Good News, Bad News for Shelby County Democrats 

Recent events point to both possibilities for Democrats locally and statewide.

TN Supreme court justices Clark, Wade, and Lee

Jackson Baker

TN Supreme court justices Clark, Wade, and Lee

The week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend highlighted both the hopes and the perils facing Democrats in Shelby County and in Tennessee at large.

Locally, the issue of what to do about Henri Brooks still festers in party ranks but is likely to end indecisively, inasmuch as all the available options regarding the volatile county commissioner who is her party's nominee for Juvenile Court Clerk seem to be of the no-win variety.

In the immediate aftermath of Brooks' verbal attack on a Hispanic witness and two of her colleagues at the commission meeting on Monday, May 12th, Commission Chairman James Harvey made some resolute statements about backing a possible censure action against Brooks, but Harvey — long famous, in both speech and action, for a tendency to consider multiple options, tentatively adopting and discarding each in turn — seems to have backed off the idea.

With the Commission preparing to meet this week in committee and next Monday in full session, no action is likely unless pressed by a fellow African-American commission member or called for by a prominent Democratic nominee on the August 7th countywide ballot. "It would take a 'Sister Souljah' moment," said one Democrat, evoking the memory of presidential candidate Bill Clinton's venturing to criticize racially abrasive comments by a prominent black activist in 1992.

Such an action might well exacerbate intra-party tensions among Democrats, but the lack of such an action leaves the party open to actual or implied Republican criticism regarding Democratic toleration of bigotry.

When the Shelby County Democratic Party Executive Committee met last Thursday for a "unity" gathering, much lip service was paid to the concept of party loyalty and much suspicion was vented of possible GOP skullduggery, but not a single thing was said about Brooks or the May 12th Commission meeting or community reaction to it.

Statewide, the predicament of Democrats as a minority party at the mercy of Republican officials was underscored by the arrival in Memphis on Thursday of three Democratic appointed state Supreme Court justices — Chief Justice Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark, and Sharon Lee.

The three justices, all up for Yes/No retention votes on August 7th, have been targeted for rejection in a campaign led by Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, the presiding officer of the state Senate. Two other justices, including Janice Holder of Memphis, have already announced their retirement in lieu of standing for retention. State Appeals Court Judge Holly Kirby, also of Memphis, was appointed by Governor Bill Haslam to succeed Holder.

Wade, Clark, and Lee drew a supportive crowd of fellow lawyers and other supporters at a fund-raiser in their behalf at the Racquet Club on Thursday night, and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton held a joint press conference with them on Friday, endorsing them for retention.

Haslam, who would have the responsibility of naming replacements for the three justices, should they not win retention, has kept a discreet and neutral distance from the matter.

On the statewide front, the good news for Democrats is that three candidates in the Democratic primary are vying for the right to oppose incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander in November. The three are Larry Crim of Nashville, CEO of Christian Counseling Centers of America, Inc., and two Knoxville attorneys, Terry Adams, and Gordon Ball.

Crim ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in a 2012 race for the Senate seat held (and retained) by Bob Corker. Most party attention has focused on Adams and Ball.

Ball, a respected trial lawyer who has won huge judgments against corporations for malfeasance (and can largely self-finance a campaign) was the guest of a meet-and-greet affair in Memphis co-hosted last Thursday night by Jocelyn Wurzburg and Kemba Ford. Under attack in some party quarters for his past support of Republican candidates in East Tennessee (where, as he pointed out, Republicans are often the only choices on the ballot) and for his espousal of a flat tax, Ball endorsed consensus Democratic positions on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Adams was in Memphis on Friday for an evening hosted by the Rincon Strategy Group at Bar DKDC at Cooper and Young. Featuring an attack on economic inequality as a major theme (a fact he demonstrates by carrying the text of Thomas Piketty's currently modish Capital in the 21st Century on his cell phone), Adams seems to have the support of young Democrats calling themselves progressives.

Again, the good news for Democrats is that both Ball and Adams seemingly represent viable and credentialed alternatives to Alexander. The bad news is that Alexander, who has a well-stocked campaign war chest, is considered to have an enormous, even a prohibitive, lead over any Democrat.

The incumbent senator is now engaged in a primary campaign of his own against challengers including Republican State Representative Joe Carr of Lascasses, who hopes for Tea Party support, and George Flinn of Memphis, whose aim seems mainly that of popularizing his own approach to a national health-care plan to replace the Affordable Care Act.

Another Democrat venturing to run statewide is gubernatorial candidate John McKamey, a retired coach from Kingsport in East Tennessee, who has the formal support of the AFL-CIO. McKamey was headed to Memphis for an appearance before the Germantown Democrats this Wednesday night at Coletta's on Highway 64.

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