From Nashville to Memphis: A Venue Change 

As the session winds down in Nashville, the rolls open up for politicians in Memphis.

Planned Parenthood demonstrators

Jackson Baker

Planned Parenthood demonstrators

In Nashville, things were coming to an end, with the 2015 session of the General Assembly scheduled for a likely finish this week. Meanwhile, in Memphis, things were, in a sense, just getting started. It finally became possible on Friday of last week for would-be contestants in the 2015 Memphis city election to draw candidate petitions from the Shelby County Election Commission.  

On the first day, the most noticeable visitor to the Election Commission's second-floor office downtown was the Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr., about whose intentions (particularly as a possible candidate for mayor) a good deal of speculation had swirled. Whalum both satisfied and furthered the suspense by drawing not one but three petitions — for Mayor; for City Council, District 5; and for City Council Super-District 9, Position 2.

The two council positions are those about to be vacated, respectively, by mayoral candidate Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn. As of last week, when District 4 Councilwoman Wanda Halbert announced she would be seeking the City Court clerk's position instead of seeking reelection, there will be a total of five open seats on this year's ballot — six if you count, as some observers do, the District 7 council seat, now that of interim Councilman Berlin Boyd and formerly the seat of Lee Harris, now a state Senator.

Whalum made it clear, both at the Election Commission and on Saturday, at a public-education forum in Raleigh, that while he regarded himself as a prospective winner in the mayoral race, he would defer to Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams (an attendee at the Raleigh affair at Bob's Country BBQ), should the latter choose to run for mayor, as he has previously indicated he would.

"Whatever race I run in, education will be my platform," said Whalum, a former school board member who advocates that Memphis take steps to resume a de facto city school system.

The known mayoral field so far continues to consist of incumbent A C Wharton, councilmembers Strickland and Harold Collins, County Commission Chairman Justin Ford, Williams, and former University of Memphis basketball player Detric Golden.


The Other Brian Kelsey: Whatever his popularity in his own District 31 — which begins in Midtown and extends into East Memphis, Cordova, Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, and Lakeland, - which continues to reelect the state Senator comfortably, Brian Kelsey has a wholly different reputation elsewhere in Shelby County.

Among those Memphians who consider themselves progressives, for example, Kelsey is about as popular as, say, Dick Cheney or Ted Cruz would be at a Democratic National Convention. At one time or another, he has had his hand in legislation antagonistic to gays, abortion-rights advocates, proponents of living-wage ordinances, income-tax advocates, public-school defenders, believers in gun control, and to supporters of the Affordable Care Act in general, and to Medicaid expansion in particular.

That list should not be regarded as fully inclusive. Kelsey is an equal-opportunity exacerbator. In addition to his perceived offenses against Democrats, he has also taken an abundance of positions considered objectionable to various members of his own Republican Party, notably including Governor Bill Haslam, who has labored to keep Kelsey in check on issues ranging from voucher legislation to restraints on gubernatorial privilege.

It should be said that Kelsey sees himself as a champion of liberty, as he would define that term, and — hark! — there are bills of his that actually do bridge the enormous gap between him and a multitude of others who would define that term wholly differently. 

In last year's legislative session, Kelsey secured passage of SB 276, which struck down obstacles to employment for reformed felons, and in the session now coming to an end, the senator sponsored SB 6, the "Racial Profiling Prevention Act," which has now passed both chambers and awaits only the governor's signature to become law.

The bill defines racial profiling as "the detention or interdiction of an individual in traffic contacts, field contacts, or asset seizure and forfeiture efforts solely on the basis of the individual's actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, or national origin" and would require all police departments and sheriff's departments in Tennessee to adopt by the end of this year a written policy in conformity with the definition.

Kelsey, it seems, can work across the aisle. The racial profiling bill was co-sponsored by Memphis state Representative John DeBerry, and the previous year's bill on behalf of ex-felons was co-sponsored with state Representative Karen Camper. Both DeBerry and Camper are inner-city Democrats.

Now, an even more striking piece of collaboration may be in the offing. At a meeting Monday night at Celtic Crossing of "Drinking Liberally," a group of self-styled progressive Democrats, political consultant Liz Rincon, a key member of the group, was sharing portions of some online correspondence with Kelsey, wherein the state senator seemed to be expressing himself open-minded about the prospect of raising the minimum wage for servers in food and drink establishments.

Hmmm. The senator from District 31 could be a work in progress.


As the General Assembly prepared to close out 1) without acting on Governor Bill Haslam's Insure Tennessee Medicaid-expansion proposal; and 2) with House concurrence on a Senate bill that would impose a 48-hour waiting period on abortions among other restrictions, dissenters made their feelings known.  

click to enlarge JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker

First Baptist Church on Broad pastor Keith Norman (left) and state Representative Joe Towns presided over a press conference last week at Christ Community Health Services adjacent to Norman's church as part of statewide information session on Insure Tennessee sponsored by the House Democratic Caucus. They vowed to continue efforts to secure passage of the governor's Medicaid-expansion proposal — in a new special session, if need be.

As the House in Nashville prepared to put its imprimatur on new abortion restrictions, protesters at the Poplar Avenue headquarters of Planned Parenthood, many of whom had made repeated visits to the General Assembly in an effort to dissuade legislators, indicated they, too, would continue their opposition to what they regarded as backward-looking legislation. To make the point, they affected the period dress of pre-Roe v. Wade times. (See picturel, top of page.)

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