Redistricting Revisited 

How the switch from large to small commission district is — or isn’t — affecting selected races.

As the filing deadline of February 20th for races on this year's May 6th county primary ballot creeps ever closer, the effects of the Shelby County Commission's much fought-over reapportionment, post-2010 census, are worth a cursory look.

District 1: One of the nearly forgotten showdowns of the last few years was that between Millington Republican Terry Roland and the rest of the GOP membership of the commission over the issue of redistricting.

click to enlarge Terry Roland - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Terry Roland

Roland's preference for a limited, preferably Millington-based district in which to seek reelection was stoutly resisted by other Republicans on the commission, who preferred continuation of a large, multi-member district in the suburbs. It culminated in a wild night at a Collierville Republicans Club meeting in January 2012.

Roland, who was being heckled mercilessly by his party colleagues as he advanced his small-district thesis, began to back up a point with an anecdote concerning his father when he thought he heard his filial sentiments being mocked by fellow commissioner, Chris Thomas. "If you say anything, I'll knock you out of that chair," Roland responded, as Thomas protested that he was being misconstrued.

The meeting resumed after that flurry, but then-Commissioner Wyatt Bunker reacted to Roland's threat by calling the police, who showed up just as the meeting was breaking up. No action was taken, especially since tempers had cooled by that time, but this reporter had captured Roland's threat on video, and, when posted online, it went viral.

That was then. This is now, when the redistricting matter, which would simmer for several months longer, has been resolved in favor of a 13-member single-member system.

Of Roland's active GOP antagonists back then, Brent Taylor, who was serving an interim term, and Bunker, who left after election as Lakeland's mayor, are gone. Thomas, while serving out his commission term, is concerned with new duties as Lakeland city manager. Only Heidi Shafer, running for reelection like Roland, is likely to be around for awhile.

Ironically, Roland, who had disliked the notion of having to face a threat to his reelection from any of several rumored opponents from elsewhere in suburbia, got the smaller district he wanted, but finds that he has a primary opponent, anyhow. This is Dennis Daugherty, a Memphis firefighter who resides in Arlington and picked up enough signs of support on the commission during a recent bid for the vacant commission seat later won by Mark Billingsley to suggest he could become the beneficiary of whatever anti-Roland sentiment there might be in District 1.

Meanwhile, Shafer, a dedicated sparring partner of Roland's during the reapportionment dispute, when she vehemently opposed single districts, has, so far at least, no Republican primary opponent to worry about in her new District 5, though Tanya Bartee, a Democrat, has pulled a petition.

Another incumbent commissioner who was also seriously disinclined to accept a single-member-district format, is Justin Ford, who during the reapportionment debate, tended to side with the commission's Republicans in defending the principle of large, sprawling multi-member districts.

Indeed, for a while, his "Ford plan" for achieving that result had the support of the GOP majority. But his motive for keeping to the large-district format differed from theirs, which was, rightly or wrongly, attributed by Democratic Commissioner Steve Mulroy, a single-district proponent, to a desire for "incumbency protection" by discouraging newcomers' election efforts in a sprawling land mass.

As Ford explained it recently, his case was one of wanting the largest possible scope for his local constituency. He is a Ford, after all, and, as such, has ambitions for higher office down the line. (The Ninth District congressional seat currently held by Steve Cohen is something he has his eye on.)

The larger district, the better for springboard purposes. And sharing it with other commissioners, as the large-district format required, was no problem.

But the single-district format prevailed, and, as previously noted in this space, Ford has a fight on his hands in the new Commission District 9 against three Democrats with public names of their own — former school board member Patrice Robinson, current Memphis-Shelby County Education Association President Keith Williams, and veteran educator and frequent candidate James O. Catchings.  

Several of the new single-member districts, however, not only involve new lines encompassing smaller constituencies, but new faces, at least new to the commission grid.

In District 3, for example, centered on the suburb of Bartlett, no fewer than three seemingly credentialed Republicans have pulled petitions to contest what is one of several open seats.

Kelly Price, the African-American proprietor of the Memphis Entrepreneurship Academy, is one petititon puller; two others, Shelby County Schools board member David Reaves, and Sherry Simmons, a longtime local educator and GOP activist, have already filed — a circumstance making for an interesting one-on-one even if Price ultimately stays out of it — especially as Simmons will have the assitance of her husband, Bartlett alderman Bobby Simmons.

More on these and other developing commission races anon.

• A circumstance that has much distressed local Democrats was the 2010 Shelby County election, in which party candidates — though in theory representing a larger constituency — were completely routed by the Republican slate. Many Democrats continue to suspect hanky-panky in that race, though it is more likely that the chief factor driving the GOP margin of victory was a spirited three-way race for governor in the Republican statewide primary, which coincided with the county general election.

Nothing like that will be the case this time, inasmuch as neither Democrats nor Republicans will apparently have a high-stakes primary going on leading up to the statewide primary/county general election date of August 7th.

Though it may not have a perceptible down-ballot effect on other county primary races (or on August 7th voting), the Democrats will apparently have a decent turnout on the May 6th primary date.

That is due to what is shaping up as a lively Democratic primary for county mayor. Filing on Monday was former county Commissioner Deidre Malone, whose two terms on the commission, prominence in local affairs, and previous race for county mayor in the 2010 primary definitely give her viability.

But also on Monday, county Commissioner Steve Mulroy picked up a petition, presenting Malone with the prospect of one able primary opponent, while two more, current commission Chairman James Harvey and former Shelby County Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., had already drawn petitions.

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