Curious and Curiouser: Is There Really a "Race-Baiting" Issue in the Mayor's Race?

Mayoral opponents Malone and Mulroy trade accusations.

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Mulroy and supporters at his Thursday press conference
  • JB
  • Mulroy and supporters at his Thursday press conference

The end game is getting a bit unnerving.

And no, I don’t mean the Grizzlies v. Thunder series, although the Game 6 blowout would certainly lead in that direction.

I mean the Shelby County Mayor’s race, where the game of Can-You-Top-This between the two main competitors — Deidre Malone and Steve Mulroy — has become an ironic misnomer.

First — and there was more than a hint of Hail Mary to it— came the Mulroy camp’s eyebrow-raising charge that Malone had —wait for it — contributed $250 to the campaign of lawyer Ricky Wilkins, who is the latest challenger to the tenure of four-term 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen.

Now, both Cohen and Wilkins are Democrats, competitors in the August 7 state-federal primary — which happens also to be the general election date for county offices, the date on which either Mulroy or Malone (or, if the Heavens intervene, the Rev. Kenneth Whalum) will get the voters’ verdict against County Mayor Mark Luttrell, the Republican incumbent.

Depending on how you look at it, either Rep. Cohen or Memphis Mayor A C Wharton could be considered eligible for the title of Mr. Democrat in Shelby County. They are the party’s highest-ranking officials, in any case, while Wilkins, though presumably a Democrat in good standing, could well end up as just another exhibit in the four-term congressman’s trophy case.

But, again, the Heavens — or the voters — could, at least in theory, intervene and produce a result other than the expected one. (Keep in mind, though, before you call your Vegas bookie, that Cohen has been running up majorities of 4 to 1 or even 8 to 1 against opponents who have included some name Democrats.)

The point, though, is that both Cohen, however distinguished, and Wilkins, however unknown at this point to most voters, are Democrats. So what, a visitor from Mars might ask, is the crime of one Democrat (Malone, in this case) choosing to support one of two other Democrats (Wilkins, in this case)?

Hold that thought, while you evaluate County Commissioner Mulroy’s own presentation of the case against former Commissioner Malone, as contained in a mailer sent out to voters last week:

DEIDRE MALONE…
• supports Congressman Steve Cohen’s opponents, including a financial contribution LAST MONTH to the current opponent trying to defeat him in the primary.
• Appeared in advertising supporting Congressman Cohen’s opponent [Tomeka Hart] in 23012.

The mailer notes that Mulroy himself:

• Supports Congressman Steve Cohen’s re-election this year
• Has endorsed Rep. Cohen every year
• Believes that we should focus our attention on beating Republicans instead of targeting Rep. Cohen.

The point would seem to be, fairly clearly, an appeal to those Democratic voters who hold the current congressman in high esteem for a vote of solidarity in the current mayoral primary.

Here, however, is Malone’s response to the mailer, from an entry on her Facebook page on Tuesday, April 29:

I am deeply troubled by Commissioner Steve Mulroy’s attempts to use race-baiting 7 days before the Democratic Primary to sway voters instead of discussing real issues like women’s healthcare, education, poverty and economic development. It is my belief that citizens of Shelby County will see past these tactics and realize that the larger picture is for us to move with a unified agenda. It is also my belief that voters will see straight through this type of careless propaganda. I’m not in a race with Congressman Steve Cohen. This is an embarrassment to the entire Democratic Party. [our bolds]

Race-baiting?

This is a new configuration, indeed, and the point of it may not be readily apparent unless — unless, well, you’re looking for it.

Cutting to the chase, Malone’s argument — which she repeated in an interview on WREG-TV, News Channel 3 — would seem to be that, since Democrat Cohen is white and Democrat Wilkins is black, Mulroy’s invocation of the congressman is, de facto, an introduction of the race issue.

In fairness, Malone’s reference was less to the mailer than to a Mulroy campaign robo-call to early voters on the same theme, which went this way:

Hello, this is Connie Ross, former Director of the domestic violence Clinic. I’m early voting for Steve Mulroy, Democrat for county Mayor. His opponent Deidre Malone is spreading false information about Steve’s record on women’s issues — don’t believe it.

Deidre Malone endorsed Steve Cohen’s opponent Tomeka Hart two years ago. Deidre Malone just contributed financially to the man currently trying to defeat Steve Cohen. This shows bad judgment. It’s bad for Memphis.

We can’t have a Democratic County Mayor who is part of the effort to beat Congressman Steve Cohen. That’s why we all need to vote early for Steve Mulroy.

He is honest. Steve will make sure all the rape kits are tested, and will restore the county’s women’s health care to the Planned Parenthood levels.

Mulroy has always supported Congressman Cohen and he can unite all people of all races in Shelby County.

Well, the phrase “people of all races” does appear in the robo-call’s last sentence. Can that be what Malone means by “race-baiting?”

It’s a little bit like being in a bus station in these parts and trying to wangle a ticket to Kankakee. You can get there, maybe, but it’s going to take quite a few transfers. And a detour or two.

Mulroy, in any case, had another destination in mind. He called a press conference for 1 p.m. Thursday, which got under way something like an hour later — the wait occasioned by difficulties that some of the billed participants were having in getting there.

City Council member Janis Fullilove — whose driveway, reporters were told, was somehow blocked —- would later address the press conference by speaker-phone. Judge Joe Brown, the former Criminal Court Judge and TV eminence and curreht de facto Democratic nominee for District Attorney General, was stuck in Germantown on some kind of personal or campaign business.

But there was a lineup of Mulroy supporters to back the Commissioner as he took issue with the “race-baiting” charge as “laughable…outrageous, and offensive.” Cohen, he said, had been a “pioneer, stalwart champion of progressive causes for decades” who had been “overwhelmingly supported by both white and black voters, time and again.”

After some further cataloging of Cohen’s putative value to the Memphis area, Mulroy turned Malone’s accusation around, branding it “another cynical use of the race card to …attempt to manipulate public opinion.” Further, “it disqualifies her from being a county mayor.”

In a Q and A after Mulroy’s statement and after expressions of support from those backers who were present (and from Councilwoman Fullilove by telephone), the Commissioner was asked if he meant that Malone’s action had “disqualified” her from an earlier pledge that he (along with Malone and Whalum) had made to support whoever the Democratic nominee turned out to be.

“I would have to think long and hard about that,” Mulroy said. Though ruling out any potential support of Republican Luttrell because of the “differences between the parties,” he said, “….This whole issue does give me pause.,,, I’ll have to think about it.”

Another point had been made earlier by former state Rep. Jeanne Richardson, one of the supporters in Mulroy’s back-up group Thursday. She put forth as part of the case against Malone, and perhaps an even more salient one, that Malone, who is the proprietor of The Malone Group, a public relations company, had taken on District Attorney General Bill Gibbons as a client in his 2006 race against Democratic challenger Gail Mathes.

Elaborating on that, chief Mulroy aide David Upton argued that Malone’s involvement in that race on Gibbons’ behalf had been more than professional, involving a personal endorsement made publicly.

After the press conference had broken up and most of the participants in it had left, reporters were told that Brown was on his way, and, in due time, here came the Judge. After making a stout defense of Mulroy’s “skill set ideally supported for today’s conditions,” Brown took on the “race-baiting” issue, dismissing it as “one of those ploys that we get these days, trying to make everybody so delicate and so weak in their sensibilities that no one can call a spade a spade.” There was “nothing to be offended by” in Mulroy’s statements to which Malone had taken exception, he said.

The county, Brown said, needed to “get away from doing what it does based on a racial profile or racial expectations, trying to separate people and to divide and, somehow or another, to prevail.”

That was “not good,” the Judge said, “and I’m glad he [Mulroy] is attempting to stop it.”

All of which seemed to direct the onus of “race-baiting,” if such there was, onto Malone rather than onto Mulroy. “We don’t need anybody right now in county office falling back on that weak thing,” Brown said.

But, like Mulroy, Brown declined to rule out support of Malone if she should be the nominee. He indeed went somewhat further. “I intend to support the Democratic nominee, whoever that may be, wholeheartedly.” But he would be outspoken on behalf of “a Democratic Party limited to no one but inclusive of everyone.”

In that roundabout manner the issue was disposed of somewhat, and the questioning of Brown went in other directions regarding his own forthcoming race against D.A. Amy Weirich.

It should be said that Rep. Cohen himself, the original bone of contention, has declined to be brought too far into the current controversy, other than to question Malone’s thought processes, and he has made clear that his neutrality in the mayor’s race stems from his friendship with both Mulroy and the Rev. Whalum.

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