Dotting the ‘”I” in Memphis Politics 

Briefly revisiting some of the political (and personal) issues and events of the recent past.

click to enlarge Sidney Chism and small fan at last year's picnic. - JB
  • JB
  • Sidney Chism and small fan at last year's picnic.

Attendees at the Sidney Chism political picnic, held two weekends ago at the usual stomping grounds on Horn Lake, would have observed this scribe doing his annual duty there for several hours, and may have since wondered if and when I would publish an account.

For a variety of reasons, I have delayed posting my observations. I do indeed have some, along with a variety of interesting photographs from the event, and I'll be putting samples of both online shortly, along with snapshots and notes about other aspects of the recent political season.

There has been what the late poet T. S. Eliot would call an "objective correlative" to my wait on dealing with the picnic. On the day of the event, Saturday, June 21st, I was leaving the picnic when my left foot sank deep into a perfectly disguised hole on the property, a good foot deeper than its surroundings but topped with the same deceptive flow of green grass.

I thought I'd wrenched a knee but was able to walk out on my own, and, since nothing except a little soreness occurred over the next few days, thought I must have gotten off light. Last Thursday night, however, after I'd been to two political events (moderating one), I started feeling punk enough to beg off on a third.

Starting about nine o'clock Thursday and continuing through the weekend, the left knee gave me its delayed constituent reaction, swelling up to double its usual size, hollering at me vigorously through the available nerve circuits and stiffening up so as to make me bed-ridden even before I got doctor's orders to that effect.

I got the knee drained of fluid and shot with cortisone on Sunday, and that seems to have restored me to the ranks of the ambient. Knock knock.

And, being a respector of what may have been a karmic message, I shall delay no longer in shedding some light on what happened at the picnic (though the balance of my observations will be published in the "Political Beat Blog" online).

The most remarkable single circumstance was the apparent endorsement by host Chism of several candidates — two of them outright: Democratic nominee Deidre Malone and, most vociferously, Sheriff Bill Oldham, the Republican nominee for a position also sought by Democrat Bennie Cobb.

It will be remembered that Chism was actually censured some time back by his Democratic Party mates at a meeting of the party's executive committee for his support of Oldham. Chism was not bashful about giving Oldham his best shout-out at the picnic, and he — the county commissioner who was given so often to denouncing Republicans as marching always "in lockstep" — was now boasting defiantly about his having "friends" in both parties.

On the congressional scene, Chism gave Ricky Wilkins, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Steve Cohen in the 9th district, what seemed to be at least an indirect nod, allowing (or encouraging) event emcee Leon Gray to introduce the challenger with Wilkins' own billboard slogan, "our next congressman."            

• The current congressman, Cohen, was conspicuously absent from the Chism event, but he is making his presence felt in other ways.

Undeniably stung by this past weekend's announcement of a Wilkins endorsement by the Memphis Police Association, Cohen, who early in his career was the legal adviser to the Memphis Police Department, put on a show of force on Monday, backed by almost a score of union representatives trumpeting their own or the Memphis Labor Council's endorsement of the incumbent congressman, who has normally enjoyed wall-to-wall support from local  unions.

• For the record, there's been some feedback about that August 2013 letter (see Politics, June 26th) from Imad Abdullah, the then president of the Ben F. Jones chapter of the National Bar Association (NBA), to chapter members soliciting "attorneys of color" to come forth as candidates in the 2014 judicial election with the goal of running "one member per race."

There were numerous reactions to the premise of that item — especially from current office-holders irked at having to devote a summer to running against what they consider to be premature or unqualified candidates. One comes from Criminal Court Judge James Beasley (who is himself unopposed in this election) in this week's Flyer Viewpoint, p. 12.

Another came from David E. McKinney, the current president of the Jones chapter of the NBA. In a letter notable for its courtesy, McKinney insists, "I vehemently reject the notion that this chapter is engaged in endorsing judicial candidates in the upcoming election based upon their race or ethnicity."

And, indeed, as he and others have pointed out, there has of yet been no slate of endorsees released by the Ben F. Jones chapter. One who has made this point was lawyer/congressional candidate Wilkins, who (with Charles Carpenter) was mentioned as follows in Abdullah's letter:

"Thus, to keep us on an organized path, we have established a separate committee that is co-chaired by Charles E. Carpenter and Ricky E. Wilkins. This committee has been hard at work establishing a mechanism to reach a consensus candidate for each race."

Wilkins spoke to the Flyer on Thursday and strongly denied that he had been part of any action to prepare a black candidates' slate for this year's election, though he acknowledged he had been briefed in general about plans to interest African-American lawyers in seeking judicial office and had responded with encouragement.

Whatever the case, the number of contested races in this year's judicial election is reasonably high (though maybe not unprecedentedly so), and it would seem that incumbents, for the most part, are getting the better of it so far — at least in the Memphis Bar Association's lawyers' poll of judicial candidates, released on Monday.

(Those recommendations are available online at's "Political Beat Blog" and will be available in their entirety in future print issues.)

• Note to judicial candidate Alicia Howard, who has asked me for a retraction of my report last week, based on public commentary by former Democratic Chairman Van Turner and on a citation from the state Board of Professional Responsibility regarding her erstwhile suspension: 

It is a matter of record that the board in 2011 gave attorney Howard an 18-month suspension for "signing and notarizing her client's signature to [a] petition without indicating the client's permission to do so" and for submitting "applications to the AOC [Administrative Office of the Courts] billing for work not performed." 

Those two findings were the heart of the case against her and the reason why Howard was cited by the board for seven separate breaches in categories ranging from "truthfulness" to "fairness" to "misconduct."

Howard objected to my saying that she "was held liable for forging a client's name to a document without authorization" and for "obtain[ing] payment from the state Administrative Office of the Courts under false pretenses." I will gladly withdraw that attempt at layman's summary in favor of the Board's carefully parsed statements quoted above.

She points out also that she "practiced for over twenty years with absolutely no discipline history," that she "disagreed with certain findings" and accepted "the harsh nature of the penalty" only after "considering the expense of prolonged litigation and the toll on my family and my personal health."

Howard also contends that 12 months was lopped off her suspension time and that she was able to resume practice in January 2012.


• The Master Meal of the East Shelby County Republican Club, which normally has some out-of-county designate as its featured speaker (past example: former Arkansas Governor/TV host Mike Huckabee) got by on local talent this year — the party's major county-wide candidates on the August election ballot, plus state GOP chairman Chris Devaney of Nashville.

But that was enough to swell the turnout to several hundred at the Great Hall of Germantown last Tuesday night. Included were candidates galore for other races, including not a few Democrats. An omen for what comes next?

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