VOL. 131 | NO. 168 | Tuesday, August 23, 2016
Local Democratic Party Troubles Follow Abysmal County Election Record
By Bill Dries
To those who don’t live and breathe politics, the Friday, Aug. 19, decision by Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini to decertify the Shelby County Democratic Party looks more serious than it is.
Shelby County Democratic Party executive committee member Del Gill has been the most visible player in the controversy that led the state party to decertify the local party last week. Gill says he expects state party leaders to take disciplinary action against him.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
The local party’s demise, which is to be followed by a re-formation, comes in the home stretch of a presidential general election campaign in which Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has talked of making Tennessee a blue state again.
But none of the funding from the campaign and the national Democratic Party apparatus to that end is coming through the Shelby County Democratic Party.
And Clinton will probably carry Shelby County even if Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump takes the state and the Republican Shelby County suburbs outside of Memphis.
Who serves on the local Democratic executive committee, the specific entity that has been disbanded, matters at some level politically.
But at least for now, it doesn’t matter in the ultimate goal of any such political aggregation or coalition – winning elections.
Memphis Democrats engaged in that pursuit have been going around the Shelby County Democratic Party for quite some time now – except where they can’t.
The executive committee in recent years has been censuring prominent Democrats, including former local party chairs Jim Strickland, who is now mayor, and Sidney Chism, also a former county commissioner, for supporting Republicans in countywide elections, the only local elections with partisan primaries.
The local executive committee’s approach to building party loyalty is blamed for an abysmal record in countywide elections. In 2010, Democratic nominees lost every countywide race on the general election ballot. In 2014, they won one race when incumbent county property assessor Cheyenne Johnson was re-elected.
There is still much damage from 2014 to be reckoned with that will make the 2018 elections a big hole for the local Democratic Party to dig itself out of.
Ordinarily the party’s nominee for county mayor, former County Commissioner Deidre Malone would have led the ticket and been at the top of it.
Instead, retired Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown became the local party’s figurehead, out front carrying the party banner and taking down the rest of the ticket with a bizarre campaign for district attorney general.
Brown talked more about the race for Juvenile Court judge, leading many to believe that was the office he was running for. And when he did talk about his opponent, incumbent Amy Weirich, it was to spread rumors that alienated a key and active segment of the local party in recent years – LGBT Democrats.
Local party leaders thought Brown’s name recognition alone as the host of a syndicated reality courtroom show would be enough to screw in the lightbulb that would make the city’s Democratic base – the bulk of voters in Shelby County, even by the admission of Republicans – realize it can elect whoever it wants.
It was simply a matter of numbers, the reasoning went. And the numbers were in favor of Democratic candidates.
It ignored the reality that those Democratic voters might not vote for Republicans. But if they aren’t excited by the Democratic nominees, some of whom have managed to win low-turnout county primaries repeatedly, many won’t vote for anyone in the general election and some will cross over.
Mancini acted specifically in a dispute among members of the local party’s executive committee over pursuing criminal charges against former local party chairman Bryan Carson.
Carson resigned in 2015 in a dispute with the executive committee over party funds and his accounting for them.
He remains a member of the Tennessee Democratic Party’s executive committee.
The local party pursued filing a warrant seeking to charge Carson. But Mancini ordered local party chairman Michael Pope to drop the complaint and settle the dispute with Carson and his attorneys by agreeing that Carson would pay $6,000 to the party over several years.
The local party member pushing the warrant is Del Gill, an outspoken member of the executive committee dating back to the early 1980s.
Gill has been known to interrupt roll calls at the start of executive committee meetings to make points about party bylaws and rules. There is a steady stream of email traffic in the specific controversy that led to the local party’s decertification.
After the decertification, Gill said in an email to party members that Mancini told him she intended to have him cited for disciplinary charges by the state party.
In the same email, Gill referred to Mancini’s decision as a “narcisstic act” and called Mancini “the dictator at Nashville.”
Gill is a polarizing presence on the executive committee and some local Democrats predicted earlier in the summer that a move to disband the local party, which many support, likely would be followed by a move to find a way to exclude Gill from local Democratic Party when it re-forms.
But even those on the executive committee who voted for Pope as chairman over Gill by a lopsided margin sided with Gill in the vote to pursue a criminal complaint against Carson.
The party’s local executive committee took a vote late this summer on whether to ratify the settlement Pope agreed to. It was voted down on a 10-10 tie on the committee’s third attempt at a vote after the first two attempts were started over because of arguments.
The executive committee voted down a later effort to censure Pope for the enacting the settlement.
Mancini said she acted under party bylaws that included a role “to develop and monitor a minimum set of requirements that must be observed by a state sanctioned certified County Democratic Party.”
“During this important process, the TNDP pledges to work to ensure that Democrats in Shelby County have the opportunity to determine their own needs, evaluate the effectiveness of past bylaws and leadership, elect officers and executive committee members, and enact reforms that will bring in new people and build a strong grassroots organization,” Mancini added.
Until the re-formation of the local Democratic Party is complete, the state party will hold funds of the local party in a trust.