Election Preview: Behind the 8th Ball 

A preview of the August 4th election; 8th Congressional District race.

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Greg Cravens

They are all around us, plain as day to those who are tuned into them or who are actively seeking them out, though it is clear that most ordinary citizens are oblivious to them. And, no, I do not mean the Pokémon figures who are turning up on so many smart-phone screens since the release of the Pokémon Go internet version some three weeks ago.

I mean the mix of participating voters and politicians seeking their favor in the forthcoming election, which is set to conclude on August 4th, one that will determine the outcome of several state and federal primaries, as well as some key judicial and executive positions in Shelby County.

Influential as most of these positions are destined to be, those who seek after them — the candidates, if you will — are having to contend with a measure of invisibility in an election year in which the number of high-profile local and statewide races is more limited than usual, and in which most attention, in Shelby County as elsewhere, has been focused on this year's riveting presidential race.

Voters, too, are something of a vanishing species, with local turnout in recent election years on something of a noticeably downward slide.

But here it is in the homestretch of the election (early voting began on Friday, and election day itself is but two weeks away), and, like those Pokémon figures lurking in cyberspace, both candidates and their supporters are turning up more and more for those bothering to look.

Beyond question, the most keenly watched race on the ballot is that to succeed the retiring GOP incumbent Stephen Fincher as U.S. Representative from Tennessee's 8th Congressional District.

Fincher, elected in 2010 to break a long string of Democrats in that seat, hails from Crockett County. Given that the 8th District was reapportioned after the 2000 census to take in substantial portions of east Shelby County, the reality is his successor is likely to be from there as well. And a Republican, since both rural West Tennessee and Memphis' eastern suburbs, like every section of the state except for the core urban areas of Memphis and Nashville, has transitioned to the GOP from a lapsed Democratic tradition.

Some candidates in the 8th have had enough means to advertise themselves over the broadcast media. George Flinn, the multi-millionaire physician and broadcast executive, has loaned himself $3 million for his latest electoral effort, and it's nigh to impossible to watch TV without encountering the two make-believe down-home dowagers who, in a series of commercials, keep deciding in 30 seconds or less that they have no better goal in life than to run out and put up some Flinn yard signs.

As judgment day approaches, Flinn's major rivals in a crowded 13-person field have begun to catch up with him in paid-for ubiquity. Former U.S. Attorney David Kustoff is one example, attracting attention both with the increasing frequency of his ads and with the unusual boldness of the claims therein.

Kustoff promises that, as a freshman congressman in a body of 435 (which shares its power with a 99-member Senate, as well as with an executive and judicial branch), he will "end illegal immigration" and "destroy radical Islamic terrorism." Even The Donald (as in presidential candidate Trump) pledges only to build a wall!

click to enlarge The whole kit and caboodle — the hopeful candidates for the hotly contested 8th District seat are gathered together. The August 4th election will see who takes the seat. - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • The whole kit and caboodle — the hopeful candidates for the hotly contested 8th District seat are gathered together. The August 4th election will see who takes the seat.

The Republican primary in the 8th District race numbers several other worthies who have demonstrated enough clout or support or potential to be taken seriously — most of them, like Flinn and Kustoff, residents of eastern Shelby County, wherein live something like 55 percent of the district's eligible voters.

Those other Shelby Countians include District 31 state Senator Brian Kelsey, an influential figure on the Republican right who has somehow managed the trick of seeming both a maverick and a member of the GOP establishment; former state senator and current Register of Deeds Tom Leatherwood; and Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, who was widely considered the man to beat when he entered the race, even though he did so later than most of the others.

From the beginning of the race, that group of five Shelby Countians, with overlapping bases of support, at least locally, have been considered the major players, though there is Jackson businessman Brad Greer in the wings, arguing, not without logic, that the rest of the sprawling West Tennessee district contributed 60 percent of the District's vote total in March's presidential primary, and hoping that, like then state Senator Marsha Blackburn of Williamson County in 2002, he can take advantage of a potential split in the Shelby County vote to come out ahead.

That 2002 race was in the 7th District, which back then stretched from the environs of Nashville to those of Memphis. Basically, the Shelby County portion of the former 7th was reassigned to the 8th in the post-2000 reapportionment, which explains why both Kustoff and Leatherwood, veterans of unsuccessful 7th District races (in 2002 and 2008, respectively) are able to try again.

Greer's task is easier in one sense; he's looking at a five-way split of Shelby Countians, while Blackburn had to deal with only three — Kustoff, then County Commissioner (now state Senate Majority Leader) Mark Norris, and then Memphis City Councilman Brent Taylor. But Blackburn, who had led the charge back then against a state income tax (even to the point, arguably, of fomenting a climactic riot against the prospect at the state Capitol), was already a state figure.

But Greer can take some ironic heart from the fact that he is considered by somebody — namely, a mysterious right-wing political action committee called Power of Liberty — enough of a threat to have been targeted with radio attack ads, in his case on the grounds that he failed to file returns with the IRS for several straight years in the previous decade. Power of Liberty has also run ads against Luttrell for his support of Insure Tennessee, Governor Bill Haslam's Medicaid-expansion proposal, and against Kelsey, for alleged softness on immigration issues.

The scatter-shot nature of the attack ads disguises their exact motivation, which would seem to benefit either Kustoff or Flinn.

The fact is that there is very little ideological distinction between the various Republican candidates for the 8th District seat. Luttrell shades somewhat more moderate than the others, but the rest, fairly uniformly, abhor Obamacare, governmental regulation, high taxes, ISIS, and (the attack ads notwithstanding) illegal immigration, and their policy declarations in several forums involving them all have had an unusual degree of sameness. More likely to separate them, vote-wise, are matters of their political-network support and their campaign war chests. As of the July 15th reporting period, Flinn still led with cash on hand of $1,558,595.54; Kustoff had $392,672.10; Kelsey, $339,887.50; Luttrell, $273,651.22; Greer, $87,115.10; and Leatherwood, $25,235.72.

Reliable, systematic polling has been hard to come by, but such as there is seems still to give Luttrell an edge.

For the record, there are two candidates vying in the 8th District Democratic primary — Rickey Hobson, a distribution manager in Fayette County's Hickory Withe, and Gregory Alan Frye, a Newbern forklift operator. Both are political unknowns, and whoever wins that primary is not expected to be a factor in the general election. As indicated, the 8th District was, until 2010, a Democratic-leaning district, and had been one since Reconstruction. It, like most of the rest of rural Tennessee, went over to Republican control in the Tea Party election of 2010. From a practical point of view, among the nine congressional districts in Tennessee, there are only two which Democrats can reliably expect to win — the 5th, which encompasses Davidson County (Nashville), and the 9th, which is wholly contained within the city limits of Memphis.

Technically, there is a Democratic primary race in the 9th District, which has been held down by Congressman Steve Cohen since his victory in a multi-candidate primary race of 2006 for the right to succeed Harold Ford Jr., who had followed his father in the seat 10 years earlier but forsook a reelection bid to make an unsuccessful race for the U.S. Senate that year.

Cohen was the lone serious white candidate in a large field loaded up with name black candidates in 2006, a fact of enormous benefit to his candidacy. But since then, his painstaking performance on behalf of his majority-black constituency has allowed him to turn away a series of potentially formidable African-American challengers with almost ridiculous ease.

Cohen is well-buffered financially, and has all the support that counts in the 9th, black and white. There is no groundswell for any of his primary-ballot opponents in 2016 and little likelihood of one. His primary opposition consists of Shelby County Commissioner Justin Ford, perennial candidate M. LaTroy Williams, and, oddly, Nashville-area resident Larry Crim, also a perennial.

The sole Republican candidate in the 9th, Wayne Alberson, is there to fill the ballot line, that's all.

Other races of consequence on the August 4th ballot:

State Senate, District 30: This Democrats-only contest is a grudge match of sorts between the incumbent, Sara Kyle, and former Senator Beverly Marrero, who held the seat before reapportionment pitted her in 2012 against fellow Democratic Senator Jim Kyle. Jim Kyle won that year but moved on in the next election cycle to a race for Chancery Court judge, which he also won. His wife, Sara, was selected as his replacement over Marrero in a close vote of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee.

State House of Representatives, District 85: There is a competitive race of sorts, but one that strongly favors the incumbent, longtime local NAACP luminary Johnnie Turner, whose well-regarded late husband, Larry Turner, served in the seat before his death several years ago. Representative Turner has two opponents, the relatively unknown Felicia Irons and the Rev. Keith Williams, a proponent of school vouchers whom voters might confuse with another, better-known Keith Williams, the current executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association and a staunch opponent of vouchers, as is Turner.

State House of Representatives, District 86: Long-serving Democratic incumbent Barbara Cooper is unopposed in her primary, but Republican George T. Edwards III, whose clock evidently tells him, every two years, to run against Cooper, hopes to do so again, but has a GOP primary opponent, newcomer Tina McElravey.

State House of Representatives, District 88: Democratic incumbent Larry Miller has a challenger in customer service specialist Stephen Christian, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the Memphis City Council.

State House of Representatives, District 90: Like most of the other legislative incumbents, John DeBerry has long been a fixture in his seat, but he faces a potentially formidable primary challenger this year in Tami Sawyer, who has extensive activist credentials (Teach for America, Black Lives Matter, consumer issues) and organized support from pro-choice advocates, the LGBT community, and liberal Democrats displeased with what they see as DeBerry's habit of fellow-traveling with the General Assembly's GOP super-majority, especially on social issues. DeBerry, a stem-winder when he chooses to be, touts his support for Democratic bread-and-butter issues and defends his strategy of legislative bridge-building as paying dividends to his district.

State House of Representatives, District 95: Republican incumbent Curry Todd has survived negative publicity about impolitic remarks (e.g., referring to illegal immigrants as "rats") and such misadventures as driving into a famous DUI bust while packing heat. But his Collierville constituents have regularly re-elected him — a fact that has not dissuaded a trio of GOP primary opponents this year, former School Board member Diane George, festival promoter Mark Lovell, and former health care administrator

Dana Matheny.

State House of Representatives, District 96: GOP incumbent Steve McManus began his tenure some years ago as something of a moderate (the thing no Republican admits to being anymore), edged into ever more conservative pastures and, as a member of Speaker Beth Harwell's task force on health care, loosened up on opposing Medicaid expansion. He has a Republican primary opponent, lawyer Price Harris, who wants to get into Nashville to make sure school-voucher legislation stays derailed. Democratic activist Dwayne Thompson, who went up against McManus two years ago, wants another shot but has a primary opponent of his own, charter school advocate Earl LeFlore.

State House of Representatives, District 98: Democratic incumbent Antonio Parkinson, long a power in Frayser/North Memphis politics and the most active and consistent champion of local public-school sovereignty vis-à-vis state co-optation of education, is opposed by primary opponent Johnnie Hatten, a key member of Memphis Lift, which has precisely the opposite point of view, welcoming both charter-school initiatives and intercession by the state's Achievement School District.

There are several races, too, belonging to the Shelby County General Election portion of the ballot — among them two judicial special elections and the one regularly scheduled off-year election for a county official, that for General Sessions Clerk.

Circuit Court Judge, Division III, District 30: Valerie Smith, who was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam earlier this year to fill the seat left vacant by Judge D'Army Bailey's death, is opposed by Michael G. Floyd.

Chancellor, Part III, Division 30: Jim Newsom, who was appointed by Haslam in September to fill the vacancy created by the 2015 death of Chancellor Oscar C. "Bo" Carr III, is opposed by David Ferguson and Jim Jenkins.

General Sessions Clerk: Incumbent Ed Stanton Jr., one of two Democrats (the other is Assessor Cheyenne Johnson) to defy the Republican tide in recent elections for county office, is up against it this time. Though Stanton has, as ever, generous support from both sides of the political aisle, his opponent, Republican nominee Richard Morton, an accountant, is expected to benefit from the down-ballot effect of heavy voting on the GOP side for the stoutly contested 8th Congressional District race. Independent William Chism, who previously ran as a Democratic candidate for Probate Court Clerk in 2014, is also competing.

Five Shelby County School Board seats are on the ballot, with only one — the District Three position held by incumbent Stephanie P. Love — involved in a contest. Love's opponent is Sharon Fields.

One of two races for Bartlett Municipal Judge is contested, that in Division One between Tim Francavilla and Henry Miller.

And, finally, five state appellate judges are up for yes/no votes in retention elections.

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