VOL. 129 | NO. 154 | Friday, August 8, 2014
Democratic Divide Widens in Election Results
By Bill Dries
Democrats have retained their seven-vote majority on the new single-district Shelby County Commission that takes office Sept. 1.
With a 27 percent turnout Thursday, Shelby County voters continued the dominance of Republicans in countywide offices and retained the seven-vote Democratic majority on the restructured County Commission.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
That and the re-election victory of Democratic incumbent Cheyenne Johnson in the race for Shelby County Assessor of Property were the only bright spots for a divided local Democratic Party that lost every other countywide partisan elected position to Republicans in the Aug. 7 county general election, just as they lost every countywide position to Republicans four years earlier.
The races for assessor and district attorney general were not on the 2010 ballot.
The Republican incumbents, led by County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Sheriff Bill Oldham and District Attorney General Amy Weirich, waged a different campaign than in 2010 because Republicans were the incumbents this time around. Their biggest fear was Republican complacency that can settle in with incumbency.
But almost from the outset, the fears of complacency were offset by repeated high-profile faux pas by Democratic nominee for district attorney general Joe Brown and Democratic nominee for Juvenile Court clerk Henri Brooks, who were each jailed during the campaign on unrelated charges – Brown for contempt of court and Brooks on an assault warrant.
Their conduct and rhetoric beyond that, which in Brown’s case included repeatedly alleging Weirich’s husband and children had left her over her sexual orientation – none of which was true – emboldened the Republican campaigns.
The conduct was especially harmful in the case of Brown, whose celebrity as host of a popular nationally syndicated courtroom show was touted early on by party leaders as a way to pump up turnout.
The party came to rely on that celebrity, then splintered as others on the Democratic ticket sought to maintain an arm’s length distance from Brown without disowning him publicly.
Any semblance of remaining Democratic unity then fractured further with several endorsement ballots, including two that surfaced on election day that appeared to be the local party’s slate of candidates but weren’t.
Another endorsement ballot on election day was billed as the Harold Ford Sr. ballot and put out by the former congressman’s son, Jake Ford, and his nephew, county commissioner Justin Ford. The elder Ford hired an attorney and got a court order with hours left to vote in an attempt to halt the distribution of the ballot, which endorsed Ricky Wilkins in his challenge of current Congressman Steve Cohen in the 9th District Democratic primary.
The Cohen-Wilkins primary race was part of the larger intra-party squabble over who could claim what endorsements and which ones were legitimate. The matchup was about more than that over the course of the summer. Wilkins had a sustained campaign effort that matched Cohen’s high energy level that none of Cohen’s other challengers in the primary have shown since he won the seat in 2006.
Wilkins also ran as a generationally different candidate than Cohen that resonated.
Cohen’s 2-to-1 margin over Wilkins to meet Republican challenger Charlotte Bergmann in November is a decisive margin. But the percentage was being watched closely by politicos with plenty of speculation that Wilkins may be back for another run at the seat in 2016.
The primary was decided fairly early in the Thursday evening vote count in which a quarter of a million votes had been counted statewide before the Shelby County Election Commission posted the first ones from the early voting period 45 minutes after the polls closed.
Harold Ford Sr.’s brief and indirect return to the political fray through his attorneys came 40 years to the week after he won the Democratic primary in what was then the 8th Congressional District. He went on to upset Republican Dan Kuykendall in the general election that November.
Ford was elected to Congress the same night in November 1974 that his brother Emmitt claimed the state House seat he gave up and his brother John won a seat in the state Senate.
The state Senate seat had been held by a Ford ever since, but that ended with Thursday’s results in the District 29 Democratic primary.
Incumbent Ophelia Ford, the sister of Harold Ford Sr. and John Ford, lost to Memphis City Council member Lee Harris.
Harris faces Republican nominee Jim Finney in the November general election.
Meanwhile, a new nine-member Shelby County Schools board with five returning incumbents from the current seven-member board takes the oath of office Sept. 1.
Incumbent Chris Caldwell won a repeat of his 2012 race against former school board member Freda Garner-Williams. He joins incumbents Billy Orgel and Shante Avant as well as Kevin Woods and Teresa Jones. The positions held by Woods and Jones were not up for election in 2014 as the restructured board again staggers members’ terms, as required by state law.
The four new board members include two familiar faces from local politics – former Memphis City Council member Scott McCormick and former state Rep. Mike Kernell. They join fellow new board members Miska Clay Bibbs and Stephanie Love.