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VOL. 7 | NO. 48 | Saturday, November 22, 2014

After the Campaign

Making sense of the election year that was in Shelby County

By Bill Dries

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The 2014 election year began in January with dissent from the floor.


At the end of the Shelby County Democratic Party’s annual Kennedy Day fundraiser in January, former Memphis City Council member and state Rep. Carol Chumney, who was not among the speakers, challenged the party establishment from her table to do more to support women running for office.

She complained of a lack of support in her 2012 bid for Shelby County district attorney general as the Democratic nominee. She also said Democratic women face a “glass ceiling” in seeking political office locally. She also called out U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen by name, among others, for not supporting her.

She did the same thing at least two more times at party gatherings and ultimately opted not to run for district attorney general again, then called off a later bid to become the party’s nominee in the November special general election for Jim Kyle’s state Senate seat.

Chumney’s remarks turned heads in a party looking for answers, if not unity.

Republican District Attorney General Amy Weirich, meanwhile, was bracing for a more competitive race in 2014 than the one Chumney gave her in 2012.

Former Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, who returned to Memphis after years in Los Angeles hosting the country’s second-most popular syndicated courtroom television program, was talking more about Memphis-Shelby County Juvenile Court than about a race for district attorney general.

Local Democratic Party leaders were ecstatic when Brown decided to back Memphis City Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon for Juvenile Court judge and challenged Weirich.

Their reasoning was Brown’s name recognition and celebrity from television. It was of little concern, at least initially, that he wandered in long speeches from topic to topic – including his battles over the years with the late Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Turner – and spent less time talking about the race for district attorney general.

Brown may have peaked early when he was arrested and taken to jail for a March appearance in Juvenile Court in which he insisted a magistrate judge did not have the authority to hear a case and could only fine him $10 for each contempt citation.

It turned out Magistrate Harold Horne could both cite him and jail him for contempt. But the arrest seemed to galvanize the Democratic base already concerned that the local criminal justice system was too ready to lock up black teenagers and men, starting with introducing them to the criminal justice system in Juvenile Court.

Brown and Weirich each ran unopposed in the May county primaries.

Weirich said she was “a workhorse, not a show horse” and, like other Republican incumbents, ran on her record and “stability” in office.

Political heat

The primary race with the most fire was the Democratic mayoral primary for the right to challenge Republican incumbent Mayor Mark Luttrell in the August county general election.

Former Shelby County Commission Chairwoman Deidre Malone won the nomination she sought four years earlier but lost to interim county Mayor Joe Ford. But it was a hard-fought primary campaign with County Commissioner Steve Mulroy and former Shelby County Schools board member Kenneth Whalum Jr.

Mulroy, who finished third behind Whalum, closed ranks with Malone despite the heated rhetoric. And Malone vigorously challenged Luttrell in the campaign to the August ballot, introducing herself to voters first and foremost as the Democratic nominee for mayor, in contrast to Luttrell, who ran as the incumbent mayor and ceded none of the city’s predominantly Democratic turf to Malone.

The race for Juvenile Court judge is the most partisan nonpartisan judicial race in Shelby County. For decades, Republicans backed Turner and his successor, Curtis Person Jr., who had been a magistrate under Turner. In 2014, Person’s chief magistrate, Dan Michael, was their candidate.

Democrats, starting with Veronica Coleman Davis’ 2006 challenge of Person, challenged the system Turner left in place after 40 years on the bench. A 2012 U.S. Justice Department study documenting disproportionately harsher punishments for black teenagers as well as transfer for trial as adults set the stage for the Sugarmon-Michael matchup.

After one term, Person did not run for re-election, and for the second time in eight years, there was an open race for the court.

Michael and Sugarmon each said the court had to change. Michael said it was already changing and needed his experience from within. Sugarmon said it wasn’t changing fast enough and required a clear break from the past.

Despite the attention he gave the court in his speeches, Brown wasn’t helping Sugarmon. He also wasn’t the leader of the local Democratic Party, despite telling people he was the “boss.”

Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Bryan Carson tactfully and skillfully defused the controversy by distinguishing between leading the ticket and leading the party.


Challenge for the 9th

Brown disappeared from the campaign calendar for a time, as U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen faced his most formidable challenge since winning the 9th Congressional District seat in 2006.

Cohen was being challenged in the August Democratic primary by attorney and Memphis Housing Authority board chairman Ricky E. Wilkins.

Wilkins learned from previous primary challengers to Cohen that Cohen would outspend him, would raise more funds and would be aggressive in keeping up a grueling schedule of appearances all over the district while Congress was in session.

Wilkins set out to match Cohen’s frenetic political energy. He abandoned appeals for an African-American congressman to represent a predominantly African-American district. His supporters included former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who ran with precisely that pitch to voters in the 2010 primary.

Wilkins wasn’t making the appeal himself, but Cohen charged that those around him were.

Wilkins argued that Cohen was “pandering” to black voters with “photo ops.”

Cohen had the endorsement of President Barack Obama, an endorsement Obama has made in previous primaries since 2008. Wilkins put a cardboard cutout of Obama in his campaign headquarters window, saying Obama would endorse him if he upset Cohen in the primary.

Wilkins got a commitment to endorse him from the leader of the local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But he was left to hold a press conference outside the headquarters of the municipal labor union without the endorsement. The leader of the local withdrew the endorsement after talking with the international union leadership, and Wilkins charged Cohen was intimidating his supporters and those who might endorse him.

Cohen denied the intimidation and attacked Wilkins for his representation of the city and the legal fees Wilkins made during Herenton’s tenure as mayor in the court fight over management of the Beale Street entertainment district.

Meanwhile, Brown resurfaced spectacularly in the race for district attorney general in July by claiming Weirich was a lesbian and that her husband and children had moved out of their home. He made the claim several times, referring to homosexuals as “freaks” and telling a group in Boxtown that he had no problems with gays as long as they didn’t touch him.

Weirich termed the controversy “a sad day” and Brown “out of touch with reality.”

Brown’s claim, which was not true, came as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists had come to play a major role in local Democratic Party efforts – one of several new voices looking for a place in a local party still trying to resolve what happens when Democrats part company with those who win the low-turnout primaries for countywide office.

In the suburbs

The elections were further proof that suburban voters, including those within the city limits, continue to turn out for general elections in which the traditional Democratic base does not.

But those suburban voters, particularly those outside the city, have had motivations other than what happens in Memphis.

Suburban voters four years ago crushed the latest attempt at metro consolidation. And since then, there have been referendums on forming and funding the six suburban school systems as well as electing the separate school boards for each.

And in the tumult of the new school systems, elections in some of the six suburban towns and cities have grown more intense.

The first indication was Wyatt Bunker’s upset of incumbent Lakeland Mayor Scott Carmichael in the 2013 elections.

This year's November ballot featured an open race for Germantown mayor between Mike Palazzolo and George Brogdon, as incumbent Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy opted not to run for re-election after serving five terms over the last 20 years.

Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, meanwhile, was elected without opposition to another term.

On Bartlett’s November ballot, the drama was the race for alderman between former state Rep. Bubba Pleasant and challenger Mick Wright, with Pleasant winning another term. But Wright, like Brogdon, had some important allies that indicate the challenges to a different kind of political establishment in the suburbs will likely continue.

Republican strongholds

The Democratic contenders for every countywide office but one lost in the August general election. The only exception was Democratic incumbent Assessor Cheyenne Johnson, who had run for re-election in 2012 and never stopped as her office moved to the other even-year county election cycle by virtue of a county charter change.

Republicans found the low-key strategy traditionally used by incumbents served them well countywide.

Meanwhile, Memphis City Council member Lee Harris upset incumbent state Sen. Ophelia Ford in the Democratic legislative primary. It marked the first time in 40 years a member of the Ford family would not have a seat in the state Senate. Ford finished third in the primary.

It was part of what Harris termed a struggle between the local party’s “new guard” and its “old guard.”

“It’s been a struggle and an epic struggle,” he told The Daily News a week after his primary victory. “Ricky Wilkins had to wait until he was 50 years old to run for office. What’s that about? We call him ‘new guard.’”

Cohen won the Democratic primary 2-to-1 over Wilkins.

The August judicial races saw more challenges of incumbents on the bench in state trial courts than the last cycle of judicial races eight years ago.

There were five open judicial seats with no incumbent on the August ballot, compared to one open race eight years ago. Only 10 judges ran unopposed on the August ballot, compared to 20 eight years ago.

The challengers upset two incumbent judges: Gerald Skahan beat General Sessions Judge Joyce Broffit, while Ronald Lucchesi beat General Sessions Judge Gwen Rooks.


The August primary for governor, featuring a re-election bid by Gov. Bill Haslam, was a shadow of its 2010 self when all three Republican contenders spent a lot of time in Memphis and Shelby County. The Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander was a worthy substitute, with Knoxville attorneys Gordon Ball and Terry Adams vying for the right to oppose Alexander, one of the most storied political figures in the state’s history.

After winning the Democratic nomination, Ball appealed for the support of tea party partisans who had backed Republican state Rep. Joe Carr in the GOP primary challenge to Alexander.

To Ball’s surprise, Alexander didn’t follow the traditional incumbents’ strategy of ignoring the challenger, as he had done with Carr. Instead, he attacked Ball frequently and with lots of TV ad time for being “just another vote for Obama” in the Senate if elected.

To no one’s surprise, Alexander was re-elected to a third Senate term by a wide statewide margin. He also carried Shelby County in the November general election, although by a much closer margin in which Alexander got less than 50 percent of the vote.

In the process, Alexander defined the changes in his own party that prompted the primary challenge. To him, it’s a larger party because it is a more successful party at the polls.

“It’s a rambunctious group and it makes for an interesting primary, but it makes a very successful political party so far,” Alexander said. “A lot of Shelby County, when I first began to run, was composed of Republicans, independents and Democrats – and most of the independents now vote in the Republican primary. Our party is larger, more conservative and more successful because we’ve had an open door in the primary.”

Ballot questions

The November ballot in Shelby County was more about the 12 ballot questions, starting with the four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution.

Opposition to Amendment 1, giving the Tennessee Legislature more authority to enact abortion restrictions, including in cases of rape and incest, carried the county even as the amendment was approved statewide.


Amendment 1 became the dominant campaign cause countywide as Ball folded his campaign tent by the opening of early voting in the face of Alexander’s dominance.

The day after the November elections were decided, Harris saw some reason for hope in the Democratic Party locally despite a bad set of outcomes over the three elections of 2014.

“There are some bright spots. … Progressives came together to launch a campaign against Amendment 1,” he said three days after the last of the 2014 elections on the WKNO-TV program “Behind the Headlines.” “That campaign was successful in Shelby County. … There are the seeds of a future for progressives in this state.”

Meanwhile, Haslam saw his re-election campaign with only token Democratic opposition as an opportunity to reinforce the Republican advantage statewide with a subtle emphasis. Haslam publicly favored all four Constitutional amendments, including the abortion amendment. The one, however, that he campaigned hardest for was the judicial selection amendment – even while acknowledging it was a middle-of-the-road compromise between contested elections for appellate court judges and keeping the appointments up to the governor exclusively instead of requiring legislative confirmation.

“We don’t live in a perfect world,” Haslam said of the compromise in Memphis in October. “Sometimes we have to be very practical.”

Asked about differing proposals among Republicans in the Legislature that sometimes clash with his own, Haslam defined the difference between those in the majority and those not in the majority when it comes to the votes after election day.

“We are judged by what is voted on,” he said, “and not what is considered.”

PROPERTY SALES 39 202 12,960
MORTGAGES 25 110 8,113
BUILDING PERMITS 114 645 30,579
BANKRUPTCIES 37 122 6,186