Politics » Politics Feature

A Curb on “Anything-Goes” Politics?

A judicial order aimed at bogus advertising in the Wilkins-Cohen race could transform the larger political landscape.

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M. LaTroy Williams, who has registered the names "Shelby County Democratic Club" and the "National Democratic Party USA," both of them shell organizations without real function or current membership, became, as of Monday, the subject of a far-reaching temporary restraining order from Circuit Court Judge Karen Williams.

In the waning days of a summer election season that has seemed, almost in a biblical sense, to have been always with us, that ruling could have repercussions beyond the tawdry machinations of Williams' cynical efforts to aid in the long-odds, insurgent effort of lawyer Ricky Wilkins to oust four-term 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen.

And it could transcend the results of the election itself.

Judge Williams (no relation) has enjoined M. LaTroy Williams to cease and desist in relation to several outdoor signs blatantly and falsely indicating that candidate Wilkins has been endorsed not only by the Democratic Party nationally, but by President Obama.        

The judge went further, ordering Williams to cease and desist with a variety of printed hand-out materials as well, and her ruling could strike at the heart of a lucrative local election-year "balloting" racket, which has several well-known practitioners who charge candidates huge fees to appear on glossy sample ballots bearing their photographs — or, alternatively, to keep their opponents off such ballots.

Wilkins chats with reporters in a WDIA holding room - JACKSON BAKER
  • Jackson Baker
  • Wilkins chats with reporters in a WDIA holding room

Most of these ballots bear some variation of the word "Democratic" in conjunction with official-sounding names of groups, which, in most cases, are either moribund or never existed in any real sense. Williams' vehicle is the "Official Ballot" of the "Shelby County Democratic Club." Other ballots put out by competitors bear such names as "The Official Shelby County Coalition of Democrats Ballot" and the "Official Ballot of Greater Memphis Democratic Club."

None of these ballots is issued by, or reflects the actual choices of, the Shelby County Democratic Party, which has just published its own ballot guide under the name, "Official Shelby County Democratic Party Ballot," bearing the seal of the State of Tennessee and a few words of text from SCDP Chairman Bryan Carson.

That the only hand-out ballot reflecting any live, functioning, official local version of the Democratic Party could get lost in the plethora of so many fake versions was sufficiently worrisome to Carson that he issued a public warning about "rogue ballots" prior to this year's first major election, the May 6th party primaries for county offices.

M. LaTroy Williams doubles as a perennial candidate, having waged — and lost — several campaigns in his own right, most recently in the Democratic primary for Shelby County Trustee in May. He is the leading bogus-ballot entrepreneur in Shelby County, with rake-offs that handily lead the pack, according to a study done earlier this year by political blogger Steve Ross of vibincblog.com.

And now he has transcended mere paper balloting — taking his fool-the-eye arts into the realms of TV commercials and free-standing political campaign signs. Last week, local TV viewers were treated to a political commercial featuring a make-believe news announcer bringing "breaking news" — namely, that the "National Democratic Party, U.S.A." had endorsed Ricky Wilkins for Congress.

Then came the outdoor signs, communicating the same message, with the additional fillip of symmetrically matched portraits of President Obama and Wilkins, divided by the official symbol of the Democratic National Committee (DNC)and the words "has endorsed," constituting a clear visual indicator that the lucky congressional challenger had earned the nod of both the president and the Democratic Party at the highest level.

The realities are that the "National Democratic Party, U.S.A." bears no relation to the real DNC or to any legitimate Democratic Party organization in Tennessee, as a spokesperson for the DNC and Roy Herron, state Democratic chairman, made abundantly clear in statements on Monday.

As for Obama, the president long ago endorsed not Wilkins but Cohen's reelection bid, a fact newly confirmed by the actual DNC and by a formal statement released by the president back in April.

As Representative Cohen noted in a press conference Monday morning, the sign was not only designed to "deceive the voters," it was illegal, bearing no indication of who paid for it, as required by election law. Cohen made a conspicuous effort not to link the sign, with its false message and false credentials, to his primary opponent and, in fact, invited Wilkins, perhaps with tongue in cheek, to join with him as a "fellow Democrat" in renouncing the faux organization, the bogus message, and the whole tawdry make-believe.

Within the hour, both Wilkins and Cohen appeared, sequentially, on WDIA on a call-in show hosted by Bev Johnson. After his turn in the studio, Wilkins chatted with reporters in an adjoining holding room.

The challenger quickly dispatched with the idea that he might join Cohen in renouncing Williams' activities, commenting acidly, "It sounds to me like Mr. Cohen is now being the crybaby that he accuses me of being." That was in reference to Wilkins' charge that Cohen had interceded with national officials of the AFSCME governmental workers' union to inhibit Local 1733 of AFSCME from endorsing Wilkins.

"I'm not going to join him in doing anything," said Wilkins, who called Cohen "hypocritical" for raising questions about "campaign pictures" featuring himself and President Obama. And he took the opportunity to repeat previously stated doubts about the genuineness of Obama's endorsement of Cohen.

"The only voice we've heard is Steve Cohen's voice. Everyone in the media accepts it as true because Steve Cohen said it. It has not been verified."

Wilkins acknowledged that he had been the beneficiary of some of M. LaTroy Williams' faux ballots but categorically denied having anything to do, financially or otherwise, with the TV commercial or the outdoor signs. "It didn't come from my campaign," he said.

Wilkins later issued a hands-off statement about Williams:

"As for the individual groups supporting Ricky Wilkins For Congress, we do not control nor manage their activities. We welcome the free expression of supporters and have no involvement in the preparation or placement of their materials," read the statement, which continued, "When you are trying to defeat an incumbent Congressman, you need a diverse and wide-ranging group of supporters. We welcome and appreciate all supporters."

As it happens, Judge Williams had already made her own statement with the restraining order, directing defendant Williams to "take immediate action to remove from public view and/or access all items identified to be restrained in this pleading."

Those "items" included far more than M. LaTroy Williams' outdoor signs. The order contained language both precise and far-reaching in defining the impermissible (e.g., "[d]istributing literature, disseminating information or in any way communicating or implying any misleading information regarding the political party affiliation of a candidate or group").

The order is, indeed, so broadly stated that, if sustained in a subsequent hearing, it could literally transform the local political landscape — one littered by long tradition with so much indulgence of false and disingenuous claims that a legitimate and credentialed claimant to high political office could actually profess to "welcome and appreciate" it.

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