Every eight years comes a "big ballot" year, with the August county-wide general election containing choices for the full panoply of Shelby County offices, as well as primaries for federal and state offices, the latter including a veritable myriad of state judgeships.
A largely unnoted effect of the move toward partisan county elections in Shelby County — beginning in 1992 with Republicans, and proceeding with both major parties as of 1994 — has been the winnowing down of the big ballot to more or less manageable proportions.
In that sense, next Tuesday's Democratic and Republican primaries for county-wide offices (excluding judicial races, which remain non-partisan) amount to a first stage, or prescreening of ambitious local office-seekers.
Choices that as recently as 1990 were so numerous for each position as to stupefy voters will have been reduced to a de facto either/or — one Democrat and one Republican —for each county office. To be sure, there will be independent candidates on the August general election ballot, but none of these has ever been elected, or even been a factor, since the advent of local primaries.
The reason for that is obvious. Single candidates, however able and pure of purpose, do not win elections. Their networks do — those combinations of supporters who can lick the stamps, make the phone calls, do the door-to-door canvassing, and pay for the campaigns, which have become increasingly more expensive.
The two major political parties, Democratic and Republican, are the networks of choice, in Shelby County as in most other places in America.
In one sense, that fact of political life would seem unfairly restrictive, even polarizing. But in another sense, the bifurcating of political choices, besides achieving the aforementioned ballot simplification, also becomes a means of clarifying the larger electorate's sense of direction.
In Shelby County, as in the nation at large, general elections are basically won in the political center, and election outcomes that shift control from one party to the other are often the result of extraneous factors of the sort to which political scientist would assign the prefix "macro."
It is a fact, for example, that the demographics of Shelby County, preponderantly working class and now majority black, should allow for domination of county elections by the Democratic Party.
But it also a fact that the Republican Party's county-wide slate won every contested countywide position in 2010 — a clean sweep that could partly be explained by local factors but was more likely due to that year's stoutly contested Republican primary race for governor.
That gubernatorial race — waged by well-heeled candidates Bill Haslam, Zach Wamp, and Ron Ramsey — poured money and resources into Shelby County and generated a sizeable GOP turnout.
Meanwhile, the Democrats had quietly settled, long before an August primary that doubled as the date for the county's general election, on a consensus candidate, Mike McWherter of Dresden. No fuss, no bother, no turnout.
There is no such godsend for the Republicans this year, although the turnout of both parties in August could well be mobilized by a race or two on the general election ballot — especially that of incumbent Republican District Attorney General Amy Weirich versus a well-known and controversial Democrat — former Criminal Court Clerk Joe Brown, better known to most voters as TV's "Judge Joe Brown" and, as such, a macro factor in his own presence.
In any case, Democratic core activists are more than usually conscious of the need to field a competitive slate in August, and that means, in practice, one that has at least some crossover potential. That factor will influence a few outcomes in down-ballot Democratic primary races, and it definitely plays a role in the race for county mayor.
Despite earnest efforts by the Democratic mayoral aspirants — Kenneth Whalum, Steve Mulroy, and Deidre Malone — to paint incumbent Republican Mayor Mark Luttrell as a doctrinaire Republican, indifferent to the concerns of working-class voters, the fact is that Luttrell, in his prior races for sheriff and county mayor, has been far more successful than most GOP candidates in presenting himself as above the partisan battle, thereby capturing significant crossover votes.
Which is why, already, well in advance of the August general election, all three Democratic mayoral candidates — Malone, Mulroy, and Whalum — are conspicuously broadening the reach of their rhetoric.
E Pluribus Unum, "One from Many," is the Latin motto affixed to our coinage. It also has relevance to a political process whereby a multitude of choices end up pointing in a single direction.
Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Flyer.