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VOL. 133 | NO. 94 | Thursday, May 10, 2018

Local Republicans and Democrats Regroup From May County Primaries for Unity

By Bill Dries

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Shelby County Republican Party chairman Lee Mills knows what it is like to lose an election. Four years ago he ran for alderman in Arlington and lost by 21 votes.

Some of the winners and some of the losers in the May Republican county primaries gathered Tuesday in Germantown for a unity rally with some fundraising around the county general election to come in August. (Daily News/Bill Dries)

“I can’t tell you how it feels to lose. It’s undescribable,” Mills told a group of around 100 winners and losers from the May 1 county Republican primaries Tuesday, May 8 at a unity rally in Germantown. “All the hard work that you put into it – all the sweat, all the money, all the phone calls – all the work at the polls and to come up short is heartbreaking.”

For Mills and Shelby County Democratic Party chairman Corey Strong, getting those who lost within their parties to work for or at a minimum speak no ill of those who won is a work in progress.

“We’re reaching out the best we can,” Strong said at the Democrats’ unity gala Saturday in Berclair that drew 200.

In each case, there were some no-shows among the winners and the losers – some of that owing to losing candidates as well as some winners taking a week off before jumping into the August county general election campaign.

Earlier Tuesday, county commissioner Terry Roland, who ran second to David Lenoir in the Republican primary for Shelby County mayor, sent a request to county chief administrative officer Harvey Kennedy seeking how many hours attorney Lang Wiseman has worked for Lenoir in Lenoir’s position as trustee. He also requested the same records on attorney Martin Zummach for Zummach’s work for juvenile court clerk Joy Touliatos, who finished third in the Republican mayoral primary.

It was an issue Roland raised several times in the primary campaign.

At the Democratic gathering, Collierville Democratic club founder and leader Emily Fulmer was named organizer of the year with two elections still to come in 2018 locally.

Fulmer is part of the local Democratic Party’s effort to challenge Republican dominance in the suburbs outside Memphis.

“There is so much work to be done. And we all have a little piece of the puzzle that we need to contribute,” she told the group. “And we step back and we all see the picture. You know what it is? A giant blue wave.”

Mills pointed to a spike in Republican turnout in the primary election cycle from 2014 to 2018 as evidence of a red tide. Meanwhile, Democrats point to a larger overall turnout than Republicans in the May primaries even with more Republicans participating in the GOP primaries than four years ago.

“We are outnumbered in Shelby County. We always have been. And for the last decade we have won elections because we have the best candidates,” Mills said. “There’s plenty of hope for Republicans. Don’t believe what you read. Believe what you see.”

Strong is chairman of a rebuilt local Democratic Party that had its charter dissolved by the state party last August.

“All of our candidates across the board kind of went back to basics,” he said during the weekend gala. “It’s not just mail. It’s not just phone calls. It’s actually going out and canvassing, a lot more direct voter contact. It’s inspiring. It’s where we are going in the general election.”

Those are the same basics Lenoir urged Republicans to continue to use.

“We are within striking distance. We are in great position going into August,” Lenoir said. “We can’t take the turnout we had in May for granted. We need you to turn out and vote.”

Mills said the local party efforts will be augmented closer to August as money from the state and national parties flows into Shelby County for statewide primary races for U.S. Senate. The contest for Republican Bob Corker’s seat jumped the August primaries and turned the corner into a general election matchup between Republican Marsha Blackburn and Democrat Phil Bredesen even before the May primaries.

Bakari Sellers, a four-term South Carolina state legislator and CNN political analyst who spoke at the Democratic gala, said there is also a link between the Senate race and the local races.

“Shelby County is a Democratic county. It can make or break whether or not somebody statewide is a United States senator or a governor in this state,” he said. “Democrats need to have that swagger, but they also need to have that work ethic.”

And Sellers said the national party forgot that.

“For a long period of time people weren’t paying attention to these races, which was the bane of our existence. Republicans ran people from dog catcher all the way up,” he said. “It takes the sweat equity, something Democrats haven’t been good at for a long period of time. We’ve run ads on radio and TV, but we haven’t been engaged in communities the way we should be. … We allowed divisive politics to come in and be the diet that most voters took. We weren’t giving them a message for the future.”

Leaders of both parties are seasoning their get-out-the-vote pitches with a pinch of what the other party has done right.

Tennessee Republican Party chairman Scott Golden, after last month’s Memphis forum among three of the major contenders in the August Republican primary for governor, was tempering his post-debate spin.

“I am on record as saying there will be a blue wave,” Golden said when asked about Democratic chances.

Strong said the May county primaries were a “trial run” with Democrats getting their chance to vote for Democrats over Republicans starting in August.

“I think because it’s a real election and it’s the real thing you’ll see more people turn out. … When you have a Republican, it’s a real target – it makes it a lot easier,” Strong said.

And Democratic leaders plan to remind voters of what Strong termed “eight years of Republican rule.”

“Eight years of Republicans pointing their finger at city government they’ve abandoned,” he said. “Eight years of Republicans saying how well they can build up the county while forgetting that Memphis is a part of Shelby County.”

Sellers is among those backing away from talk of a blue wave.

“It’s way too early,” he said. “We can probably diagnose a wave on Nov. 7. I was the same person who thought Hillary Clinton was going to be president of the United States. I forever have learned my lesson that we’ve got dot all of our I’s and cross all of our T’s.”

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