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VOL. 132 | NO. 98 | Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Local Democratic Party Organizers Grapple With Activism

By Bill Dries

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Once the new bylaws and a new executive committee is in place for the reconstituted Shelby County Democratic Party this summer, there will still be a fundamental question about the political strength of the new organization.

“This group is way too moderate for me,” Pastor Earle J. Fisher of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church began his remarks in a public forum at the church in Whitehaven that is part of a reorganization of the Shelby County Democratic Party. The forum featured prominently the difficulty of bringing together political activists who want to win elections under their party’s banner and political activists who are involved in specific issues.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The group appointed by state Democratic Party leaders to organize the local party’s return wants to take advantage of the involvement of citizens new to politics who don’t like the political direction coming from the White House and the majority-Republican Congress in Washington, D.C. And in a county that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton carried decisively over Republican Donald Trump last November, those new faces are no small matter to the party’s success.

Some who are politically active around various issues aren’t defined by Democratic or Republican labels. And they don’t agree with either party’s priorities in terms of which issues are the most important.

At the final of four public forums Monday, May 15, the group drafting rules for the restart of the local party heard a lot of pushback about its stated goal – to elect as many Democrats as possible at all levels of government.

“This group is way too moderate for me,” said Rev. Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church that hosted the forum.

Fisher has been involved in Memphis protests and marches that have increased in number in the last year.

He was among those on the city’s list of protesters requiring a police escort to go anywhere in City Hall. Fisher, whose church is less than a mile from Graceland, was among those turned away by police during a protest at the annual August candlelight vigil outside Graceland. And he is a plaintiff in the resulting federal lawsuit that is still pending.

Fisher’s concern is that issues like Black Lives Matter, the movement for a $15 minimum wage and similar causes involve a younger constituency that can find fault with Democratic and Republican elected officials, and can’t back all Democrats.

“If progressives and independents who sincerely want to see some robust structural and systemic change get the sense that people are just really trying to do some cosmetic stuff … you’ll miss a major opportunity to engage a constituency that is out there looking to be involved and activated,” he told leaders of the party reorganization. “But they are relatively suspicious and skeptical that what’s happening here is not really going to meet their ultimate needs.”

Reorganization co-chairman David Cocke, a former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, said state leaders are talking about coming up with a party platform for the first time in recent memory.

“We are seeing a lot more interest in issues rather than elections,” he said.

Reorganization co-chair Carlissa Shaw said the new party framework could also include a way to hold Democratic elected officials accountable through a larger policy council of sorts that would meet quarterly.

The group would be an advisory board, in effect, to the executive committee specifically on Democratic issues or values. That could include publicly calling out Democratic elected officials for not voting the party line on issues. The executive committee would focus on the mechanics of a party structure geared to win elections starting with the 2018 county elections, after two disastrous election cycles in 2010 and 2014 for the Democratic slate.

“There has to be an oversight committee. There has to be a team of people who are vested and interested,” Shaw said. “That may not be your issue. You may not care about Democratic accountability. You may care about, I don’t know, Black Lives Matter. But there are people who are interested in going to these meetings, getting those records and making sure that those people we elect in our communities to be Democrats are actually Democrats.”

Dave Cambron, a former vice chairman of the local party, pointed out that the executive committee passed a resolution backing gay marriage five years ago. Yet in 2014, the party’s nominee for District Attorney General, retired Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown, attacked incumbent Republican District Attorney General Amy Weirich with claims that Weirich was a lesbian. Weirich denied that was the case. Brown continued to repeat the rumor.

And Brown’s position at the head of the ticket arguably took down all but one of the other candidates on the Democratic countywide slate with him, in part because Brown alienated the local party’s active and organized LGBTQ constituency.

Shaw says with accountability there has to be an ability by those active in the party to work for candidates.

“Often times as lay people when we have not been interested in politics for a very long time, we don’t know how to support candidates,” she said. “People tell us – ‘Support? What does that mean? I vote for you. That’s support.’”

Frank Johnson, a politically active Democrat in South Memphis, says the new local party has to embrace communities.

“What are we going to do about reaching out to Democrats?” he asked. “You say we need to get Democrats elected. We have been getting Democrats elected. The problem is that we don’t see those Democrats until another two years or four years. … We’re getting a deaf ear. … We are not considered valuable until it’s time to vote.”

Cocke acknowledged the quality of candidates who win the low-turnout county primaries has to improve.

“You need some party nominees who know how to win votes,” he said. “Look at the successful candidates in this town. The successful candidates for office are those who bridge the racial divide.”

At the end of the forum, Fisher was still balancing issues and candidates.

“I think we have to find a way to be actively involved, which means we have to be thoughtful and strategic,” he said. “I think we have to stay involved enough to influence the conversation to be about these most critical issues and not just about the status quo and cosmetic issues.”

The reorganization group hopes to have a draft of new party bylaws in a week or two and is planning for a party convention in late June to elect a new executive committee.

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