VOL. 130 | NO. 37 | Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Carson Departs, Problems Remain For Local Democrats
By Bill Dries
With about a month left in his term as chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, Bryan Carson resigned Saturday, Feb. 21, after a confrontation behind closed doors with the party’s executive committee over his handling of the party’s bank accounts.
The local Democratic party holds a county convention in March to elect a new executive committee and a new party chairman and other offices. Carson had said previously he would not be seeking another term as chairman and has since started running for the District 7 seat on the Memphis City Council in this year’s city elections.
The resignation and the questions about party finances are certain to cloud Carson’s bid for the council.
But Carson’s resignation caps several years of turmoil within the local party that leaves issues beyond his specific tenure.
In the 2014 countywide elections, Democrats retained only one countywide office – Shelby County Assessor, in which incumbent Cheyenne Johnson was running for re-election after seeking re-election just two years earlier.
Every other countywide office is held by Republicans who won every countywide office just four years earlier.
In last year’s county elections, Democrats did manage to retain a one-vote majority on the Shelby County Commission but that had more to do with the way the commission drew its own district lines in the transition to single-member districts.
And Democratic commissioner Justin Ford is chairman of the body, but he was elected chairman with the votes of all six Republican commissioners as well as his own vote this past September.
He is the third chairman of the body in recent years to be elected chairman with the bulk of his votes coming from commissioners from the other party.
The problem for Democrats countywide has been their heavy reliance on and faith in an acknowledged majority in terms of voters in Shelby County. Shelby County Republicans acknowledge that most of the county’s 537,000 voters are probably Democrats.
But that doesn’t translate to turnout in general elections for Democratic nominees who are able to win the lower turnout county primary elections but with the exception of Johnson and General Sessions Court Clerk Ed Stanton can’t win countywide.
It’s been 20 years since a non-presidential general election in Shelby County drew more than half of the county’s voters to the polls.
The 2014 campaign season began with a renewed appeal for Democratic politicos to get behind the party’s slate as a whole, even if they didn’t approve of everyone who might win the primary. The advice they got from Carson and others was to not say anything about the Democratic nominees they couldn’t personally support.
Democratic leaders including Carson believed retired Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown was the answer to the general election drop off with Brown’s popularity as host of a long-running nationally syndicated daytime judge’s show.
It was Brown’s street-level name recognition and popularity, they believed, that would carry not only Brown into office as District Attorney General, but the rest of the Democratic slate as well.
Brown’s wandering stump speeches citing rumors and mixed with anti-gay rhetoric were the clearest demonstration that Democratic voters not engaged in the primary would turn out and would turn out to vote against Democrats if the Republican rival had crossover appeal.
Carson wasn’t the first local party chairman to struggle with the dilemma or the questions it continues to pose about those at the reins of the local party. He couldn’t block candidates from running who were well past their prime but who could win the primary repeatedly.
The party’s solution during his tenure was to more rigidly enforce party loyalty during the primary season.
Among those called on to explain their support of Republicans was former local party chairman and county commissioner Sidney Chism. Even Carson’s predecessor as chairman, county commissioner Van Turner, felt obliged to apologize in writing for turning up at a fundraiser for Trustee David Lenoir, a Republican.
Carson resigned ahead of a move by some on the executive committee to vote on whether he should remain as chairman. No vote was called for once Carson resigned. And Carson resigned after what appears to have been an emotional private discussion, based on social media postings during and after the two-hour meeting from some of the more than 40 executive committee members.
Party vice chairman Dave Cambron became acting party chairman with Carson’s resignation.
Cambron said Carson made a “donation” to the local party with his resignation.
Carson left the meeting briefly to tell reporters he had resigned and to say he had done nothing wrong.
Cambron said party members are conducting their own investigation of the party’s bank accounts.
The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance sent a notice to party leaders earlier this month notifying the party that its campaign finance report due last October was late being turned in.
That was followed by a meeting of local party officers where they passed a “no confidence” motion in Carson. The Saturday session of the entire executive committee followed the no confidence vote.