VOL. 10 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 18, 2017
The Next Four Years
By Bill Dries
A week before candidates for the 2018 Shelby County elections could pull qualifying petitions to run, Shelby County Commissioner David Reaves was thinking out loud on Facebook.
(Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
“Next four years,” was how it began.
Reaves was elected to the Shelby County Schools Board in 2010, just a few months before the Memphis City Schools Board voted to surrender its charter, which began the process of the public schools merger and demerger that followed.
He would become part of a 23-member combined transitional school board and then run for and win election to the Shelby County Commission in 2014.
Through the unprecedented, historic seven-year ride in local politics, Reaves has been vocal about the challenges of holding elected office.
But his Nov. 5 Facebook post wasn’t about vote counts or Republicans and Democrats. It was about what he missed as a dad and husband at home. About being so preoccupied that his family would tell him things he could not remember five seconds later.
“We run as long as we can until we exhaust our terms or we exhaust our bodies,” he wrote. “Who gives away being an incumbent? Easy race. But inside your spirit gnaws at you, reminds you, that still small voice. You don’t find peace.”
The three elections for state, county and federal offices in 2018 come at a time of unprecedented political turbulence since Donald Trump started winning primaries in 2016 on his way to the White House.
It is about more than reactions to Trump in a city with the state’s largest Democratic base surrounded by suburbs that constitute the state’s largest Republican base – each within the same county.
The Shelby County Democratic Party was dissolved by the state party last year after years of dysfunction. In 2010, Republicans took every one of the nine non-judicial countywide races on the ballot. In 2014, Republicans took every countywide race except for property assessor.
The countywide dominance by Republicans in 2010 and 2014 is challenged by term limits and other ambitions. The result is a game of musical chairs for some incumbents.
Randy Boyd on top of Beale Street Landing, the finish line for his run across the state of Tennessee. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)
Trustee David Lenoir is running for county mayor. So is county commissioner Terry Roland – both term limited. And Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos, who is not term-limited as clerk, makes it three in the Republican mayoral primary so far.
Register Tom Leatherwood is running for Circuit Court Clerk. Incumbent Republican Jimmy Moore, whose office is not subject to term limits, is not seeking re-election.
County Clerk Wayne Mashburn is expected to show up as a candidate for another countywide office.
Sheriff Bill Oldham, also term-limited, has no plans to be on the ballot for any other office. Oldham, a Republican, is backing his chief deputy, Floyd Bonner, who is running in the Democratic primary for sheriff against former Sheriff’s Capt. Bennie Cobb, who was the Democratic nominee for sheriff in 2014.
The Republican primary for sheriff includes Shelby County Office of Preparedness director and former SCSO supervisor Dale Lane, who also ran in 2010.
Assessor Cheyenne Johnson is backing Shawn Lynch, an attorney with the assessor’s office and a CBRE analyst before that, in the Democratic primary. County commissioner Melvin Burgess is expected to make that primary as well.
TESTS FOR REORGANIZED DEMOCRATS
Diane Black is among the GOP candidates running for governor who are courting Shelby County's large suburban base of Republican voters. (Memphis News/Bill Dries)
The reconstituted local Democratic Party, headed by Corey Strong, a Memphis native who works for Shelby County Schools on special projects, is starting the rebuilding effort with a voter registration push to get new energy. There, by the strategy, voters will sort out who are the party’s nominees.
“We’ve seen some prodigal sons and daughters who were active in politics and then life happened,” Strong said. “We’ve seen people who have never necessarily been politically active until they saw a degradation of the political system as they see it. We’ve seen people who have never registered – never really bought into the process at all. … They have to understand the whole process to get someone elected. And that starts off with getting registered to vote.”
Shelby County Republican Party chairman Lee Mills has emphasized not taking local Democrats for granted, even with the temporary dissolution of the local party. Even with no county Democratic Party in existence, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton still carried Shelby County in the November 2016 presidential general election with 60 percent of the vote.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who is running in the August Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat Bob Corker is giving up in his split with Trump, put the onus on Republican candidates in October when she spoke to the Tennessee Federation of Republican Women in Memphis.
“You can think you are going to get it. You can feel like you deserve it,” she said. “But you’ve got to get out there earning every vote, every day. And a well-delivered message, simple, easy to understand – delivered with enthusiasm, delivered with passion carries the day every single time.”
Blackburn was among those at the gathering who argued that 2016 wasn’t the revolution – it was the lead-in to the revolution. The six GOP contenders in the Tennessee primary for governor and U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Germantown – who is up for re-election in 2018 – all pledged allegiance to Trump with no indications of dissent among them or the audience of 200.
Kustoff said for Republicans, the uncertainty was before the 2016 results, not after.
“There was a real fear we could lose our majority in the House and in the Senate. … The people were frustrated. Our people were frustrated,” he said. “I think everybody can agree, we’ve got a president in the White House who likes to get things done.”
Democrats have the makings of a generation gap. The gap separates much of the party’s new blood from what is left of its establishment after this year’s formal reorganization of the party.
2018 Election Dates
SHELBY COUNTY PRIMARY ELECTION
Early Voting: April 11-26
Election Day: May 1
STATE AND FEDERAL PRIMARY
AND COUNTY GENERAL ELECTION
Early Voting: July 13-28
Election Day: Aug. 2
STATE AND FEDERAL
Early Voting: Oct. 17-Nov. 1
Election Day: Nov. 6
The local convention in the summer that reorganized the party elected a new executive committee and a larger “grassroots council” that has a lot of new blood.
That includes Trump “resistance” groups and leaders of protest efforts such as the July 2016 Black Lives Matter march that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.
What’s left of the party’s old guard doesn’t like the emphasis on protest and its methods. They also don’t care for what they see as the “impatience” of the new blood.
The new blood in the party’s leadership isn’t comfortable with the push to win any and all general elections for whoever comes out of the Democratic primaries. They are still debating how to judge, and thus support, who is a true Democrat.
The irony is the party leadership before the reorganization struggled with making the same determination.
The test of the new Democratic Party’s ability to overcome its generation gap is likely to be the run by Tami Sawyer. She is the leader and founder of the Take Them Down 901 effort to remove Confederate monuments who is seeking the District 7 seat on the Shelby County Commission being vacated by term-limited Melvin Burgess.
Two years ago, Sawyer challenged veteran state Rep. John DeBerry in the District 90 Democratic primary. DeBerry beat Sawyer by 639 votes in a race that drew 4,824 votes – a respectable first outing for Sawyer, who two years earlier led the first Black Lives Matter protests in Memphis.
Following the 2016 elections, she was part of an infusion of newer and younger activists on the board of the Memphis Branch NAACP, the city’s oldest and longest-running civil rights organization.
For the moment, Sawyer has no rivals in the Democratic primary. But if she wins, with or without Democratic opposition, she may face mortgage loan officer Sam Goff. Goff is running in the Republican primary and has been connected, visible and vocal on Midtown issues, in particular as the area’s red-hot development trends have given rise to issues about the scale of that development.
Goff so far appears to be unopposed in his primary. Like Sawyer, he has obstacles as he campaigns in an area that is arguably the epicenter of the local Trump resistance.
A Goff-Sawyer matchup in August could determine whether Democrats keep their seven-seat majority on the county commission or whether Republicans become the new majority.
OLD GUARD, NEW BLOOD
The other key test for both parties is in the May primary for county mayor.
State Sen. Lee Harris is invoking the specter of President Donald Trump in his bid for Shelby County mayor in the Democratic primary. (Memphis News/Bill Dries)
State Sen. Lee Harris faces former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism in the Democratic primary, and perhaps other candidates.
Harris, from the outset, has made his candidacy about new blood in local politics and frequently cites the Trump presidency as the barrier Democrats need to overcome even in local races.
He says Republicans are incapable of nominating a “moderate” even for county offices under the shadow of Trump.
Harris touts his ability to work with Republicans in the 33-member Senate, where he is one of only five Democrats in the upper chamber.
“I’ve shown I can work with almost anyone,” Harris said at a Nov. 1 Victorian Village fundraiser. “We are being divided based on race and religion, on whether we are too patriotic or not patriotic enough, whether or not we protest too loudly or whether we are too silent. Our leaders today are more likely to name-call than to try to pull us together.”
Former Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism says he is the grassroots candidate for county mayor and is attacking rival Lee Harris. (Memphis News/Bill Dries)
Chism, in opening his campaign – even as his longtime political ally, Bank of Bartlett president and former state Rep. Harold Byrd was still considering running in the primary – went straight at Harris with no mention of the Republican field.
“I’m going to beat up on him from morning until night,” Chism said at his campaign opening in Whitehaven.
Chism is critical of Harris’s six-year tenure in elected office. Two years into a four-year city council term, Harris challenged and beat Democratic state Sen. Ophelia Ford. Chism said Harris is being backed “by the fat boys who sit in the back rooms and make decisions for this county.”
“We don’t run nothing and they don’t want us to run nothing. Don’t fool yourself,” Chism said, billing himself as the “grassroots” candidate.
Harris, while surprised, wasted little time in linking Chism, a former Shelby County Democratic Party chairman, to Trump-style tactics.
“The Trump approach has contaminated our politics and government and I’m running to change that,” Harris emailed to supporters citing Chism’s criticism. “We shouldn’t bring the Trump leadership style to Shelby County.”
On the Republican side, Roland was Trump’s West Tennessee campaign coordinator and spoke at Trump’s Millington rally in February 2016.
Roland is relying on Trump’s appeal as he questions how closely Lenoir and Touliatos hew to Trump’s brand of conservatism. His primary campaign will likely point to which local Republicans didn’t support Trump.
Lenoir, meanwhile, is emphasizing his business background as a financial adviser and experience in two terms holding an office he and past trustees have referred to as being “the county’s banker.”
He opened his campaign in September by saying the county appears headed toward a “transformation” by most accounts.
“My question is, a transformation of what? What is Shelby County going to be? I think that is at the very heart of this election,” he said. “We must acknowledge that we have faced enormous challenges – challenges that I believe are the result of long-term unemployment and a lack of great jobs.”
Lenoir is taking aim at the two-cent cut in the county’s new certified tax rate that Roland played a key role in passing and that Roland is already touting. Lenoir says it wasn’t enough of a cut.
“I would advocate more in that direction,” Lenoir said. “Just because it was a tax-rate decrease does not mean it was a tax decrease for Shelby Countians.”
Touliatos, on her website, is pledging to “fight criminal justice reform efforts and liberal organizations that want to weaken the laws that punish those that threaten the safety of our community.”
She has mapped out a basic campaign strategy of introducing herself to voters and basic issues led by crime and public safety.
“I believe that we should stand by our law enforcement and our sheriff’s department and our prosecutors – make sure they have the proper funding and make sure they are able to do their job and prosecute people committing the crimes,” she said when asked about criminal justice reform.
“I think it depends on who you are talking to.”
Touliatos agrees with changes made at Juvenile Court that are a result of U.S. Justice Department oversight.
“I think it’s a good thing and there have been changes, positive changes and we should continue that,” she said.
In Tennessee’s 2016 Republican presidential primary, Trump carried Shelby County by less than a thousand votes over Ted Cruz in a primary that drew nearly 70,000 Republican voters.
In the general election, both Trump and Clinton underperformed past presidential nominees of both parties – Barack Obama, John McCain and Mitt Romney – in terms of the number of votes they got in Shelby County.
In the governor’s race, local GOP politicos – the experienced political hands who are the local face and tip of the spear in such statewide campaigns – have been making their own decisions.
With state Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris’s presidential appointment as a federal judge in July, the primary race is without a single Democrat or Republican from Memphis and Shelby County.
Had Norris remained in the governor’s race, his rivals likely wouldn’t have ceded the city and county to him. Former Tennessee Economic and Community Development commissioner Randy Boyd of Knoxville, in particular, was already making inroads in local support.
Local Republicans are concerned that the nominee and eventual winner of the general election will forget about Memphis and Shelby County as a whole once elected.
As declared and still deliberating candidates look at red letter days on their political calendar for 2018, Reaves drew a distinction in his Facebook post between the importance of timing in the pursuit of politics and time itself.
“Now I stare at four more years, objectives completed,” he said. “Trying to figure out the highest and best use. I found them. And they won’t be as a county commissioner. … Four more years. I can do a lot with four more years. I will do a lot with four more years. But I won’t be a politician for the next four years.”