Despite having received an abundant amount of advance fanfare, the departure of lawyer Richard Fields from the Shelby County Democratic Party came to pass Thursday night of last week with minimum ceremony.
It was announced almost matter-of-factly to the members of the party's executive committee, gathered for their regular monthly meeting at the IBEW Union Hall on Madison, by one Bob Tuke, the state Democratic chairman visiting from Nashville.
In as calm a manner as could be imagined, the lawyer and ex-Marine rhapsodized for a minute or two about the graces of the Shelby County party, then segued into his point: "I am pleased to tell you ... that the situation that you thought you were going to have to deal with has been resolved. Richard Fields has been gracious enough to offer his resignation as an executive committee member, which we appreciate very much. He will continue to pursue the case that he has now, that he feels strongly about. When that case is resolved, one way or the other, it doesn't matter which way, he's welcome to run for that seat again."
All this, which was followed by other amenities on Tuke's part, drew relieved applause from an audience of Democrats who had been divided on the Fields matter for more than a week. Even though word of the ultimate settlement had gotten out before the meeting began, there were still a few zealots on either side of the issue who had proclaimed themselves ready either to denounce Fields for representing defeated Republican state Senate candidate Terry Roland in his election appeal against his victorious Democratic opponent, Ophelia Ford, or to defend him to the rhetorical death.
The understated manner of Tuke, who had planned to be in town anyhow to attend an earlier party fund-raiser, was enough to quell in advance any such heroics, while it also complemented the equally measured style of local chairman Matt Kuhn, who had begun to take brickbats from assorted bloggers for reputed "weakness" in dealing with the crisis but came off instead as simply being properly restrained.
The center of all this controversy, Fields, seemed to understand that any words from him would be anticlimactic and departed quietly shortly thereafter, as the meeting went on to other matters.
Before he too left, Tuke granted a few press interviews, during which he made it clear that, in telephone conversations that morning, he had told Fields he had to go, and that, however praiseworthy his pro bono legal concerns might be in the abstract, it was inappropriate for him to continue litigating for the GOP's Roland while serving as a Democratic Party official.
How long did it take to get this point across? "Five or 10 minutes," Tuke said mildly. Once again the understatement.
The hard-core defenders of Fields on the committee -- several of whom were prepared to speak on his behalf if the expulsion issue had come to a vote -- represented him, correctly enough, as a veteran public-issues attorney of conviction and courage and suggested that efforts to purge him came down to some kind of witch-hunt.
Some thought that a tad disingenuous, given that Fields had a history vis-à-vis the Ford family and the state Senate seat that was the subject of his current litigation. He had in fact run against Ophelia Ford's brother John Ford in the 2002 Democratic primary -- though not as diligently or as successfully as Roland did this year.
Even more to the point, it was a fact that Fields had been recruited for the Roland appeal by Memphis lawyer John Ryder, the longtime state Republican national committeeman who remains one of the GOP's major strategists. Ryder not only scouted out Fields for his availability but touted him as a likely team member to state Republican chairman Bob Davis and Lang Wiseman, a lawyer and party activist who was already on the case.
Fields appeared with Wiseman and Roland at last Saturday's Dutch Treat Luncheon at the Piccadilly restaurant in southeast Memphis. Looking and sounding somewhat subdued, Fields recapped the position of the Roland legal team as designed merely to ensure that the election process, which culminated on September 15th with a 13-vote victory for Ford over Roland, was fairly conducted.
Both he and Wiseman conceded that their Chancery Court suit was likely to be dismissed and that the ultimate verdict will come when the state Senate convenes in January. The Senate will then be presented with evidence sifted through previously by a six-member bipartisan committee of Senate leaders from both parties.
Said Wiseman: "The Senate is the final authority. They can do what they want to. They can make one of three choices: seat Ms. Ford, void the election and call for a new one, or seat Terry. Obviously seating Terry is a much taller task than voiding the election."
Added Fields: "I think the most they will do is void the election and not seat anyone."
Ironically enough, Fields used his joint appearance with Roland and Wiseman to tout a proposed new election-machine technology called "voter verified paper audit trail" as a means of making post-election recounts more reliable.
This is the same technology that was viewed with alarm by local Republican chairman Bill Giannini, appearing at a pre-election meeting with Roland, as potentially allowing Democratic political bosses to "check up" on their minions "to see if they voted right."