VOL. 7 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 2, 2014
By Bill Dries
It could have been an election about the local criminal justice system. The set of once-every-eight-years judicial races was the perfect frame for competitive races for district attorney general and juvenile court judge as the main events.
Then again, the Aug. 7 ballot could have been about change vs. consistency, with the 2010 Republican sweep of every countywide office as a reference point.
Or the election could have been about education and the schools demerger, two-party balance or simply higher voter turnout as a move toward more political involvement.
At the outset, any election is about possibilities, yet they rarely make solid contact with those possibilities.
This is an election season in which few possibilities for a larger context or cause had survived past the start of early voting despite, or maybe because of, the many possibilities on a ballot with 263 candidates and 150 races. It is the longest ballot of any election cycle in Shelby County politics.
As election day neared, the race for district attorney general between incumbent Republican Amy Weirich and Democratic challenger Joe Brown that Democrats had touted as the race that would propel a larger Democratic turnout was all but over.
Brown was briefly jailed at the outset of the campaign season for contempt of court in a Juvenile Court confrontation in which he put to the test long-held theories about the way the court could and could not operate. Those theories, including that a Juvenile Court magistrate had no power to jail anyone for contempt of court, were all proven wrong.
Brown had already been talking more about Juvenile Court than the race he was a candidate in. He also talked about being drafted to run and lead the local Democratic party. Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson had to explain the difference between being at the top of the party’s ticket and leading the party.
In one rambling campaign speech, Brown even devoted five minutes or so to an explanation of why the ratings for his nationally syndicated court television show were actually higher than those of the rival “Judge Judy” show.
As Carson reined in Brown’s larger political role, Brown disappeared to such an extent that Carson felt compelled to remind Democrats that Brown was still a candidate. That’s when Brown re-emerged to allege that Weirich’s husband and children had moved out of their home because of Weirich’s sexual orientation. None of that was true.
But Brown repeated it several more times, saying his point was that Weirich had condemned Democratic challenger Carol Chumney for the same thing two years ago and that he didn’t have anything against those who are gay.
“Just don’t get too damn close to me,” he added at a forum in Boxtown after using the word “freak” to describe gays at an earlier forum.
Again, nothing in that version was true. Chumney has been vocal earlier this year about what went wrong in her 2012 campaign. And it wasn’t Weirich. It was a lack of support from her own party.
Meanwhile, Democratic nominee Deidre Malone has waged a tough, durable challenge of incumbent Republican mayor Mark Luttrell in a head-on challenge of Luttrell’s record and urban versus suburban priorities, which Luttrell is touting just as vigorously.
And the nonpartisan Juvenile Court judge’s race between Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon and Juvenile Court chief magistrate Dan Michael emerged as the best of the five judicial races on the ballot with no incumbent seeking re-election. It helped that despite the lack of a party primary, Democrats were solidly behind Sugarmon and Republicans solidly behind Michael. And in between is the ongoing discussion about reforms at the court that will continue no matter who wins.
The critical question to be answered in the vote totals is whether those two contests can rise above the larger partisan tides.
Republicans are the incumbent this year in all but two of the countywide partisan races, making complacency their challenge.
But the tenor of Brown’s campaign as well as the myriad troubles of Henri Brooks, the Democratic nominee for Juvenile Court clerk, may be helping the Republican ticket on that front.
Weirich, Luttrell and incumbent Republican Sheriff Bill Oldham have been emphasizing stability while avoiding any rhetoric suggesting they are resistant to further change or the recognition of existing problems.
Oldham faces Democratic challenger Bennie Cobb in a race in which some prominent Democrats announced early on they were backing Cobb.
In Memphis last month, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam couldn’t help doing what incumbents with an easier summer election season do. He noticed that Luttrell had lost some weight, touting an “incredibly effective weight loss program.” The program, he concluded, is “campaigning.”
Haslam is campaigning too, with television ads hitting the local airwaves just before early voting began. The pitch is more an effort to keep Republican turnout up for others in the GOP tent locally. Whoever wins the Democratic primary for governor will not be a candidate recruited by the state Democratic party establishment and Haslam has only token opposition in his own primary.
The statewide primary race at center stage this election season is the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate between Knoxville attorneys Gordon Ball and Terry Adams. Ball and Adams have spent a lot of time in Memphis, four years after Haslam and his two rivals for the GOP nomination for governor devoted the same kind of face time and other campaign resources to Memphis and Shelby County.
Meanwhile, the two other races that have emerged as the most competitive are also Democratic primary contests.
The Democratic congressional primary between incumbent Steve Cohen and challenger Ricky E. Wilkins is the most formidable challenge Cohen has faced since winning the open 9th District seat in 2006. And Wilkins has pulled it off by matching Cohen’s campaign energy level despite being outspent by Cohen. Wilkins has also framed his challenge better than previous challengers igniting a spirited and indirect debate between the two about the role of a congressman.
It has also highlighted a generational divide among Democrats in which Wilkins and Cohen have offered dramatically different backgrounds and experiences in pursuit of many of the same political goals.
Winning the Democratic primary in the 9th District is tantamount to winning the seat outright. It has been a Democratic seat since 1975 when Harold Ford Sr. upset Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall. And Ford always faced his most formidable opposition in the primary.
The other primary contest on the August ballot with broader political implications is the state Senate District 29 Democratic primary between incumbent Ophelia Ford and challenger Lee Harris, who was elected to the Memphis City Council in 2011.
Harris thought long and hard before following through in a challenge for a seat held by a member of the Ford family since 1975, when John Ford, her brother, claimed the seat the same night in 1974 that Harold Ford Sr. won the congressional seat from Kuykendall and their brother Emmitt Ford won the state House seat Harold Ford gave up to run for Congress.
Ophelia Ford’s poor attendance record and lack of visibility in the district is a factor in the 2014 campaign with little indication at least after the start of early voting that there would be any kind of Ford family push.
She claimed the seat following John Ford’s 2005 resignation as he faced federal corruption charges in Memphis and Nashville. In the 2005 special elections for the seat, Ophelia Ford won the Democratic primary by only 12 votes. That was followed by a contested 13-vote victory in the general election.
Among the “one-ofs” on the August ballot, the Shelby County Schools board expands from seven members to nine members once the votes are counted and the winners take office Sept. 1. The school board that results will represent districts that take in the city of Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County but not the six suburban towns and cities in Shelby County, which elected their own school boards last year to go with the municipal school districts they formed that begin classes Aug. 4.
In order to stagger the terms of Shelby County Schools board members, as required by state law, two of the nine school board seats are not on the ballot this year. Some of the school board positions that are on the ballot are for shortened one-time-only terms while others are for a full four-year term of office.
It is the third set of changes in the structure of the school board in three years. In that time, the merged city-county school district has had a 23-member transitional board and then gone to a seven-member countywide board with plans for a 13-member board that were scrapped when the Shelby County Commission instead approved a nine-member school board.
Elections for the Shelby County Commission are a regular part of the election cycle, but the commission districts change dramatically on Sept. 1 when the winners of the 13 races take office. They will represent and are running in single-member districts, which replace current set of one single-member district and four districts from which voters in past elections elected three representatives per district.
The office of assessor is on the 2014 ballot, the first time the office has been in the election cycle that includes the big ballot. The office had been part of the other much smaller county election cycle that included General Sessions Court clerk. The assessor’s office was moved with 2008 county charter changes approved by voters leaving the clerk’s position as the only county office in the other election cycle.