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VOL. 132 | NO. 57 | Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mills Looks To Spread Republican Reach in City

By Bill Dries

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The Shelby County Republican Party is becoming more diverse and working to get back non-voting Republicans, its new permanent chairman says.

John Niven leads a caucus during the Sunday, March 19, Shelby County Republican Party convention at Houston High School to choose party steering committee members. Just over 100 Republican delegates attended. 

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

“For the longest time, we’ve talked about going into the African-American community, talked about going into the Hispanic community,” Lee Mills said. “But we haven’t actually done it and that’s our fault. We’ve got to reach out to them and we can’t reach out to them without going to them. So, we’re going to go to their communities and we’re going to find ways to do that.”

Mills, a FedEx pilot from Arlington who is president of the Arlington Education Foundation, was elected to a full term as local party chairman Sunday, March 19, at the biennial party convention at Houston High School. He ran unopposed. Mills has been serving as interim party chairman since last year when Mary Wagner resigned to become a Circuit Court judge.

While Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump took Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes by carrying the state in the November election, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton carried Shelby County by a two-to-one margin over Trump.

Local Republicans who are veterans of getting out the local vote knew Clinton would carry Shelby County and Trump would take the state.

But they were still uncertain about life after the national election.

“Six months ago, we didn’t know if there was going to be a Republican Party left,” Mills told those gathered at Houston High.

But some local Democrats see Trump’s national victory as a galvanizing event for the party’s local base. They point to large crowds drawn to local protests and marches – notably the Memphis Women’s march that drew several thousand people Downtown the same weekend that Trump took office.

The Shelby County Democratic Party was abolished by the state party last year after years of dysfunction and internecine fighting. That’s not to mention disastrous countywide election slates in 2010 and 2014 when Republican nominees claimed most of the countywide offices.

But most of those Republican officeholders, first elected in 2010 and re-elected in 2014, are term limited.

“Certainly it’s a challenge,” Mills said of the situation. “We’re going to make sure that people know who we are and who our candidates are. We are going to do background checks. We’re going to let people know that our candidates mean what they say and say what they mean. As we have candidates come forward, we are going to be open and honest.”

Some of those office holders have plans for other offices. County Trustee David Lenoir is running for county mayor, which promises a primary campaign between him and county commissioner Terry Roland. Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos is considering the primary race as well.

Former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism is running on the Democratic side.

Robert Hill, of the Trustee’s office, is campaigning for Juvenile Court Clerk already and was at Sunday’s convention.

The race to succeed Republican Sheriff Bill Oldham is underway with Chief Deputy Floyd Bonner Jr. running in the Democratic primary, with Oldham’s backing. Dale Lane, director of the county Office of Preparedness and a former deputy, is running in the Republican primary with the backing of outgoing Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell.

Lenoir and Luttrell are the most visible examples of Republicans who campaign as hard in the majority Democratic city as in the suburbs where there are Republican majorities.

“Our candidates have done a good job,” Mills said, as he talked of the Republican ticket campaigning harder and with more visibility in Memphis. “They’ve done a good job, but as a party we haven’t and that’s going to change.”

Mills also talked of doing lower donation fundraisers for Republican contenders.

With Mills and the slate of party officers running unopposed, the convention drew around 125 people compared to 500 two years ago.

Some of that is a function of no skirmishes within the party after several conventions where Tea Party and similar elements outside the local party establishment sought seats on the steering committee.

But Mills says election fatigue and wall-to-wall cable TV news coverage focused on Washington’s ideological divide were also factors.

“We are all bombarded with political news. And it’s never good news. It’s always tit for tat,” he said. “We have to remind folks that some of the most important elections they have are local – whether it be school board, alderman. We need to let people know and make them understand that local elections are important.”

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