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VOL. 129 | NO. 51 | Friday, March 14, 2014

McCusker Aims for Criminal Court Clerk

By Bill Dries

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Michael McCusker is used to the assumptions when the assistant district attorney general tells voters he is running for office this year.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

“A lot of people keep saying to me, ‘Wouldn’t judge be a natural progression for you?’ In some respects it would be,” admitted McCusker, who is instead running in the May Democratic primary for Criminal Court clerk.

McCusker points to his 13 years as a prosecutor and his 21 years in the U.S. Army, where he retired as a major as the reason he is going for the clerk’s office in the only countywide race in which an incumbent is not seeking re-election.

“The office needs that leadership. They need to have a vision for modernizing,” McCusker said. “They need to have a vision for helping the people who I work with day after day in the Criminal Court Clerk’s office.”

Republican incumbent Kevin Key is not seeking re-election after pulling a qualifying petition earlier this year but not filing. Richard DeSaussure, the chief administrator of the office under Key, is running unopposed in the May Republican primary and automatically advances to the August county general election.

McCusker is one of four Democrats running in the May primary to advance to the same general election.

The other Democratic primary contenders are Memphis City Council member Wanda Halbert, City Court Clerk Thomas Long and the Rev. Ralph White, pastor of Bloomfield Baptist Church.

McCusker says the fines and court costs that the office is tasked with collecting can keep citizens trapped by the criminal justice system even when they want to do the right thing.

“Once you go through the system and you’re in the system, as your case progresses you develop court costs and fines as a result of having charges,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are stuck in that system who desperately want to get out of it, who desperately want to improve their lives and put this period of their struggles behind them. And we have them saddled with court costs and fines. It makes it difficult.”

McCusker emphasized that he is not advocating doing away with fines and court costs.

“Those are vital to the system because that’s how you fund the criminal justice system to make sure we can pay for the people who run it. But what we need to do is have a broader vision of how do we help those people who are in the system struggling to get out of the system?” he added. “How do we help those people who are in this system struggling to get out of the system – how do we help them understand why it’s important to meet their financial obligations to the system? And how can we build in incentives to help them do that so they can get free of the system?”

McCusker sees the Clerk’s office as a possible point at which all parts of the system can come together on possible changes.

“My current office does a lot of work in the community,” he said. “Public defenders who work in the system day after day after day see the problems that they face in representing their clients. Probation officers, both private and state, constantly see the problem.

“What we need ultimately is a dialogue on what is the better way to approach criminal justice in our system and how can we find common ground for the courts, the prosecutors, the public defenders, the probation officers – all those people involved in the equation.”

While the fields for the May primary races are set, three weeks remain to file qualifying petitions for the August nonpartisan and judicial races as well as the primaries for state and federal offices.

Action in pulling petitions and filing them has slowed to a trickle in March compared to January and February.

The Republican primary race for state Senate District 31 is the exception. Since March 5, three potential challengers to Republican incumbent Brian Kelsey have pulled qualifying petitions. But Jeremy Pflug, Stephen Russell and Jim Tomasik had not filed as of late Wednesday, March 12, according to Shelby County Election Commission records. Kelsey filed for re-election at the end of January.

Russell is an attorney and financial planner at Legacy Wealth Management. Tomasik ran as a Libertarian candidate in the 2013 special election for state House District 91.

Hilman D. Thompson has pulled a petition to run in the Democratic primary for state House District 96, the seat now held by Republican Steve McManus, who is seeking re-election.

Attorney Robert A. Wampler has pulled a petition to run for Circuit Court Division 2, in which incumbent Judge James F. Russell has filed for re-election and challenger Kevin E. Reed has also filed.

Attorney Damita Dandridge has filed for Division 1 Probate Court judge, where incumbent Judge Kathleen Gomes is seeking a full eight-year term.

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