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VOL. 130 | NO. 27 | Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Local Elections Ramp Up With Gumbo Fest

By Bill Dries

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There were so many contenders for the District 5 seat on the Memphis City Council at the Sunday, Feb. 8, Tennessee Equality Project Gumbo Contest that they occasionally went for the same voter’s hand in the crowd of several hundred.

And the exiting District 5 incumbent, Jim Strickland, was also looking for votes in the crowd in his quest to become Memphis mayor.

The Tennessee Equality Project held its fifth annual Gumbo Contest Sunday, Feb. 8, at Bridges USA in Uptown. The fundraiser is a major political event for candidates running later in the year and drew numerous Memphis City Council candidates.

(Daily News File Photo)

The turnout by candidates in the 2015 city elections, as well as those not running for any office, shows the growth in the event in its five years as well as the TEP’s approach of crossing political lines and barriers to pursue support for its positions on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues that are the project’s purpose.

It hasn’t always been that way.

Among those not running for office at the gumbo contest but there for the politics was former state Sen. John Ford. Ford accompanied his daughter, Kemba Ford, who is weighing a bid for council District 7 on the October ballot – the same seat she ran for in 2011 and took the eventual winner, Lee Harris, to a runoff on.

John Ford was among the contenders for Memphis mayor in the 1983 city elections who attended what was an early if not the first open candidates forum held by what were then called “gay rights organizations.” Cameras, still or video, weren’t permitted to show those in the audience. The issues were primarily allegations of police abuse.

Jonathan Cole, chairman and president of the Tennessee Equality Project, said a gumbo contest and tasting about a week from Fat Tuesday is the perfect parallel to the Tennessee Equality Project’s theme of political inclusiveness that crosses party lines and other political boundaries not defined by party.

“We deliberately tried to reach out to everybody,” Cole said. “By making this a gumbo-themed event, it really draws on so many different cultures as a food. We think that’s metaphorical. We are trying to build a community that welcomes all. There’s no one kind of gumbo. There are different expressions of gumbo.”

The contest, held this year at Bridges USA in Uptown, is a fundraiser for TEP.

At or near the top of the project’s priorities this year is the coming U.S. Supreme Court ruling on state laws banning same-sex marriages, which is expected to come in June.

“We don’t know what our state legislature is going to be doing with that issue,” Cole said. “There are a lot of states that have introduced bills that would somehow impede the ability of couples’ marriages being recognized. So we’re on the look-out for that. We are watching bills as they are filed now.”

The organization has also been involved in local issues including city and county ordinances proposed to specifically ban local governments from discriminating in hiring and promotions on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.

And TEP gets involved in local elections.

“We tend to have really good attendance in election years from candidates running for office. Today’s no exception,” Cole said as beaded politicos and others navigated the two-level party with paper plates of small gumbo containers from the various contestants. “It’s a good place for people to meet and greet and we certainly want candidates running for office to meet LGBT people and their families and allies.”

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