VOL. 129 | NO. 159 | Friday, August 15, 2014
Democrats Struggle With Generation Gap
By Bill Dries
Memphis Democrats don’t agree on a whole lot these days, especially since the Aug. 7 county general elections in which Democratic nominees lost to Republicans in all but one race – Shelby County assessor, won by the lone countywide Democratic incumbent, Cheyenne Johnson.
Members of the party don’t agree on who is a real Democrat, tactics, issues of race and its relationship to political power, and the basic nature of party unity.
But those are symptoms of a larger problem that all political parties have at one time or another.
Democrats have a generation gap. And it doesn’t always correspond to the age of candidates.
It’s what Lee Harris, the Memphis City Council member who upset incumbent Democratic state Sen. Ophelia Ford in the District 29 Senate primary, calls “old guard” versus “new guard.”
“The new guard and old guard in Memphis have been in conflict for a long time. It’s been a struggle and an epic struggle,” he said, citing the challenge in the Democratic Congressional primary to incumbent Steve Cohen. “Ricky Wilkins had to wait until he was 50 years old to run for office. What’s that about? We call him new guard. That’s not how it works in other cities. … That’s not how it should work in Memphis.”
Harris includes Wilkins because like Harris and Van Turner, who is one of seven newly elected county commissioners from the August elections, Wilkins was born and raised in Memphis, went away to college and law school, then returned to Memphis with a commitment to get involved politically and professionally.
Turner, like Harris, went to Morehouse College in Atlanta and from there to law school.
“I sort of saw firsthand how many individuals who were not born or raised in Atlanta, but had come to Atlanta to attend college, stayed and got involved in the community and in politics,” Turner said of his experience. “And I saw the difference it made.”
He wanted to apply that to Memphis, acknowledging it would involve a different dynamic.
“Memphis is a little tighter. It’s a little more close-knit, I would say, than Atlanta and some other cities,” he said. “I think having the ability to say that you were born and raised here means a lot. Allowing talent and allowing folks who ordinarily haven’t been involved in the political process to be involved is good, as well.”
Harris is blunter.
“The more senior folks around Memphis – they held onto their seats tooth and nail. I love them to death. … But Memphis, unlike other cities – we have not done a good job of training the bench,” he said. “The folks like Van and me and others are kind of self-taught in a lot of ways. We’ve had to do it on our own.”
Harris thinks the “new guard” in both parties made some important gains in the election, including his victory and Turner’s, as well as the re-election of Republican County Commissioner Steve Basar – who, like Harris on the council, won an interim seat on the commission in 2011.
“I think we are seeing a shift,” Harris said. “We’re going to see a transformative change on the County Commission. We’ve seen that on the Shelby County Schools board. With any luck, we’ll see it on the City Council and we are going to see it in the mayor’s office.”
City of Memphis elections are on the ballot in 2015.
But Turner, who was Shelby County Democratic Party chairman in 2010 when Republicans swept every countywide office on the ballot, said Democrats are still debating balance.
“The argument has come to turning out the base of Democrats as opposed to seeking crossover support from those who would not consider themselves part of the Democratic base,” he said. “I think with this new generation of leadership, it’s about doing both. You have to give your base – your core Democrats – red meat. But you can’t do that to the exclusion of allowing yourself to be attractive to crossover support. There’s a way to do it.”
The Wilkins-Cohen matchup generated so much heat that it’s a controversial choice for an old guard-new guard referendum. Each accused the other of running a campaign based on race. And each denied bringing race into the campaign.
Cohen, the winner, who advances to the November general election against Republican Charlotte Bergmann, said again this week his victory was a rejection of race as a determining factor in elections.
“He was a very appealing candidate,” Harris said of Wilkins. “But I think without a voting record against a candidate who has a voting record, who has proven himself time and time again to be a real progressive – I think that’s an uphill match.”