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VOL. 132 | NO. 90 | Friday, May 5, 2017

'Who is a Democrat?'

Shelby County Democratic Party reorganization struggles with enforcing loyalty

By Bill Dries

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Through two meetings in less than a week, the leader of a reorganization of the Shelby County Democratic Party has heard one discussion more than any other issue raised in the gatherings.

Corey Strong is part of the committee working to reorganize the Shelby County Democratic Party. The group is meeting with local Democrats this month with a goal of holding a local party convention in June. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Who is a Democrat?” attorney and former local party chairman David Cocke said in defining the issue at the start of the second forum in Midtown Wednesday, May 3.

The committee Cocke leads was appointed by Tennessee Democratic Party leaders to rebuild the local party’s structure and set up its convention this summer. That follows the state group’s decision to disband the Shelby County Democratic Party last August after years of dysfunction and turmoil within the local executive committee.

The open meetings, which continue Tuesday, May 9, in Germantown, are a first step toward the process.

Wednesday’s gathering in Midtown, along with one Saturday in Raleigh, each drew groups of 30 to 40 people – some new to politics since last year’s presidential election and others veterans of the local political scene.

London Lamar, president of Tennessee Young Democrats, speaks at a meeting of Shelby County Democrats in Midtown.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Attorney Carlissa Shaw, a member of the party’s reorganizing committee, served on the disbanded executive committee for about three months.

“It was chaotic,” she said of the experience. “Nobody could give me an answer on what I was looking for: What is the rubric for the Democratic Party to support a candidate?”

Censures of Democratic elected officials and even two former local party chairmen – Jim Strickland and Sidney Chism – were a regular feature of the executive committee toward the end.

Chism, a former Shelby County commissioner who intends to run in the Democratic primary for Shelby County mayor next year, said some candidates got into Democratic primaries to conquer and divide Democrats, sometimes with Republicans financially backing their candidacies.

Chism doesn’t see Republicans backing Democrats they agree with. He sees Republicans trying to split the Democratic primary vote to elect the weakest Democrat.

“Most of them are paid to get in the race. Most of them have someone giving them something to get in the race,” he said at the Raleigh gathering. “Why would we need two or three Democrats running for the same position? You are talking about Democrats being in control. You are not going to ever be in control if you allow people to put money into these races, to put a less-qualified person in the race. We are trying to get rid of that scenario.”

But others argue rules on the front end could discourage good candidates with changing views from getting involved and defeat the purpose of a primary.

“If you’ve got two strong Democrats running against one another, I’m not sure that’s bad,” Cocke said.

But even Democrats urging less restrictive rules worried about candidates who run as Democrats then vote with and for Republicans.

“The focus should be more on what can we do to get the right person in office,” said Corey Strong, one of the state party executive committee members named to the reorganization group. “You can run, but you won’t get out of the primary – that could be the response,” he told the Midtown gathering.

Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love is a Democrat holding a nonpartisan office who doesn’t see the party at all at her level of local government.

“I don’t see a lot of political people in school board meetings unless they are trying to get a contract or unless they are supporting someone who has a contract. … Nobody comes to me,” she said. “The only people that come to me are constituents. Nobody has come to me and said, ‘This is our plan.’”

Cocke and the others reorganizing the party say that is where the local party’s efforts should be aimed primarily.

“We’re all attracted to national politics,” he said of the surge in political activism in a county carried by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in a national election won by Donald Trump.

“But the way to win over a long period of time is local elections,” Cocke added.

Meanwhile, Republicans have emphasized the crossover potential of their candidates for countywide office that contributed to Democratic voter crossover in 2010 and 2014.

Republican candidates swept every countywide office on the ballot in 2010. Four years later, they swept all but one: the Shelby County Assessor of Property’s office, which moved to the election cycle because of a county charter amendment.

Those leading the local Democratic Party’s censure efforts heavily backed retired Criminal Court Judge Joe Brown as the Democratic nominee for district attorney general in 2014 and made Brown the tip of the spear of a Democratic slate.

Cocke is among Democrats who say the strategy, along with Brown’s distracted and at times bizarre campaign, also took down him and everyone other Democrat on the slate except Assessor Cheyenne Johnson.

“A lot of candidates, when they get the nomination, stop working and rely on the party to deliver them,” he said. “Everybody who is an elected official who is a Democrat, we think should be challenged to support the Democratic Party. … You can’t discipline an elected official. They have their own constituency. But if we are going to support a candidate, they’ve got to bring something to the table – enthusiasm or money or name recognition or competency.”

Part of the difference in the approach of Republicans and Democrats to the local campaigns comes from the county’s Democratic majority, which Republicans acknowledge.

Democratic Party leaders perhaps counted on that majority too much, putting up nominees who could repeatedly win low-turnout primaries. The demographic numbers are still a potent battle cry in the party reorganization.

“We are coming to take back over Shelby County,” said local Young Democrats leader Alvin Crook at Wednesday’s Midtown gathering. “You are a Democrat or you are not.”

Crook and other younger Democratic organizers emerged in the decertification of the local party to build a database and volunteer campaign. It not only delivered Shelby County for Clinton by a two-to-one margin but was also a factor in Democrat Dwayne Thompson upsetting Republican incumbent Steve McManus in a state House race in the Republican suburbs last year.

The goal of the reorganization is a local party convention in June to elect a new executive committee, which would in turn elect a new party chairman and adopt new bylaws.

Cocke and others have suggested also having a larger advisory group of Democrats to meet quarterly.

There probably will be changes in the financial responsibilities of the party, too. Cocke says the local party finances operated more like a political action committee in the recent past, with requirements for regular reports to the state. And those reports not being filed triggered fines from the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance.

A new structure might leave campaign fundraising to candidates and other campaigns.

Still pending is state legislation that would bar members who served on a disbanded local party executive committee from serving again for two years after the party is dissolved and reorganized. The state party chairman could grant exceptions to the ban.

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