VOL. 132 | NO. 82 | Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Memphis Democrats Prepare To Reorganize
By Bill Dries
Shelby County Democrats hope to have the local party up and running by the Fourth of July. The Shelby County Democratic Party was disbanded by the Tennessee Democratic Party in August after two disastrous county election cycles for the Democratic slate and increasing dysfunction by the local party’s executive committee.
Shelby County Democratic Party executive committee member Del Gill termed the decision to abolish the local party last year “dictatorial.” Under pending state legislation, Gill would be among the former executive committee members banned from being part of re-establishing the local party.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
In taking the action, Tennessee party chairwoman Mary Mancini wrote that she wanted the reformed local party to determine its own needs and “enact reforms that will bring in new people and build a strong grassroots organization.”
An organizing group appointed by the state party holds a series of public meetings across Shelby County starting Saturday, April 29, in Raleigh.
Attorney David Cocke, who is a former chairman of the county party, is leading the effort.
“My hope would be that we could encourage a lot of new people to get involved in the party rather than just the people who have been participating in the past,” he said.
And at least for now, Cocke said the reorganization is not likely to deal with who, if anyone, might be barred from participating in the new leadership.
“We don’t feel it’s our charge to make that call,” he said. “We have not been asked to do anything specific. Our goal is to come up with a set of bylaws and reorganization that we think will maximize participation, encourage new people to be involved in the party and to be as fair as we can be about the process.”
But there is a bill pending in the Tennessee Legislature that would bar “a member of a decertified county political party from being allowed membership into a newly formed county political party” for two years after the decertification.
The legislation sponsored by Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate in the Senate and Knoxville Democrat Rick Staples in the House would make exceptions, where a member “provides good cause for membership and the chair of the state executive committee approves.”
The specific cause that prompted Mancini to act was the local executive committee’s refusal to back away from a formal complaint to authorities over how former local party chairman Bryan Carson kept track of and paid his expenses as chairman. The dispute prompted Carson to resign the chairmanship in February 2015.
Negotiations on paying back a disputed amount continued as Randa Spears became chairwoman. After Spears and vice chairwoman Deidre Malone resigned within days of each other in April 2016, the dispute with Carson resurfaced.
Committee member Del Gill pushed for the formal complaint and the executive committee voted to pursue it.
Mancini told local party chairman Michael Pope to accept a re-payment plan with Carson and not file the complaint.
The executive committee voted down Pope’s call to ratify the settlement, and voted down Gill’s call to censure Pope.
Gill, a veteran local Democratic operative who first won a seat on the executive committee in the mid-1980s, has termed Mancini’s decision to abolish the committee “dictatorial.”
The local party was disbanded as presidential general election campaigns moved past the national party conventions.
Not having a local party didn’t stop Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton from carrying Shelby County by a 2-to-1 margin in the presidential general election as Republican nominee Donald Trump took the state and its 11 electoral votes by a wide margin.
Cocke was involved in the Democrats’ volunteer effort for Clinton and judged it “pretty darn successful without a local party.”
It included phone-banking for Clinton in North Carolina and raising its own money.
“As far as I’m concerned, we really need to channel that enthusiasm positively to rebuild the Democratic Party here,” he said.
The reorganization comes in advance of 2018 county elections.
Shelby County Democrats hope to reverse a Republican shutout of Democrats in races for countywide nonjudicial positions in 2010 and a near shutout in 2014 when the winners from 2010 were all running for re-election and all won a second term. Incumbent Democratic Property Assessor Cheyenne Johnson was the lone Democrat to win one of the 11 countywide offices on the ballot.
Five of those 10 Republicans who won in 2014 are term-limited and cannot seek re-election in 2018.
Some are expected to run for different countywide offices than the ones they currently hold – as is the case with Trustee David Lenoir running for Shelby County mayor – in what would amount to a shift of familiar Republican candidates into different offices.
This is not Cocke’s first reboot of the local party. It was also disbanded by the state party in 1978.
“I’m not sure I’m the right person to talk about motivation, but many people were not happy with who was running things,” Cocke said. “And they convinced the state party to pull or cancel that charter and to create a new party that was similar to the way it was organized in other counties.”
U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. was four years into his reign as the city’s highest ranking Democratic elected office and the dominant black elected official in Memphis politics.
Ford’s political machine would supplant the local party in turning out the Memphis Democratic base in statewide and local races.
The length of the 1974 ballot that included the local Democratic executive committee races was also a factor. Odell Horton lost a then nonpartisan race for Shelby County Attorney General to Hugh Stanton Jr. by 4,000 votes. Horton and other Democrats believed the length of the ballot was a factor in his loss.
At the time, Shelby County’s Democratic executive committee was selected differently than other county parties at the time. The positions were on the ballot with state legislative primary elections – the way state primary executive committee positions are still selected for Democrats and Republicans.
In the 1978 reformation, the local Democratic Party went to county party conventions every two years to select the executive committee.