Politics » Politics Feature

A Power Imbalance

Democrats' control locally is in contrast to their crumbling position statewide.

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One of the ironies of the current political situation for locals is that Democrats are plainly gaining hegemony in Memphis and Shelby County, while, statewide, the momentum is altogether the other way.

County government is heading toward another test of Democratic suzerainty, when Shelby County commissioners have to decide during the next month whom to appoint as the successor to Democrat Matt Kuhn, who resigned his District 4, Position 3 commission seat this week to become a policy adviser to newly sworn-in interim mayor Joe Ford.

The commission is already scheduled to meet next week to name a successor to former commissioner Ford in his vacated District 3, Position 3 seat, but whoever prevails is certain to be a Democrat, essentially because all the applicants are, because the party has a majority on the commission and because the seat is a traditionally Democratic one.

That last point is a sore one with the commission's outnumbered Republicans, who saw the Democrats vote en masse in February to name Kuhn as the successor to the GOP's David Lillard, who had departed to become state treasurer. Kuhn's victory increased the Democratic majority on the commission to 8-5.

The succession to Kuhn opens up that can of worms again, with the Democrats having it in their power once more, if they choose, to flout the former tradition that vacancies should be filled by members of the prevailing party in a given district.

The odds favoring a Democrat could be significantly reduced by the time a vote is taken. Kuhn's vote will be gone, and, if Justin Ford, the interim mayor's son, accedes to his father's seat, he might choose to vote as his father did for the first several ballots in February — in favor of the old same-party tradition rather than party dominance.

The uncertainty has caused the re-emergence of former Collierville mayor Linda Kerley as a prospect. Kerley, who failed to gain traction in previous bids for the Lillard vacancy and the interim mayoralty, may be more happily circumstanced as a potential compromise choice for the historically Republican District 4, Position 3 seat.

A nominal Republican, Kerley has never voted in a Democratic primary, but she has supported such Democratic candidacies as those of A C Wharton, Phil Bredesen, and Harold Ford Jr.

It remains to be seen whether this ambiguity works for her prospects this time or against them, as it always has before. • Meanwhile, the movement toward Republicanism in Tennessee, long considered a bellwether state capable of going either way in its elections, is seemingly irresistible.

Not two weeks after his 8th District colleague John Tanner opted to spend more time with his family (the standard euphemism these days for a decision to leave politics or not run for reelection), U.S. representative Bart Gordon of Murfreesboro, congressman for the state's 6th District, has done the same, citing responsibilities to his 83-year-old mother and his 8-year-old daughter, among other reasons.

What it comes down to, stripped of all pretense and rationalization, is that Tennessee's Democrats, one year after taking a licking in legislative races and becoming the minority party in both houses of the General Assembly, are abandoning ship at the congressional level, too — not even waiting for the 2010 census, after which the state GOP will presumably have a free hand in redistricting.

State senator Roy Herron of Union City, who switched from the governor's race to the one for the 8th congressional district after Tanner's surprise withdrawal, is expected to run competitively against whatever Republican wins the 8th District primary. It is still too early to gauge if a Democrat of equal capability chooses to contest the 6th, where several Republicans are running or are about to.

The Democrats have held a 5-4 advantage in the state's nine congressional districts. Two of these seats are now at obvious risk. A third, the 4th District, is held by Lincoln Davis, a blue-dog Democrat (like Tanner and Gordon) who also can expect a stiff race in 2010 and perhaps a stiffer one afterward.

The 9th District seat now held by Steve Cohen is safely Democratic, though Cohen himself will apparently be challenged in the primary by former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. The 5th District, encompassing Nashville, is held by Jim Cooper, a Democrat who faces constant criticism from the Democratic left (as did Tanner) for being too conservative in his voting. He may end up facing both a primary and a general-election challenge in 2010.

The Chattanooga-based 3rd District seat, which was Democratic until Zach Wamp, now a gubernatorial candidate, won it in 1994, will evidently go to Republican Robin Smith by default in 2010, as both declared Democratic candidates for the seat had undeclared by last week.

Some Democrats — especially in the blogging fraternity — have reacted to the withdrawals of Tanner and Gordon by saying, in effect, Good riddance, these weren't real red-blooded Democrats anyhow.

That, of course, is almost a textbook recreation of the parable of the fox unable to claim grapes hanging high over his head. "Sour Grapes" is the name of that story. And there's no denying that, electorally speaking, the grapes have turned very, very sour indeed for Tennessee Democrats.

• Make no mistake about it. Shelby County commissioner George Flinn has some uncooked political seeds. Flinn who won a niche on the County Commission after unsuccessful runs at the county mayor's office and the City Council, is still hankering after higher office.

His interest in the county mayor's position, which he first ran for as the Republican nominee in 2002, has not waned. Just last month he was one of those who applied for the position of interim mayor when the office was vacated as a result of incumbent A C Wharton's victory in the city mayor's race.

And Flinn has talked out loud about making a race for Shelby County mayor next year when it's up for its regular place on the countywide ballot.

But he may be after other game, as well. Roll Call, of all people, followed up on some rumors that have been trickling through various Internet sources and called Flinn, asking if it was true that he intended to be a candidate for the 8th District congressional vacancy which opened up when incumbent Democrat Tanner announced two weeks ago he wouldn't seek reelection.

Flinn, a Republican, acknowledged interest in an 8th District race and said in a prepared statement, "My family and I are praying on this important decision. Let me make one thing clear, I will be a part of a campaign to take back America and make sure our conservative values are no longer ignored, whether I do it as a candidate or in another role."

The major entries in the 8th District race so far are gospel singer/farmer Stephen Fincher, a Republican, and state senator Roy Herron, a Democrat.

Fincher already has a head of steam, but it should be noted that Flinn overtook attorney Larry Scroggs, the favorite of the local Republican establishment, when he captured the GOP nomination for county mayor in 2002. He was beaten in the general election that year by Democrat A C Wharton, who served the better part of two terms before being elected Memphis mayor this year. • Memphis' two entries in the Tennessee gubernatorial race each made a media splash on Thursday of last week — Republican Bill Gibbons with a call to give the University of Memphis its own governing board and Democrat Jim Kyle with a ceremony in which he was endorsed by the Memphis Fire Fighters Association.

More interestingly for the long run, the thrust into the question of higher education by District Attorney General Gibbons, who has thus far focused on public safety, puts him on the same page, issue-wise, that has so far characterized the race by Kyle, the Democratic leader in the Tennessee state Senate.

And it highlighted a fact of life for both campaigns: Each candidate is seeking, beyond his own partisan political base, voters from the broad middle of the local Shelby County voting population.

• Thanks mainly to Memphis lawyer John Ryder, a member of the Republican National Committee and the director of the nationwide GOP redistricting effort, Memphis-area Republicans will be hobnobbing next March with the RNC's main man.

Michael Steele of Maryland, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the first African American to hold that position, will be keynote speaker for the Shelby County Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner next year. The dinner, preeminent event on the Republicans' social calendar, both in Shelby County and elsewhere, will be held March 6th at the University of Memphis Holiday Inn on Central Avenue.

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