Two Parties Go Different Directions on Naming Trustee Candidates 

Acting Shelby County Trustee Paul Mattila, a Democrat, said Friday he had “no problem” with the decision Thursday night by the Shelby County Democratic Party’s executive committee to withhold nominating a candidate for the August general election ballot until a wide-open party convention later this month.

“I knew I’d have to work for it, anyhow,” said Mattila, who was appointed Trustee last month by majority vote of the Shelby County Commission. There had been some speculation that Mattila, a longtime aide to the late Trustee Bob Patterson, might be nominated as the Democratic candidate by the executive committee itself, but a party committee recommended the convention process instead.

The convention will be held on March 29 at Airways Middle School.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Republican Party‘s steering committee, also meeting on Thursday night, resolved to appoint a GOP nominee at a meeting of the steering committee on April 1.

Both parties face the nomination process with a measure of uncertainty. As has usually been the case over the years, the Democrats simmer with factionalism, based party on the racial divide and partly on what has been a rough tri-partite division of the party apparatus between a group loyal to Shelby County Commissioner and ex-Teamster leader Sidney Chism, one corresponding to the old Ford political organization, and another composed of members of Mid-South Democrats in Action and other relatively new organizations.

Then there is Del Gill, a perpetual party-of-one who unsuccessfully challenged the county commission’s right to name a successor to Patterson and had demanded a fully-fledged primary election instead. Gill has made a point of challenging Mattila’s bona fides and was among those agitating for a convention.

Gill came to Thursday night’s meeting armed with a panoply of formal motions but was largely held at bay by party vice chair Desi Franklin, who was subbing for chairman Keith Norman. The chairman is a Baptist minister whose frequent absences and what some consider a pro forma leadership style have upset executive committee members across the factional divides. So far, though, no candidate to unseat Norman at next month’s party reorganization meeting has yet emerged.

The Republicans, too, have divisions -- a fact underscored by last year’s steering-committee decision to endorse mayoral candidate John Willingham in the Memphis city election. The bare majority favoring Willingham against a non-endorsement option was largely composed of conservative members from the suburbs and outer Shelby County -- an irony pointed out by Memphians on the committee. Willingham would go on to finish a distant fourth in the mayor’s race, earning just over a thousand votes overall.

How the Republican divide will play into the selection of a party candidate is hard to predict. Debra Gates, chief administrator in the Trustee’s office, had been backed by most Republicans on the commission during the appointment process but has indicated she has no interest in running for the office. Some Republicans wondered if Mattila, who has friends across party lines, might be willing to run under their label but were rebuffed by the acting Trustee, a lifelong Democrat.

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