Ready to Rumble 

Shelby County’s Democrats touch all the bases — discord, harmony, and what-have-you — in a warm-up for the election year.

click to enlarge Judge Joe Brown makes his pitch at IBEW. - JB
  • JB
  • Judge Joe Brown makes his pitch at IBEW.

I'll say this for Shelby County's Democrats: If in the county elections of 2014 they should go down to another defeat like that of 2010, when the rival Republicans, representing a minority of the county's voters, swept all the contested races, it won't be for any lack of intensity.

There was more than enough of that to go around last Thursday night, when a lengthy list of candidates — declared, undeclared, likely, and unlikely — had a chance to address the local Democratic Party's executive committee at the IBEW Union Hall on Madison Avenue.

In a way, Thursday night's decidedly hurly-burly affair was a kind of segue from a previous party event.

Last month, when the Democrats had what appeared to be a successful Kennedy Day fund-raiser at the Bridges building downtown, a once and maybe future party politician rose up to interrupt what had been, up until then, serial recitations of the usual boilerplate and talking points and sounded a late note that was both jarring and curiously rousing.

It was Carol Chumney, a former state representative and Memphis Council member who felt that, in her last race two years ago for district attorney general, she had been deprived of the kind of party solidarity that might have given her a chance to win against incumbent Republican Amy Weirich.

"Let's stick together!" she demanded of her assembled party mates. But she didn't restrict herself to mere exhortations. She went so far as to call out one of the party's main men, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, who not only was in attendance but had played a major role at the fund-raising dinner, arranging the appearance of its keynoter, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee, a House colleague of Cohen's from California.

Cohen had introduced Lee, who responded to his flattering characterization of her with some kind words of her own, citing Cohen for his "tremendous leadership in Congress" and going on to say: "We know that he is a true champion for economic and social justice. And we know, all of us, we know in the House that we can count on Steve to be with us on behalf of what is just and what is fair and what is right and on behalf of his constituents. ... I can't think of a more loyal or stronger or smarter ally than Steve."

That was not how Chumney saw it. To her, Cohen was most remarkable for "Republi-Democrat" sentiments, by virtue of his having declined to endorse her candidacy against Weirich. "I think that very few people would say I was not qualified to be district attorney, but somehow one of our congressmen seemed to think that. He said he 'birthed' me, Congresswoman Lee!"

In deciding two years ago not to endorse her in the race for D.A., Cohen had indeed claimed, in what may have been an awkward attempt at a conciliatory grace note, to have midwifed Chumney's entry into public office. (Anybody who covered Chumney's successful 1990 race for state representative can attest to his daily omnipresence on her behalf in a crowded and contentious field.)

Between 1990 and 2012, clearly, the relationship had changed. And, in the immediate aftermath of Chumney's remarks, another Democrat, state Representative G.A. Hardaway — whose 2012 primary opponent, fellow state Representative Mike Kernell, a longtime Cohen ally, had won the congressman's endorsement — offered some payback of his own, referring in an email broadside to "treacherous political deeds" by Cohen and imputing to the congressman, routinely regarded as the most liberal Democrat in Tennessee, a previously unsuspected hand-in-glove relationship with Republicans.

Though most of that sound and fury had been, strictly speaking, more personal than political, the theme of party solidarity at all costs and outrage over potential apostasies carried over into last week's executive committee meeting.

Speaker after speaker trumpeted the theme, and several, like Coleman Thompson, once again a candidate for Shelby County register, an office that eluded him in 2010, stoked the lingering belief that the party's electoral wipe-out by the Republicans in 2010 had not been an honest result. "We caught them stealing," he insisted.

Nowhere was this alleged GOP perfidy more prominent than in a lengthy and impassioned philippic against local Republican-dom delivered by Judge Joe Brown, whose title derives both from his former service as a bona fide elected criminal court judge and his long run as a reality show judge adjudicating domestic disputes on television.

It was the latter experience more than the former that had whetted his talent for tough talk, and Brown dished out lots of it, naming names and speaking of "secret accounts," "differential vote counts," stolen elections, "extortion," sneaking privatization of public business, even a conspiracy to undermine traffic safety on the A.W. Willis bridge. Brown's charges prompted voices in his audience to cry out, "Teach!"

Brown's bottom line, reinforced by the fact that his TV show has been discontinued: He has "not quite made up [his] mind" about running for D.A., to end what he had characterized as a reign of error and terror.

Chumney, who had widely been rumored to be eyeing another race for D.A. herself, but who had as of yet given no public indication of it, was on hand again, with a retooled version of her Kennedy Day speech, again calling for Democrats to be "united for the team" and this time citing city council members Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn as Democrats who had abandoned her in 2012 and supported her Republican opponent.

Cohen, who had made a point to greet Chumney cordially, was there to address the committee and was all high road, noting that he had become a ranking member (meaning lead Democrat) on the Constitution and Civil Justice subcommittee of the House Judiciary, recounting his efforts on behalf of voting rights and immigration legislation, and making a special appeal to President Obama to ameliorate unfair sentencing procedures for drug offenses.

The congressman was applauded, but so was the next speaker, attorney Ricky Wilkins, his announced opponent in this year's Democratic primary. Wilkins boasted of his South Memphis background and his 20 years of effort on behalf of improving public housing in Memphis, promising to bring the same degree of "compassion, energy, and fire" to Congress that he'd evinced in his law career, and making a point of pledging his loyalty in advance to this year's Democratic nominees.

There were other speakers — Adrienne Pakis-Gillon, for example, on the need to oppose anti-abortion legislation in Nashville, and Councilman Lee Harris on putting an end to the lockout of employees at Kellogg. But it was the evidence of intense intra-party rivalries in this year's primaries, coupled with the near-paradoxical demand for party unity (party chairman Bryan Carson announced that disloyalty would "not be tolerated"), which animated the evening and bespoke the revved-up nature of local Democratic ambitions this year.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the party's hopes of recapturing the office of Shelby County mayor from Republican incumbent Mark Luttrell.

The Democrats' committee meeting had begun with statements from four mayoral hopefuls, all with established names and ambitions.

Shelby County Commission Chairman James Harvey offered "leadership at another level" and promised "stability." Former commissioner and previous mayoral candidate Deidre Malone — making, as she proudly noted, her second try — rejoiced that "we have a Democratic primary."  

County Commissioner Steve Mulroy touted his "core set of principles" and said, "I'm a real Democrat, and I can win." And well-known minister and former school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. brandished some stirring populist oratory, boasted his role in defeating the last sales- tax referendum, and asked the audience to help him decide whether or not to run.

Whatever happens in the May 6th countywide primaries (for which next week's February 20th filing deadline is imminent) or on August 7th, date of the county general election as well as state and federal primaries, or on November 4th, election day for state and federal offices, last week's Democratic meeting provided ample energy and abundant foreshadowing.

Discord and harmony, rowdiness and composure, affection and displeasure, logic and libido — all were present in equal and co-existent measure. The only given in the mix was that Shelby County Democrats aren't likely to sit this one out.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this column had indicated that Deidre Malone had made two previous runs for county mayor. She has only made one to date; her current race is her second effort.

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