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VOL. 123 | NO. 171 | Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gatewood’s Ballot Fate May Be Decided Today

By Bill Dries

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MAKING A PLEA: Memphis City Schools board member Stephanie Gatewood made her case to the Shelby County Election Commission last week. She could find out today if she will be allowed a place on the Nov. 4 ballot. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

What if there was an election and no one was on the ballot?

That is the prospect the Shelby County Election Commission will address at a special meeting this afternoon.

Local election officials disqualified Memphis City Schools board member Stephanie Gatewood from running for re-election on the Nov. 4 ballot because she failed to file a campaign finance report by the Aug. 21 qualifying deadline for school board candidates. Gatewood had no challengers.

At its meeting today, election commissioners hope to have some word from state Election Coordinator Brook Thompson in Nashville about how to proceed. Commissioners delayed certifying an empty field for the race last week in order to get a specific ruling from the state.

Confusion

Election commissioners couldn’t recall another instance where a local general election race had no candidates on the ballot.

Election Commissioner Shep Wilbun described the situation as “uncharted waters.”

“That raises some unusual circumstances that we generally have not faced before,” Wilbun said. “That gives me great concern where there’s no candidate listed in the race at all.”

This is what happened:

Gatewood had an existing campaign account from her 2007 run for the Memphis City Council. She received a campaign contribution for $45, which she wasn’t required to report because it was less than $100. She did anyway, and it triggered the requirement for a finance report due in July and for purposes of running for another office, even re-election to the school board, due before the filing deadline for that next run. In this case, the deadline was Aug. 21.

“I wanted to ensure that I filed everything that came to me,” Gatewood told The Daily News. “So being as honest as I can be, I opened it back up not realizing that I had to file yet another mid-year report. If I had opened this up in December, I wouldn’t have had to file a mid-year report.”

Gatewood filed her report Wednesday.

Election Commission Administrator James Johnson said notices of the report and its due date were mailed to Gatewood. Gatewood said she didn’t get them. She also said she hasn’t been fined by the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

Whether the lack of a fine makes a difference will be one of the points on which state election officials will offer an opinion.

Rule for everyone

Johnson said the Election Commission did make exceptions to the report deadlines until a precedent-setting 2005 Chancery Court ruling involving Michael Hooks Sr.

Hooks, then a member of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners running in the Democratic primary for the state Senate, took the Election Commission to court after they disqualified him because of overdue campaign finance reports.

Chancellor Arnold Goldin ordered Hooks put on the ballot because the Election Commission had been inconsistent in enforcing the rule on overdue reports. Since then, Johnson said, local election officials have been careful to enforce the rule evenly.

The initial opinion from state officials on including Thompson last week was that Gatewood had failed to meet the deadline and should be disqualified as a candidate.

“It’s not for the Election Commission to decide,” advised Assistant Shelby County Attorney Christy Kinard.

Primary elections with no candidate are common especially in races for the Tennessee Legislature where the incumbent is a member of the opposing party.

But a general election is another matter.

Johnson said he and his staff have until later this week before they must lay out and print ballots and prepare them for mailing to absentee voters and voters from Memphis in the military.

Should Gatewood not go on the ballot, Friday also is the deadline for her to notify election officials of her intent to run as a write-in candidate in the race.

A write-in candidacy is her other option in the matter. It’s also an option for any other voter who lives in the Frayser-Raleigh district.

Virtually every race on the ballot draws a dozen to several dozen write-in votes that have no impact on the outcome of the election. But a valid write-in candidacy requires notifying election officials.

If no certified write-in candidate emerges, the school board could appoint a new District 1 representative to serve until a special election could be held within 45 days.

Meanwhile, the Election Commission has certified the fields in the four other Memphis school board races. There is a three-candidate race for At-Large Position 1. Incumbent Freda Williams faces challenges from Menelik Fombi and Cynthia Gentry.

The other three school board races were effectively decided at the deadline as incumbents Jeff Warren, Tomeka Hart and Patrice Robinson drew no opposition in their individual races.

RECORD TOTALS DAY WEEK YEAR
PROPERTY SALES 57 280 1,209
MORTGAGES 55 244 916
FORECLOSURE NOTICES 8 52 151
BUILDING PERMITS 158 699 2,751
BANKRUPTCIES 37 157 618
BUSINESS LICENSES 12 77 276
UTILITY CONNECTIONS 0 0 0
MARRIAGE LICENSES 0 0 0