VOL. 130 | NO. 64 | Thursday, April 2, 2015
New Local Party Leaders Talk Rebuilding
By Bill Dries
The two new chairwomen of the local Democratic and Republican parties each talk about the work of rebuilding.
Local Republicans held their party convention Sunday and picked Mary Wagner as their new chairwoman. The selection came the day after local Democrats held their party convention and chose Randa Spears as their new chairwoman.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
But Mary Wagner and Randa Spears lead political groups whose fortunes couldn’t be more different.
Wagner was elected Sunday by a Republican Party of Shelby County convention of more than 400 delegates. Spears was elected the day before by the Shelby County Democratic Party’s new 29-member executive committee chosen at a party convention.
Republicans hold every partisan office in Shelby County government except two, and every Republican incumbent on the 2014 ballot won after they swept county elections in 2010.
Shelby County Democrats were on the receiving end of both victories for Republicans. Wagner points out that with term limits, most of the Republican incumbents re-elected in 2014 can’t run for third terms.
“We need to make sure that we are continuing to work and not sitting back and enjoying the success we had last summer, which was wonderful. But we’ve got to start making sure we are continuing to build,” Wagner, an attorney at Rice, Amundsen & Caperton PLLC said. “Our incumbents won’t be able to run again. It’s an ongoing process. It always is. You can’t sit back and wait for the last minute to find people, find money, find volunteers.”
For Spears, special events coordinator at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, there are the same challenges plus finding candidates who can do more than win the low turnout primaries.
“I think we are at a point where we can really start building on things,” she said. “We’re going to need to bring in even more people.”
Democrats are the majority in Shelby County, Republican leaders concede. But Wagner points to a better Republican bench of candidates built by actively seeking them out.
“You’ve got people who get involved in the party pretty actively for a while and then they decide to run. And then we’ve got some newer ones that come around who aren’t real active in the party and they run and have done quite well,” she said. “To me there’s a true variety in that. … We need to look out for those people.
“There may be somebody who is very qualified to be a county commissioner or be a trustee who maybe hasn’t thought about public service and shares our conservative values.”
As bad a beating as Democrats have taken in the last five years, Spears declined to describe her task as rebuilding from the ground up.
“I definitely think we have some things we can build from,” she said.
Outgoing party chairman Bryan Carson resigned a month before the convention. The resignation came as the executive committee investigated party finances that prompted late campaign finance reports to the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance. Carson made withdrawals without receipts from an account that changed banks several times as the party changed treasurers several more times.
“We’re going to have an oversight committee,” she said. “We will put in place specific processes for handling the money and how things are approved and spent. And I will not have a hand in the money.”
Wagner led the Shelby County Young Republicans group for the last two years. Spears has worked on numerous campaigns including running the two campaigns for county mayor by former county commissioner Deidre Malone.
Wagner and Spears both called for their parties to make room for new faces and new methods drawn by each party’s ideology.
In Spears case, it was an appeal to “really change the direction of our party.”
Spears is working with a 29-member executive committee that is less than half the size of the previous executive committee. The number of people on the executive or steering committees for each local party are based on each party’s turnout countywide in the 2014 general election for Tennessee Governor.
The smaller Democratic committee reflects the state party’s inability to come up with an established Democratic challenger to Republican Gov. Bill Haslam in 2014.
Wagner, meanwhile, talked of the goal of carrying Shelby County for the Republican presidential nominee in the 2016 Presidential general election. Although the Republican nominee has carried Tennessee in the last four Presidential general elections, Shelby County has been carried by the Democratic nominee in those same elections.
She said the local GOP can increase its reach while remaining true to conservative values of “smaller government, personal responsibility and individual liberty.”