In a letter to his colleagues Thursday, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, the independent-minded Republican who has served for the last year as commission vice-chair and chairman pro tem, announced that he has bowed out of the race for commission chair.
Carpenter thereby recognized that, between the open disaffection of his GOP colleagues and the desire by current chair Sidney Chism, a Democrat, for another term, his hopes of acceding to the chairmanship had evaporated. The commission is scheduled to select its new officers in a vote next Monday.
In his letter, Carpenter focused on the break with longstanding tradition that his failure to advance would betoken:
"I am writing to inform you that I am withdrawing from the race for Chairman of the County Commission. It has become apparent over the last few months that the majority of commissioners desire to end the 17-year tradition of rotating the chairmanship between the political parties, as well as do away with the 14-year tradition of elevating the Pro Tempore of the Commission to the position of Chair. In my tenure on the Commission I have supported this tradition voting for Democrats Joe Ford and Deidre Malone and Republicans David Lillard and Joyce Avery — all of whom served as Pro Tempore the year prior to being elected Chair of the Commission.
"Obviously, I am disappointed, but understand that times change and that every Commission rule, tradition or preference is subject to the will of the body. I appreciate the consideration you have given to me and the opportunity to serve you as Pro Tempore over the last year. I also look forward to a new election process, beginning next week, that will allow each of us the freedom to choose our leadership based on a wide-array of factors, rather than on time-honored traditions."
Carpenter’s withdrawal will doubtless open the way for an easy victory by Chism, who presumably can count on the votes of most of his fellow commission Democrats as well as assorted Republicans, one of whom, Terry Roland, has already committed himself to Chism. Democrat Steve Mulroy, who had been pledged to Carpenter, said Thursday he was not sure how he would vote. And Republican Mike Ritz had earlier indicated he was available to serve as chairman if circumstances were conducive to that end.
Over the years of his commission service since he was first elected in 2006, Carpenter, a longtime GOP activist who formerly held paid positions with the state Republican Party, had largely avoided the party line in casting his votes.
Though he consistently sided with his Republican colleagues in fiscal matters like reducing the tax rate and actually led the drive to readjust county pensions downward, Carpenter sided with the commission Democrats on several key votes — among them, to add a second Juvenile Court judge, to sustain Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s desire to consolidate county IT functions, and to continue funding the Office of Early Childhood and Youth.
Carpenter himself has resisted prior efforts to break with the commission’s traditions regarding parity in matters involving party affiliation, voting in 2009 against Democrat Deidre Malone’s attempts to gain a second term, as well as against successful Democratic efforts that year to replace Republican David Lillard, who had become state treasurer, with Democrat Matt Kuhn.
Though Carpenter's service during the past year as vice-chair had been consistent with the party-alternation system whereby chairs of one party have served with vice chairs of the other, he had in fact gained the office a year ago with his own vote coupled with those of the commission Democrats.
At present, there are seven Democrats on the commission and six Republicans — a reflection of the demographic facts of life in the county. Those facts are likely to be re-emphasized in any redistricting process in conformity with the census of 2010. If the tradition of alternating chairmanships by party is sundered, Republicans will be at a consistent disadvantage in all subsequent internal elections.