Politics » Politics Feature

Change on Commission

Both parties complete their slates; Holden set to be executive director.



When the Democrats in Shelby County's legislative action met this past week to certify the renomination of current county election commissioners Shep Wilbun and Myra Stiles, that action completed the shape of the new Republican-dominated commission that will begin its term this month.

As the Flyer reported previously on memphisflyer.com, the Republicans in the delegation had previously named as their commissioners Robert Meyers, a holdover from the current commission; former local GOP chairman Bill Giannini; and Cordova community activist Brian Stephens.

A major change is the conversion to a ratio of three Republicans to two Democrats, reversing a decades-old pattern. Current state law mandates that a majority of election commissioners in all 95 counties belong to the party which is numerically predominant in the state legislature. As of last November's election, that's the GOP, which has majorities in both the state House and the state Senate.

The Flyer has learned that current Republican election commissioner Rich Holden, who is departing the local body, will be the likely appointee of the newly constituted commission to succeed longtime executive director James Johnson.

All five commission appointments will likely get pro forma ratification from the state Election Commission. An anomaly is that, because its five members are currently halfway through a four-year term, the ratio of the state commission will continue to be 3-2 in favor of Democrats. State senator Mark Norris of Collierville, the Republican majority leader, has a pending bill to amend the ratio.

A further anomaly, according to Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle, is that the state commission is destined to sunset on June 30th unless reauthorized by the General Assembly before then, and, says Kyle, the Republican legislative leaders are "dragging their feet on that."

• Expectations had been high for a knock-down, drag-out, fight-to-the-finish Saturday between Van Turner and Jay Bailey, contenders for the Shelby County Democratic Party's chairmanship, as well as for the prospect of prolonged procedural battle over a rules change expanding the membership of the party's executive committee from 71 to 83.

Neither of these showdowns happened. Turner won the chairmanship easily, by a vote of 49-32. And there was no fuss and bother over the rules change, which had been accepted before Saturday's convention formally convened.

A floor fight over expanding the committee never happened because the two sides, as well as the professedly neutral outgoing chairman, Keith Norman, bowed to demands from the state Democratic Party — including a signed statement from state chairman Chip Forrester — that the expansion take place.

Forrester's statement was a virtual ultimatum, insisting that the Shelby County party remove a ceiling on executive committee membership and add new seats in accordance with a formula based on higher-than-usual Democratic turnout at last fall's presidential election.

The state chairman's action owed something to the persuasive efforts of three state committee members — Bailey himself and two of his backers, state party secretary Gale Jones Carson and Memphis political broker David Upton — all of whom apparently assumed that Bailey would prosper from a larger committee membership, especially from inner-city districts which had voted heavily for Barack Obama.

In the end, however, it would appear that a goodly number of the add-on members went for Turner — like Bailey, an African American and a lawyer.

• Sheriff Mark Luttrell, as indicated online in the Flyer, has declared for reelection — not for the office of county mayor and, in the process, expressed a preference for nonpartisan local elections.

Blake Fontenay, who for the last several years has served as an editorial writer and subsequently a business writer for The Commercial Appeal, has accepted a position as assistant in Nashville to newly appointed state constitutional officers Secretary of State Tre Hargett, Treasurer David Lillard, and Comptroller Justin Wilson. Fontenay had been scheduled as of next week to provide the CA's coverage of the Shelby County Commission, succeeding Alex Doniach, who will pursue other duties at the paper.

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