her body to override.

The genuine element of suspense was not to be alleviated until late in the day when Luttrell vetoed both items, leaving their final disposition up to new Mayor Lee Harris and a newly installed Commission, eight of whose members will be brand-new.

Luttrell waits out the veto matter on his last day in office. - JB
  • JB
  • Luttrell waits out the veto matter on his last day in office.
The two items in contention were measures passed last Monday at the outgoing Commission’s last formal meeting. One was the Commission’s approval of an amended resolution to support a subdivision development in southeast Shelby County, adjacent to Collierville. The other was a resolution rescinding a previous resolution of 2007, with the net effect of restoring assorted health and life insurance benefits to county employees (specifically including two-term Commissioners) of eight years service.

Mayor Luttrell, dressed casually and preparing to remove his effects to make way for his newly sworn-in successor, Lee Harris, acknowledged early Friday that he had decisions to make on a whole body of things processed at the last Commission meeting. “I’ll do my thing, and the Commission will do its,” he said, not tipping his hand as to his intentions.

Early in the day, Luttrell could not guarantee how early he would decide on the two contentious matters. It was clear that a veto of one or both of them late in the day would clearly complicate the issue of when and how the Commission could react. And, in the course of a desultory last day conversation in his office, he seemed to be implying that, in fact, he intended to wait until the last possible moment — 11:59 p.m., if necessary — to present the Commission with a fait accompli veto (or vetoes) that could not bne answered by the current Commission but would carry over for possible action by the members of the new Commission.
Chairman Shafer as emcee of swearing-in ceremony - JB
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  • Chairman Shafer as emcee of swearing-in ceremony

The subdivision proposal was one that was stoutly resisted by the City of Collierville and by various neighbors to the project, who maintained that the proposal of several hundred small-acre lots would be out of character with existing large-acre household tracts. On Friday, Luttrell said the development, if he let it stand, would occasion some significant additional service costs for the County, as well. "Roads, water, sewer connections, additional law enforcement demands, and more," as he said.

The benefits resolution would apply to outgoing two-term members of the Commission, among some 2500 or so other county employees and was estimated to obligate the County for $6 to $10 million in additional funding, according to chief Luttrell aide Harvey Kennedy. "The issue is too important not to give it adequate actuarial study, and the next administration and Commission can do that," Luttrell said.

Beyond the specific issues of the two controversial measures was the larger one of what has amounted to a bureaucratic Cold War that has been waged between the Luttrell administration and the Commission for the last two or three years. The two governmental spheres had over the years battled over an increasing number of issues related to spending and various matters of oversight and planning.

Commision chair Heidi Shafer had signaled that she was in touch with enough members of the expiring Commission to summon them for a last-minute override session — if successful, the 11th and 12th overrrude to a mayoral veto during Luttrell’s tenure. But Luttrell was in a position, by waiting until the very brink of midnight, to get the last lick in as a conclusion to what has been a two-year power struggle with the Commission, and that indeed seemed the likely way he would play things out.

The contentiousness between Mayor and Commission had continued even to the matter of Thursday’s swearing-in ceremony for Harris and the Commissioners, charter officials, and clerks who were elected in the August 2 election. Chairman Shafer said that, after learning that Luttrell had left planning for the event up to Harris, she took charge of arrangements for the Thursday ceremony.

Shafer noted that Mayor-elect Harris had of yet no wherewithal, budgetary or otherwise, to oversee such a ceremony. When asked about the matter of planning for the ceremony, Luttrell said he was merely following the precedent he himself experienced upon taking office eight years ago when, he said, then provisional Mayor Joe Ford told him it was his responsibility to organize a swearing-in event.

Luttrell said, however, that, contrary to informal reports, he had authorized funding for Thursday’s ceremony, from the County’s general fund.
Harris, the new Mayor-to-be, meanwhile was unpacking on Friday. - JB
  • JB
  • Harris, the new Mayor-to-be, meanwhile was unpacking on Friday.
Down the hall of the 11the floor of the County building, meanwhile, Mayor-elect Lee Harris was hard at work on Friday unpacking and organizing for his term in a transition space provided to him and a core group of staffers. He had only one comment about the ongoing last-day confrontation between his predecessor and the outgoing Commission. Harris said, apropos the likelihood that mayoral veto action might carry one or both of the two controversial resolutions over into his term, “I don’t want to spend $10 million that the County doesn’t have.”

And that, in tandem with a putative last-minute veto opprotunity open to Luttrell, seemed to foreshadow both the short- and long-term prospects for at least the benefits resolution and perhaps both of them — giving the Mayor the satisfaction of one last win on his way out the door.

Friday, August 3, 2018

The Schledwitz Letter Accurately Forecasts the August 2nd Election

Posted By on Fri, Aug 3, 2018 at 10:52 AM

Local businessman Karl Schledwitz, whose involvement in politics goes back decades, makes a habit of predicting election results in a letter to his email network on or immediately before Election Day. Below is the letter he dispatched in advance of the August 2nd vote. Readers are invited to compare Schledwitz's forecast to the actual results.

"More than 20 years ago, the Shelby County Republican Party led
Karl Shledwitz
  • Karl Shledwitz
the effort to convert countywide elections in Shelby County from nonpartisan to partisan. Many political observers then predicted that it was just a matter of time until the demographics of Shelby County gave the Democrats a major advantage during elections. I predict that this is the year — 2018 — when the Democrats finally prevail.

"The reality is the demographics should have prevailed for Democrats in 2010 and 2014 but Republicans still won for a variety of reasons referenced below. My prediction is that Democrats will overwhelmingly prevail in 2018.

"This year through early voting, Republicans have not only lost their advantage in turnout but are now at a disadvantage. I attribute that to several factors. There was not a local candidate in the statewide gubernatorial or senatorial campaigns and the Republican gubernatorial primary was so negative and nasty that it confused many loyal Republican voters, causing many Republicans tired of negative campaigning to stay home.

"In the countywide general election, none of the candidates were incumbents, few had ever run countywide and overall the campaigns were not inspiring. Thus, Republican turnout was far less than what it has been in the past. Contrast that with the Democratic side. For the first time in well over a decade, Democrats had statewide Democratic candidates spending hundreds of thousands of dollars collectively in Shelby County. Former governor Phil Bredesen, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate, spent several hundred thousand dollars building a ground team in Shelby County — knocking on doors, making phone calls, digital and social media campaigns, paying for rallies, particularly in preparation for the November senate election. Additionally, Craig Fitzhugh spent several hundred thousand dollars primarily through African-American legislators and other operatives trying to build a margin in the African American community and Karl Dean spent even more making sure he didn’t get shut out in Shelby County.

"Combine that with the best local slate of candidates that the Democrats have had in a long time, many of whom had money even greater than their Republican opponents and the Democratic turnout exceeded past elections. Through early voting, it was 61.3 percent Democrats to 38.7 percent Republican. With early voting typically representing 50-55% of the total vote, it is hard to imagine that election day can change that trajectory. The local candidates on the Democratic side were better financed than in the past. For example, the Democratic mayoral candidate in 2014 and all of the other candidates for the open seats collectively spent under $200,000. This year, Lee Harris spent almost $400,000, Floyd Bonner for Sheriff spent over $250,000, Burgess for Assessor and Regina Newman for Trustee and Morrison for Clerk, each spent over $50,000. The Democrats had a much more diverse slate whereas the Republicans defeated the only two African American candidates in their primary and ended with 9 white males and 1 female, most of whom lived outside the city limits. The contrast was real.

"Prediction. Republicans will get no more than 7-15% max of the African-American vote. This is compared to Republican candidates in the past like Luttrell, Gibbons, and others getting 30-35%. Democratic candidates will also get 30-35% of the white vote, which is more than double what they have in the past. With the turnout between white voters and African-American voters essentially being equal, the results I am predicting are a big sweep for the Democrats. Of the ten county elected offices, I predict the Democrats will win no less than 7 offices, and possibly more. Of the 13 county commissioner seats which are presently split 7 D’s to 6 R’s, I predict that the midtown seat will switch, creating an 8-5 Democratic advantage and an outside shot at going to 9-4. Overall, I think Floyd Bonner may be the top vote getter. Regardless, I believe that he and Lee Harris will win by a minimum of 15 points and very possibly, depending on election day turnout, closer to 20 plus .

"Prediction. If these results hold up, Republicans will have a hard time recruiting county-wide candidates four years from now because they will not have the benefit of incumbency and they will not likely have the benefit of an open gubernatorial election, and the demographics continue to point toward increased Democratic advantage. Although Trump carried this state by 26 points, he lost Shelby County by 26 points. I believe the Trump factor this year was more relevant than people realize. The African-American community was much more resistant to vote for anybody with an ‘R’ in front of their name because of Trump and many white voters fell in that category as well."


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Is Poll Showing Burgess Win a Bellwether?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2018 at 11:38 PM

One of the local races being watched for evidence that there is (or isn’t) the likelihood of a Democratic “blue wave” in Thursday’s final election results is that for Shelby County assessor.

The Chism Strategies firm, headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, offers some last-minute evidence, via poll numbers, that Democratic nominee Melvin Burgess has a substantial lead over his Republican opponent, Republican Robert “Chip” Trouy.

Claiming a margin of error of plus-or-minute 5 percent, the Chism poll of “457 likely county general election voters” was conducted on July 25th via the IRV (Interactive Voice Response” method — i.e., by robocall. It shows Burgess drawing more positive responses than Trouy by a margin of 52.6 percent to 25.4, with 22 percent “unsure.”

Burgess, now finishing his second term as a Shelby County commissioner, was reported as leading with both males and females overall, and with a lead among African Americans of 75 percent to 3 percent. Trouy had a reported lead among Caucasians (41 percent to 35 percent) and Asians (33 percent to 0), with respondents describing themselves as “other” polling for Burgess by a margin of 48 percent to 33 percent.

Clearly, the sample cannot be extrapolated fully to the entire voting population (0 percent of Asian voters for Burgess?), and robo-polls are considered suspect by some analysts, but Burgess backers and Democratic strategists at large see in the poll evidence of potential success on August 2nd.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Shade in Shelby County: A Guest Viewpoint

Posted By on Tue, Jul 31, 2018 at 12:02 PM


In a discussion over the weekend among the candidates for Shelby County Mayor, candidate David Lenoir was asked to respond to charges that his campaign had darkened an image of his opponent, Lee Harris, in a recent mailer. Lenoir denied that there had been any doctoring of the image and cast the blame for the topic onto Wendi Thomas, the Memphis journalist who most recently ran the MLK50: Justice in Journalism project. Specifically, Lenoir said, “This … was all cooked up by Wendi Thomas and you know how divisive she can be.” This response was wrong on so many levels, I feel a need to throw some shade on Lenoir (pun intended).
Daniel Kiel
  • Daniel Kiel

First, blaming a critical media is like blaming the doctor who delivers an unwanted diagnosis. It is rooted in denial of facts, or at least of the way things might be interpreted. Second, though media-bashing seems to be a wise political strategy these days, Lenoir did not actually bash the media — he targeted a single member of the media, one who is black and female and whose work regularly points out racial discrimination and disparity in our community. Several white journalists had pointed out the racial overtones of the Lenoir mailer before Thomas, yet the fault was solely laid at Thomas’s feet.

One reason other non-Thomas journalists have pointed out the racial overtones of the mailer is that the racial overtones of the mailer are kind of difficult to miss. I received one of these mailers, which feature a shadowy Harris seemingly juggling $100 bills amidst claims that he will not be a responsible steward of the county’s money, and immediately shook my head. (Disclosure: I’m white) That it traffics in stereotypes, seeking to elicit a response in the viewer rooted in beliefs about trustworthiness of African Americans, is difficult to deny. It could even be read to trigger fear that some sort of rapper is running for mayor to make it rain in the club of Shelby County after raising taxes to do so. That these stereotyping suggestions appear at all is troublesome, but that they appear next to a darkened image is egregious, in my opinion. Not surprising given the local and national history with race-baiting and dog-whistling in campaigns, but still egregious.

To deny that the mailer could be understood in this way has several effects. It denies to those who are offended the dignity of deciding for themselves what is offensive. It is as if Lenoir is suggesting that people not be allowed to trust their own feelings — again, feelings that are being felt by white and black Shelby Countians alike, though likely not in equal measure — and instead, trust that he meant no harm. It also displays either a high level of ignorance or disingenuousness about race in our community. Either Lenoir is truly surprised that the mailer might be offensive, in which case he is showing himself as woefully out of touch with the experience of the majority of Shelby County residents. Or he knows, even hopes, it could be understood this way, consciously or unconsciously, and will lead voters into the safety he is offering. To me, the scapegoating of Thomas, a favorite target of local whites in power, suggests that the latter explanation is in play.

Lenoir could have blamed the media, broadly, for misunderstanding him, but he chose to cite one black journalist. He also could have feigned surprise at the reaction, acknowledged error, claimed ignorance, apologized, maybe even committed to not sending any more copies of the mailer out. That may have helped the issue go away, but maybe that is not the goal. Perhaps the goal is to give some subset of voters the sense that his opponent is not Lee Harris, but is actually Wendi Thomas.

Of Thomas, Lenoir says, “we all know how divisive she can be.” Who is the “we” in that sentence? My guess: white people, specifically white people uncomfortable with criticism from the black community. That Thomas’s work is “divisive” is hard to dispute — it divides opinions because it unapologetically touches on the racial, gender, and socioeconomic divides in our community. Thomas did not create those divides, again, any more than a doctor creates symptoms. The divisions Lenoir ought to be concerned about are the attitudes, structures, and practices that give Thomas and others focused on local inequity so much to write about.

Of course, Lenoir is not literally running against Wendi Thomas, the person. Rather, he is running against ideas some might associate with her. It is instructive to consider what a campaign against those ideas might look like. Over the years, Thomas has repeatedly raised complex and often damning questions about the distribution and use of power in our community. These questions are often inconvenient to those in power, but they serve a crucial purpose of accountability. It is as though Thomas is sitting on the community’s shoulder, reminding us of things we ought to have been considering all along — things like diversity in media and in economic development, the crippling barriers generated by poverty, racial and gender discrimination faced regularly by individuals in all walks of life and across levels of income. Think of hers as a voice of conscience, critical and persistent, but rooted in the desire to make things better.

A symbolic campaign against “Wendi Thomas” is a campaign against criticism and a campaign against change from a status quo that benefits Shelby County residents unevenly. It is a campaign against learning from mistakes, against acknowledging the feelings of others, against critical self-examination, against acknowledging the possibility that the community might look different — and less flattering — from a different perspective, all things that we could use more of. And, of course, it is a campaign against a black voice for black empowerment, a black voice that dares to question the current dispensation. And to be clear, Thomas has never been critical solely of white leaders; her voice can be inconvenient for anyone in power. It is just that political, and particularly economic, power continues to be disproportionately wielded by whites in Shelby County.

The shading of an image of an African American opponent in a county mayoral race reflects poor judgment or callous disregard of others’ feelings. An individual standing for election as the county’s executive should expect questions on the topic and either defend the decision or acknowledge a mistake. Instead, Lenoir opted to pass the blame on to a Shelby County citizen who has been willing to sit on the shoulders of our community and make noise. Our community could use more such citizens.

Daniel Kiel is a Professor of Law at the University of Memphis, a recipient of the University's Martin Luther King Human Rights Award and a widely published author, especially on the subject of race relations.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Notes on Council, School Board Races

Recent forums drew core groups of candidates.

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2018 at 11:51 AM

Not to be forgotten (but largely overlooked, all the same) as we approach the August 2nd election date is a race to fill a vacancy on the Memphis City Council and four races for positions on the Shelby County Schools board.

By definition, these positions apply exclusively to Memphis, in the case of the council seat, and mainly so for the school board positions.

CITY COUNCIL, SUPER-DISTRICT 9, POSITION 2: The council seat, an at-large position for roughly the eastern half of the city, was formerly occupied by Philip Spinosa, who resigned in May to take a job with the Greater Memphis Area Chamber of Commerce. The seat is now occupied, on an interim basis, by funeral home director Ford Canale, who was appointed to the vacancy by a majority of the other council members. Canale and six other candidates are now seeking the right to fill out the duration of Spinosa’s term.
Council Candidates at Woodland Hills: from left, Erika Sugarmon, Lisa Moore, Tim Ware, Charley Burch (at mic) - JB
  • JB
  • Council Candidates at Woodland Hills: from left, Erika Sugarmon, Lisa Moore, Tim Ware, Charley Burch (at mic)
The other six are Charley Burch, Tyrone Romeo Franklin, Lisa Moore, Erika Sugarmon, Tim Ware, and David Winston. There have been two public forums to which all the candidates have been invited. Both were held last week — one at the Olivet Worship Center at Woodland Hills on Tuesday, the other at Mt.Olive C.M.E. Church on Thursday. Only candidates Burch, Moore, Sugarmon, and Ware took part, and, while no one bothered to mention Franklin and Winston, the absence of interim Councilman Canale drew significant attention from those present.

In fact, Canale’s ears had to be burning on Tuesday night. Music producer/realtor Burch talked about him at length, casting him as the “plant” in a saga whereby a cabal of business elitists, special interests, and council incumbents are determining who is and can be on the council — and pretty much everything the council does.

“The council knows how they’re voting before they come into the room [the City Hall auditorium],” Burch asserted. “There’s empirical evidence of it.” And Canale’s appointment was a case in point. “The fix was in,” said Burch. “I’m not running against one great candidate up here” he said, a sweep of his arm indicating the fellow candidates on stage with him at Woodland Hills. “But I am running against Canale, because he has a plan to keep us out. ... I’m the main one they don’t want elected.”

Moore, who runs a non-profit called Girls, Inc., was of similar mind on Tuesday, speaking of active “collusion” between the council and City Hall on behalf of “a well-orchestrated plan,” where “the rich get richer and the rest of us just watch and struggle.” She called for “equity” efforts in every neighborhood, a crash program in public transportation, and a developed educational plan. Former teacher Sugarmon, the daughter of Memphis civil rights pioneer Russell Sugarmon and a self-proclaimed “people’s candidate,” called for community development programs that would “trickle up” economic progress. Tim Ware, who has had a lengthy career as an education consultant, called for the city to resume its spending on public schools, an idea that the others approved as well.

There was more from all four, much of it sound, some of it more freely speculative, and most of it was repeated at Mt. Olive on Thursday in a program sponsored by the NAACP via its VIP901 election-year campaign and shared with school board candidates. Burch, who has union support and promised to restore the lost pension arrangements of the city’s first responders, and Moore had sounded the leitmotif: that city government was in the clutches of a self-aggrandizing clique, for whom the newly named Canale was just the latest tool.

The Rev. Kenneth Whalum, pastor of the church sponsoring the first council forum and a former school board member, had joined in the verbal abuse of Canale, whom he ridiculed for the fact that the not yet elected councilman’s picture was said to have been mounted already on the City Hall auditorium wall.

Congratulating the other candidates, Whalum said, “All of them were very impressive. They‘re all eminently more qualified than Ford Canale, who didn’t think enough of you to show up. Vote for anybody but Ford Canale. ... Put one of these people on the city council and make them take that picture down.”


At stake on August 2nd are the SCS seats for District 1, 6, 8, and 9. The candidates who turned up for the second half of the NAACP bill at Mt. Olive were basically the same ones who had been at a forum the week before at Bridges downtown. They were: incumbent Chris Caldwell and Michelle Robinson McKissick in District 1; incumbent Shante Avant in District 6; and incumbent Mike Kernell, Kori Hamner, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman in District 8.

The school board seminar at Mt. Olive was lively and reasonably thorough, though it lacked some of the spice that had been contributed at the earlier Bridges affair by candidates Michael Scruggs in District 1; Minnie Hunter and Percy M. Hunter in District 6; Jerry A. Cunningham in District 8; and Rhonnie Brewer in District 9. Incumbent Billy Orgel of District 8 did not attend either forum.

At Bridges, the questions given the candidates were more numerous and more pointed, including one about how to deal with the factor of LGBTQ students that some candidates circled around and others answered with sentiments of simple acceptance. Another question at Bridges that received some lip service at Mt. Olive was that of whether the School Board should be enlarged to include at least one student member. At neither venue was there an outright endorsement of that idea.

[Note for future forum planners. Bridges is an inviting place to have an assembly, but its acoustics, at least when hand mics are being swapped around, are far from ideal]

At both Bridges and Mt. Olive, the school board candidates stressed the importance of involving students’ families in the schooling process, but all of them made the case for increasing resources, from any or all of the funding sources. They all, as well, called for more wrap-around services and such auxiliary personnel as counselors, social workers, behavioral specialists, and the like. And everybody thought teachers deserved more rewards.
Board candidates, from left, Mike Kernell, Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Kori Hamner, Rhonnie Brewer - JB
  • JB
  • Board candidates, from left, Mike Kernell, Joyce Dorse-Coleman, Kori Hamner, Rhonnie Brewer

Other notions that found general favor were that of after-school activities and programs to combat what incumbent Avant called the “summer slide.” Though the issue of the district's optional-schools program was not addressed systematically, there was a certain sentiment, voiced most specifically by McKissack, that the curricula of non-optional schools should be upgraded. As for the problem of differing school formulas — including charter schools and IZone and ASD institutions — the candidates favored some version of sharing resources but tilted toward preserving the norm.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

Gubernatorial Candidates Dean, Fitzhugh Have Democrats Back in the Game

Gubernatorial primary race evokes memories of past eras when Democratic Party dominated in Tennessee.

Posted By on Sun, Jul 29, 2018 at 9:57 AM

The very fact that two name Democrats — former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and state House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh — are competing in a primary to become the party’s nominee for governor is something of a throwback phenomenon.

There was a time, lasting for the better part of a century, when victory in a statewide Democratic primary was inevitably reported in the press as “tantamount to election.” That sense of a solid Democratic South has expired pretty much everywhere by now, although the case can be made that in Nashville, and only in Nashville, it 
Karl Dean - JB
  • JB
  • Karl Dean
still exists.

That’s because, for whatever reason, it’s still routine in Nashville for Democrats, both black and white, to win local elections there. And, to be a Democratic office-holder in Nashville, especially the office of mayor, is still, ipso facto, to have an eye on the governorship. It is no accident that the party’s last major statewide winner was Phil Bredesen, who was mayor of the capital city when he won the first of his two gubernatorial terms in 2002. (Bredesen is also, of course, the now out-of-power party’s hope to win a U.S. Senate race this year.)

It is no accident, either, that Karl Dean, a recent Nashville mayor, is a current candidate for governor. What’s more unusual is that he has an opponent, in Fitzhugh of Ripley, from a rural part of the state. West Tennessee rural, at that. A competitive Democratic primary for governor almost got started in 2010, but that was the year when all of the prospective Democratic candidates discovered — in the words of one of them, then state Senate Democratic Leader Jim Kyle of Memphis — that all the state’s yellow-dog Democrats had somehow become yellow-dog Republicans. All but one Democrat, Mike McWherter of Dresden, son of a former governor and eventual loser to the GOP’s Bill Haslam, would drop out.

But here we are in 2018, amid talk, even in Tennessee, of a Democratic blue wave, and, though it is still likely that the word “tantamount” will be applied to the winner of the four-way Republican primary for governor, a sense of optimism — or, at least, of revived respectability — is observable among Democrats.

Which is why, at Friday evening’s debate between Dean and Fitzhugh at Fairley High School in Whitehaven, moderator TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, citing local party Democratic chair Corey Strong as her source, informed the small crowd in the Fairley auditorium that “we love both our Democratic candidates. And we intend to stay a family when this is over.”

Not that there has been any prior animosity between the two candidates, although Fitzhugh, as the less well-funded underdog, has, Hail Mary-style, thrown one or two effective barbs Dean’s way in the course of the electoral season.

Not Friday evening, unless you count the jest he got off when, as he rose to answer a question, his microphone cord almost got tangled up with Dean. “I don’t want to choke you,” Fitzhugh apologized, adding, “yet.”

Craig Fitzhugh - JB
  • JB
  • Craig Fitzhugh
The two candidates had been asked, a few minutes into the debate, to share the same table because Dean’s mic wasn’t working. Moving over, he had hazarded a quip of his own: “Shall I repeat everything I’ve already said?”

Actually, there wasn’t a great deal of difference in what the two of them said. They agreed that West Tennessee, and Memphis in particular, had generally received the shaft from the powers-that-be in state government. They both looked askance at the state-run Achievement School District, comparing it unfavorably to the I-Zone institutions of Shelby County Schools. They both rejoiced at a recent court decision against the state practice of lifting one’s driver’s license as a penalty for not paying fines. And they both thought the GOP-dominated legislature’s refusal so far to accept Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act to be a huge and catastrophic partisan folly.

Each also championed the principle of diversity, deplored the use of excessive force and racial profiling by law enforcement, and praised the Hope Scholarship Program and the governor’s Tennessee Promise program of support for free community college tuition, though Fitzhugh was somewhat more insistent that the Hope revenue stream not be tapped to fund Promise.

Dean touted his experience as a onetime Public Defender as a useful experience informing his concern for unempowered minorities. Fitzhugh similarly cited his background as proprietor of a “Bank of the Little Man” in Ripley.

The one issue on which a genuine difference of viewpoints might have materialized was somewhat finessed when Dean — who, unlike Fitzhugh, has been a supporter of charter schools — professed his opposition to “for-profit” charters. Fitzhugh also found a bit of air between himself and Dean’s use of the term “forgotten” as an adjective indicating concern for various classes of Tennesseans — West Tennesseans, in particular — both in Friday’s debate and in a TV ad Dean has been running.

“I don’t call it ‘forgotten,'” Fitzhugh objected, reprising his own frequently expressed concern that the same attention be lavished on “those who live in the shadows of skyscrapers” as on those “in the skyscrapers” themselves. “I don’t like the term
‘forgotten,’” he repeated, advising that voters take a look at his record of ameliorative legislation. “I’ve never forgotten."

A rhetorical point, perhaps, and one intended essentially to demonstrate a shade of difference, but it is possible that it is on the grounds of such shades and nuances that Tennessee Democrats will render their decision. But there is no party fissure here; either one of these men will suit the party faithful, who are clearly hoping that the era of Democratic no-names with no chance of winning is, at the very least, about to be over.

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Saturday, July 28, 2018

Bill Lee Closes Fast in GOP Primary

Poll shows "conservative outsider" to be on a late roll in gubernatorial contest.

Posted By on Sat, Jul 28, 2018 at 8:23 PM

Gubernatorial candidate Lee works the room at Arlington's Legacy Grill. - JB
  • JB
  • Gubernatorial candidate Lee works the room at Arlington's Legacy Grill.

Is Bill Lee the new frontrunner among Tennessee’s Republican gubernatorial candidates? A recent poll says that he is, and the Williamson County businessman is now promoting that assumption on a last, pre-primary tour of the state at “100 town halls” (two of them in Shelby County on Thursday, a week before final voting on August 2nd).

Given the lingering consensus that, Democratic blue wave or no blue wave, Republicans are still the majority party in Tennessee, does the prospect that — with less than a week to go — Lee has taken over the GOP lead from the duo long at the top, Diane Black and Randy Boyd, mean that he is the state’s likely new governor?

“Maybe” is the right answer to all those questions. The poll reflecting a sudden come-from-behind lunge from Lee is by JMC Analytics and Polling, a Louisiana firm that is new to the headlines in Tennessee. So, make allowance for a degree of skepticism. It is certainly true, however, from an aggregate of various other polls over the last several months, that Lee had been maintaining a reasonably close third-place position behind Black and Boyd and was theoretically within striking distance of the Black and Boyd, should either or both of them falter.

And it is widely believed that both Black and Boyd, whose campaigns had largely become mere mechanisms for attacking each other, had indeed faltered, especially since their attacks had become progressively meaner-spirited and less connected to reality — accusing each other of being swamp creatures secretly disloyal to President Trump, as well as mad taxers intent upon robbing Tennesseans blind while gaming the financial system to enrich themselves. At no time has there been a reasoned dialogue between the two contrasting Black’s hard-shell Trump-style conservatism with the progressive governmental ideas of Boyd, an entrepreneur and former idea man for current Governor Bill Haslam who prefers now to be called “Conservative Randy Boyd,” as if that were the name on his birth certificate.

Meanwhile, Lee — a multi-millionaire like his two main rivals — has been steadily touring the state in the supportive company of his wife, Maria, stressing his religious faith and his rebound from previous family tragedies that included the death of his first wife from a horseback fall. Looking like a casually composed latter-day Marlboro Man, Lee has eschewed desperate attacks upon his opponents in favor of promises to help build a ‘better life” for all Tennesseans. Steering clear of ideology as such, and lacking a political record of any sort, he styles himself as a “conservative” and an outsider.

His current pre-election tour of Tennessee, in the same 14-year-old RV he has been using for the past year or so, made two stops in Shelby County on Thursday — one at noon at the Kooky Canuck eatery downtown, another at mid-afternoon at The Legacy Grill in Arlington, he greeted supporters, schmoozed with diners, and in general acted like a low-key Man of the Hour.

The restaurant at Arlington was filled with people, who were first treated to a stock campaign video, which recapped moments from the life and times of Lee, who was seen describing his first wife’s fatal horse-riding accident in a subdued but straightforward voice.

“Over time, we healed, we grew, we started laughing again,” Lee said on the video, explaining that he had made it his mission to “ work to change others, to make life better for other people,” not just the “1,200 hard-working pipe-fitters, electricians, plumbers of the Lee Company," but others, including the inner-city child he mentored and the “guy from prison” he helped make a transition back to society at large.

“I started to think, What if I could do that for everyone in Tennessee? I believe I can. I’m sure going to try.

A local pastor then introduced the flesh-and-blood Lee to the crowd as “a man’s man, “farmer, husband, father, grandfather ... not a career politician — in fact, he’s never run for office before — a passionate lover and follower of Jesus Christ.”

Lee came up to the front, dressed in casual shirt and chinos, suggesting that people were looking for a “conservative man of faith” and offering that as a description of himself. Hailing some Memphis-area cousins that were in the crowd, Lee cited the “transformational” nature of his family tragedy and in short order was joined at the front of the room by Maria, “God’s gift to me.”

He promised to take better care of the state’s teachers. “We test too much, and we may be testing for the wrong things.” He spoke of his wish to reform criminal justice and reduce “the revolving door” of recidivism, lamented that 15 Tennessee counties, all rural, were officially designated as in poverty, and got an extended round of applause when he rounded on the “dishonest, deceptive attack ads” that, he implied, his major GOP opponents were committed to.

“It’s everything that’s wrong with politics,” he said. “There’s a lot more truth you can find in the person behind those ads than in the person in those ads.”

There was more in that vein, and a nod to his independence and the fact that he was “not beholden to anybody,” donors, lobbyists, or legislators. He likened his “outsider” status to that of President Trump. “That’s why he’s been so effective.”

After his remarks, he and his wife greeted an impressive number of well-wishers who approached them.

He was asked if really had taken the lead. “We certainly know there’s a surge, and the momentum is there. I don’t rely on polls, but I do rely on the momentum and the electricity I see. In today's world, people want a conservative and an outsider, and that’s me.”

Asked to define what he meant by the term “conservative,” he said it denotes a “playbook for the fundamental approach to governing, that limited government and small government is better, that fiscal governmency includes not allowing government to grow beyond what it should, and understanding there are conservative social values like being 100 percent pro-life.”

Some might think of all that as boilerplate, but Lee makes such statements with a seeming frankness and a confident if modest attitude. He is not one for hard and fast policy points, but in a contest where image counts for much, he certainly looks the part, and, after several months of trailing frontrunners Black and Boyd for first-place honors in the Republican gubernatorial primary, he may indeed be peaking at the right time.

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Both Mayoral Candidates Wearing Well as Debates Continue

Posted By on Sun, Jul 22, 2018 at 12:10 PM

There are several factors that make the contest for Shelby County mayor hard to predict — not least the apparent parity demonstrated by the two candidates — Republican David Lenoir and Democrat Lee Harris — in the several public encounters they have had together.

The first two major debates between the two probably added up to a draw.

In the first one, at a Kiwanis Club meeting in June that was live-streamed on WREG-TV, Lenoir probably outshone his opponent by 1) being more clearly in sync with his immediate audience, composed of predominantly middle-of-
Harris (l) and Lenoir at Rotary...
  • Harris (l) and Lenoir at Rotary...
the-road business types; and 2) being willing to take on the role of aggressor, attacking Harris three times on what he perceived as one of Harris’s weak points, public safety, each time without any kind of response from the Democrat.

In the second debate, co-sponsored by the NAACP and the ad hoc Voting is Power901 (VIP901) group and held at the National Civil Rights Museum, Harris probably took the honors on the strength of having a playing field more congenial to his left-center views and on a new readiness to defend his positions and to mix it up with Lenoir on the attack front.

In a general sense, Lenoir carried into the general election race the kind of edge in financing that Republican nominees normally enjoy, while Harris has at his disposal the theoretical fact of a Democratic majority, based on the demographics of Shelby County. Inasmuch as the first of these advantages, the bounty of the GOP purse, is a consistent given in local elections, the election could hinge on the degree to which the county’s Democrats actually do manage to cohere and get their vote out — as, conspicuously, they have had trouble doing, except in presidential elections.

Hard to Call
As it happens, there does indeed seem to be a more defined and organized degree of focus among Shelby County Democrats this year, and more than a few Republicans worry about the prospect of misplaced complacency in local GOP ranks. But the fact remains: The mayoral race, like other one-on-ones on the August 2nd ballot, is hard to call, and two additional debates between Harris and Lenoir, held this past week, did little to resolve the matter.

Not that the candidates failed to measure up. Both performed well, and both, especially in the second of the two events — a forum focusing on neighborhood issues at Circuit Playhouse — indicated a familiarity with the issues and a developed sense of what to do about them.

The initial encounter of the week — a Tuesday debate before a Rotary Club luncheon at Clayborn Temple — set the tone and reaffirmed the precepts of the two mayoral campaigns.

The first question called for — and got — a self-definition from each of  the candidates.
...and at Circuit Playhouse - JB
  • JB
  • ...and at Circuit Playhouse

Lenoir, who has spent the last eight years as Shelby County trustee, a job requiring that he collect and manage the county’s fiscal assets, cast himself as “a problem-solver first and a public servant second.” Noting that he came to office in late 2010, in the middle of a still-raging recession, Lenoir claimed to have “made Shelby County stronger,” citing a reduction in the county’s debt, a rise in its savings, and a lower tax rate.

For his part, state Senator Harris declared his ability to “bring people together” and “work with anyone” and claimed to have “passed more bills than any Democrat in the state” — most of these measures sponsored or co-sponsored by the General Assembly’s dominant Republicans — all the while keeping the Democratic faith by striving to extend the benefits of health care and quality education.

When asked about specific issues, the two candidates responded with solutions and proposals that matched the character of their self-descriptions. For example, Harris not only called for the county to devote oversight and funding to the improvement of MATA, he maintained that developing a better mass transit system was “the easiest way to get people out of poverty.”

Lenoir cautioned about “double taxation,” noting that MATA’s purview was, for the most part, restricted to the area of Memphis proper and that city government was essentially responsible for its funding and management. Moderator Otis Sanford put enough of a finger on the scales to point out that specific bus routes extended beyond the city limits.

Differing Approaches
On the general question of how best to establish equality and social justice, the candidates also differed. Lenoir touted what he said had been his efforts as trustee to educate the public on fiscal issues, including an educational effort inside Juvenile Court to tap the entrepreneurial instincts of youthful offenders. He proposed “wealth creation, not wealth transfer” or “a radical, new wave, new agenda campaign” as the key to progress.

For his part, Harris said the problem required a “perspective that is social justice-oriented,” and recommended that, in replacing the current, outmoded facilities for juvenile detentions, provision be made for fewer, not more confinements. He supported the continuation of the federal oversight that was imposed on Juvenile Court in 2012, whereas Lenoir said he would defer to the opinions of current Mayor Mark Luttrell and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, who have sought to have the oversight terminated.

Both candidates paid homage to the principle of frugality, with Lenoir boasting the efforts of Shelby County government during his tenure to lower the county debt and Harris noting that he slept in his Senate office, “on the floor,” during overnights in Nashville.

Lenoir cited two occasions from Harris’ governmental record to refute Harris’ claims, as City Councilman and state senator, never to have voted for a tax increase, to which Harris retorted, “At least I have a record,” contrasting his hands-on involvement in budgetary and taxation matters in health care and in other areas with what he said was Lenoir’s total lack of such experience.

Harris stressed his active role in efforts that led up to the removal of Confederate statues from downtown parks, and Lenoir cited documentation to establish that rumors of his having opposed that process were ill-founded. Both candidates gave President Trump’s ongoing “zero tolerance” approach to immigration a wide berth.

In general, each candidate depicted his own background — Lenoir’s in the private financial sector and as “the county’s banker,” Harris’ as active legislator and as “leader” in public solutions — as better suited to guide county government for the foreseeable future. Lenoir got two late jabs in, suggesting that Harris, who had moved from the Memphis City Council to the legislature and was now ready to move on again, had a disinclination to finish the terms he was elected to, and he repeated allegations that specific votes by Harris indicated he was “soft on crime.”

Harris, who has in fact moved quickly through governmental ranks, disputed the first matter and made credible explanations of his voting record, converting the two allegations into proofs of his detailed — and more nuanced — experience with the range of public issues.

Two nights later, the argument was continued on the stage of Circuit Playhouse, where, for roughly an hour and a half, moderator Marc Fleischer and representatives of various neighborhood associations subjected the two contenders to what was probably their most detailed grilling yet on the issues.

Speaking in a sense for them both, Harris said the ordeal of campaigning was something like “drinking water out of a fire hose” and jested that in doing a recent sweep from Collierville to Cordova to downtown he had found himself “kissing a hand and shaking a baby.”

The proportion of ad hominem exchanges in the Thursday night encounter was considerably diminished, as Lenoir and Harris set out to demonstrate their familiarity with the several subject areas they were asked about and their ability to suggest hands-on solutions.

Hands-On Answers
The candidates were asked not just about MATA in the abstract, for example, but whether they had ridden the bus themselves, when they had, and what the routes were. Similarly, they were asked to detail what their associations with neighborhood associations had been. Lenoir got to drop the names of well-known activists like Janet Boscarini and Charlie Caswell that he had worked “shoulder-to-shoulder” with, removing blight or clearing property, and Harris alluded to his watchdog efforts, in tandem with Republican legislator Brian Kelsey, to put an end to TVA drilling at the Memphis aquifer that threatened to contaminate Memphis’ pristine drinking water.

Mere days before the current weekend’s “Roundhouse Revival” activities at the Fairgrounds site of the long-dormant Coliseum, both candidates waxed nostalgic and put themselves on record as lamenting the terms of the contract of the Grizzlies that kept the facility from serving as an arena.

Both weighed in on subjects as diverse as EDGE, Land Banks, Victorian Village, a proposed Juvenile Assessment Center, agreeing here, disagreeing there, but creating a sense that each was aware of the myriad issues confronting the county and each had some detailed and precise and often original notion of how to deal with it all. All in all, the debate served as something of a symposium, as a classroom of sorts for the audience.

There was something of a partisan divide, to be sure, both in the audience and between the two candidates themselves, but nothing like the unbridgeable chasms of our national politics at the moment. Each side might — and did — claim victory, but from an audience perspective, it was something of a win/win, generating a sense that, however this thing comes out on August 2nd, whoever wins will be adequately prepared and not closed off from the ideas of the opposition.

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