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VOL. 128 | NO. 49 | Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Johnican Practiced Political Art of Coalition

By Bill Dries

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Minerva Johnican practiced the art of the coalition in a political career that spanned more than 40 years.

The former Shelby County Commissioner, Memphis City Council member and Criminal Court Clerk Minerva died Friday, March 8, at Methodist University Hospital at the age of 74.

Funeral arrangements were pending Monday afternoon.

Johnican was a groundbreaking politician who was the first African-American to win an at-large or citywide seat on the Memphis City Council in the 1983 city elections. She served on the city council after having been elected in 1975 to the Shelby County Commission, another first for a black woman.

Johnican lost the county commission seat after crossing the Ford political organization by running against U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. in the 1980 Democratic primary. Ford backed Julian Bolton in a challenge of Johnican for her commission seat in 1982 and Bolton won with help from state Representative John Spence. Johnican then backed Republican Karen Williams in a challenge of Spence for the Midtown State House seat that he held. Williams won the 1982 general election.

Johnican served one term on the Memphis City Council before running for mayor in 1987 and finishing second to incumbent Dick Hackett, who won without a runoff.

Minerva Johnican, former Shelby County Commissioner, Memphis City Council member and Criminal Court Clerk, died Friday, March 8, at Methodist University Hospital. She was 74. Her political career spanned more than 40 years.

She returned to the ballot in 1990 running for the open Criminal Court Clerk’s position and winning.

It was the last election for the post before the dawn of partisan primaries in Shelby County elections.

While Johnican was a Democrat and identified herself as a Democrat, her key to victory had always been in building coalitions across party lines. Until the clerk’s race, she had held seats on legislative bodies.

Four years after claiming the clerk’s office, Johnican was upset by Republican nominee Bill Key as she sought re-election. Key capitalized on problems in the clerk’s office during Johnican’s tenure.

Johnican withdrew from politics as a candidate although she continued to work in a number of campaigns.

She backed various candidates for office, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen. Her name turned up regularly on the campaign finance reports of various candidates who hired a group of campaign poll workers she supervised over the years.

She returned to the ballot in 2010 as the Democratic nominee for Criminal Court Clerk losing to Republican nominee Kevin Key, the son of Bill Key.

Johnican’s achievements in winning election to the city council and county commission were cited in the legal arguments in 1991 that led to the Memphis federal court decision abolishing the city runoff provision.

The provision required the top two vote getters in a city election to run against each other in a runoff if no candidate got a majority of the votes.

Plaintiffs in the 1990 federal court lawsuit claimed the intent and effect of the provision was to make it unlikely that black contenders could ever win the six at large seats on the council or the mayor’s office or any other citywide office.

Johnican’s achievement was evidence of how unlikely that was.

In the special mayoral election in 1982, a year before Johnican’s election to the council, city council member and interim mayor J.O. Patterson, the city’s first black mayor, had finished first in the mayor’s race, ahead of Dick Hackett. But because neither got a majority of the votes, Patterson and Hackett advanced to a runoff where Hackett won.

Memphis Federal Court Judge Jerome Turner abolished the runoff provision in advance of the 1991 city elections in which Willie Herenton became the city’s first elected African-American mayor.

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