VOL. 132 | NO. 156 | Tuesday, August 8, 2017
Strong: Democrats Must Reconnect With Voters
By Bill Dries
The new chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party says the local party has lost its voters and getting them back is the path to victory in the 2018 county elections and beyond.
Corey Strong, an attorney and special projects director for Shelby County Schools, was elected chairman of the reorganized local party Saturday, Aug. 5, following its dissolution by the Tennessee Democratic Party a year ago.
Strong is also on the state party’s executive committee. He was elected local chairman by a group of 88 members of the new Grassroots Council that was another part of the reorganization.
After his selection Saturday, Strong said his immediate goal is to select other party officers, fill in gaps on the 135-position Grassroots Council and get the local party structure filled in to begin moving toward 2018 elections.
Corey Strong, center, takes the gavel as the new chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party Saturday, Aug. 5, from Carlissa Shaw, left, and David Cocke, the co-chairs of a reorganization of the local party. (Daily News/Bill Dries)
“We’ve lost our voters,” Strong said in advance of the roll-call vote in Midtown. “There is no connection between me showing up to vote and my life changing.”
Strong defined the party’s goal for countywide elections, starting with primaries in May, as changing that reality and recruiting better candidates for the Democratic slate.
“Democrats don’t listen to the party because we don’t listen to them,” he said Saturday.
Democratic nominees for countywide office lost every countywide office in the 2010 election and all but one – Assessor – in the 2014 elections. Democrats have retained their seven-vote majority on the 13-member Shelby County Commission.
The reorganization brought a larger group together – an executive committee of 26 that meets monthly and a Grassroots Council of 135 positions that meets quarterly and includes the executive committee.
It also brought more new members to the party’s governing structure than before. Some of those new leaders have been part of an uptick in protests locally in the last year or so, and they have been active about community issues as opposed to campaigns for office.
Others were active in the last months and years of an executive committee that was notorious for its dysfunction before a decision by the group to seek a criminal investigation of former local chairman Bryan Carson for how he handled party funds prompted the state party to act.
“I hate politics. I have been very open about hating politics just about all of my life,” attorney Carlissa Shaw, who was co-chairwoman of the reorganization effort, told those at Saturday’s session. “I am really engaged in community organizing … and I realized there is a place for politics. Politics plays a huge role in how funds are appropriated in this city and in this county and to what communities.”
Shaw said her grandmother’s street in North Memphis is an example – 13 of 26 houses there are abandoned and four are for sale.
“We’ve seen our neighborhoods die. We’ve seen our neighbors be foreclosed on through predatory lending,” Shaw said. “We have the highest crime rate and we have a new crime plan which is exactly like the last crime plan that has not worked.
“We have all of these issues and we have Republicans in office and they are not dealing with the least of our neighbors – us and our neighbors. That’s why it’s so important that we get this right – us, the people in this room.”
Strong acknowledged that the local party must be active and involved on those issues as well as in fielding candidates for elections.
He is a company commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and during his time in the Navy was deployed to Afghanistan.
He was one of five contenders for the chairmanship who conducted campaigns in the last month similar to those for public office. Normally, the selection of party leaders by the steering or executive committees of the two local parties is much more subdued or behind the scenes.
Strong claimed the chairmanship in a runoff with Ken Taylor, who is director of the Beale Street Merchants Association and a political campaign consultant.
The other contenders were Thurston Smith, a behavioral health consultant and 2015 city council contender; Larry Pivnick, a retired University of Memphis law professor who has run for the Tennessee Legislature; and Anthony Anderson, founder of the Memphis Business Academy charter schools and also a 2015 city council contender.
Tennessee Democratic Party chairwoman Mary Mancini watched the reorganization process closely, with the state party picking those on the reorganization committee including Strong.
“It all bodes well for the future of Democrats in Shelby County,” Mancini said at the end of Saturday’s session. “We also have to realize we need to make the case for Democratic candidates. And that case should be made not just to Democrats. It should be made to a lot of other Tennessee voters. That’s what we are focused on doing right now.”
Before Strong’s selection, Mancini reiterated that the Democratic base in Shelby County is the state’s largest and the most crucial to changing the state from red to blue.
“We have to build relationships with voters again. The way that we build relationships with voters is to talk about things that are important to them,” she said after the meeting. “It’s not necessarily about the party telling people about our issues – although that’s a part of it. A lot of it is going out and asking what’s important to you? How can we legislate for you? Here is how we are different from Republicans.”
One of those differences locally is in how the two parties approach going after votes.
The Shelby County Republican base, which is located in the suburbs outside Memphis, is crucial to any Republican seeking statewide office, just as the Democratic base inside the city is crucial to any Democrat seeking statewide office.
But in local races, the Republican Party talks about candidates, particularly for countywide office, that have “crossover” potential – an appeal to voters who may be by-the-book Democrats or independents in state and federal elections.
None of the five contenders for the local party chairmanship Saturday talked about crossover in their appeals in the last month. That is the same bedrock philosophy local Democratic Party leaders had in two disastrous county election cycles for their party banner was that Democrats already had the numbers to win any countywide race once the primaries were settled.
“Republicans don’t have any problem trying to recruit our members,” chairman runoff contender Smith said at one point during last week’s Indivisible Memphis forum at Shady Grove Presbyterian Church.
Strong is among those who cited the need to watch closely who those seeking the Democratic nomination have supported through fundraisers, and which primary they have voted in in past elections.
“When the executive committee is spending a large amount of time trying to figure out if one of the actual, available candidates we have is a good Democrat, then we have failed in recruiting good Democrats to run for office,” Strong said. “The fact that we are groping with these lower issues means that we are just begging people to be in our party and to please vote for us. We need to be very secure that we are Democrats. Don’t be afraid of it. Shout it from the rooftops.”
Strong also talked about the need to find a way past Democratic contenders who can win low-turnout county primaries repeatedly, but don’t have a chance in a general election campaign, starting with their finances.
“We’ve had candidates who needed to have $100,000 who showed up for the race with $30,000,” he said at the Aug. 1 forum in East Memphis.
And there is not unanimity among Democrats about whose problem that is.
“I don’t see a candidate really being responsible for that,” Pivnick said of who should be responsible for making sure a candidate comes to the race well-funded. “Someone else should do that.”
The local party, before it was dissolved, had become a political action committee, which played into the problems it had with state officials in financial record keeping and filing reports on time.
The restructured party is not a PAC, which leaves open the role of fundraising for the local party, although there has been plenty of sentiment that the local party should put out a ballot and more zealously guard against other endorsement ballots that claim to be “Democratic.” Putting out such a ballot would involve some amount of fundraising.