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VOL. 128 | NO. 52 | Friday, March 15, 2013

Three-Way Race for Local Democratic Leadership

By Bill Dries

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Local Democrats gather Saturday, March 16, for what is already a high-profile race for the chairmanship of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

A straw poll earlier this month at an Overton Square bar featured several dozen teenagers bused in by one of the three contenders that has triggered an investigation by Memphis City Schools officials of the “field trip.”

Shelby County Democrats begin the process of selecting a new party chairman this weekend. Some partisans met earlier this month to vote in a $10-a-ballot straw poll in Overton Square that was won by contender Bryan Carson. (Photo: Bill Dries)

The three declared contenders are Jennings Barnard, Bryan Carson and Terry Spicer. They are vying to succeed attorney Van Turner, who is not seeking another term of chairman.

Turner, in four years as chairman, saw the party through the re-election of Barack Obama as president as well as the rest of the state’s growth as a Republican state while Memphis remained a Democratic stronghold.

He also saw his party’s ticket in the 2010 county elections lose every countywide race to Republicans. The two Democratic contenders for countywide office in the 2012 elections did win.

The three contenders for chairman will each work Saturday to deliver large numbers of supporters to the caucuses at Airways Middle School that are divided based on state House districts. The turnout in the caucuses determines whose supporters will be delegates to the county party convention, also at Airways Middle, on April 6.

At the convention, those delegates will elect the new chairman, other local party officers as well as members of the party’s executive committee.

The mix of different supporters usually amounts to critical head counts that lead to matter-of-fact voting with little in the way of efforts to try to convert supporters of rival candidates. The caucuses as well as the convention are about political math and turnout, not political conversions.

“I have, as they say, paid my dues in many ways,” said Bernard, one of the contenders who has run for elected office several times over the years.

“I’ve been on a million ballots. We are in trouble as Democrats. We are so divided.”

Carson, an executive committee member for four years as well as parliamentarian, also talked of better “unifying” the Democratic vote locally.

“Thirty-three percent of the Democratic vote in the state’s 95 counties comes from Shelby County,” Carson said at the straw poll event. “That being said, we only hold two of the countywide offices. Why is that? The math doesn’t add up.”

Carson said the next chairman’s job is preparing for the 2014 county elections in Shelby County – the longest ballot of any election cycle in local politics because it includes judicial elections that are only on the ballot once every eight years.

Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Justin Joy, who will be seeking another term at the March 24 local Republican convention, has also identified the 2014 ballot as a priority for his party.

Joy has talked of “growing” the local Republican Party.

Carson talked of local Democratic leadership getting reconnected with the Democratic base on a grassroots level.

Spicer pitched his organizational skills and touted himself as “bold new leadership.”

Spicer ushered the group of teenagers into the bar for the straw poll and just as quickly ushered them out once a bar manager raised objections. The two busloads may have galvanized Carson’s supporters in particular in advance of the convention.

Spicer’s most recent political venture was managing Lee Harris’ successful 2011 bid for the Memphis City Council. Before that, Spicer was president of Shelby County Young Democrats.

Spicer touted his business background as owner of a Mrs. Fields cookies franchise at the old Mall of Memphis where he once worked as a teenager and combining it with other franchises.

“In the end this is all about unifying the party in 2014,” Spicer said. “My skill set of organizing people, building a campaign headquarters and raising capital, it comes natural for me. … I am prepared to take the helm with a passion.”

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