Politics » Politics Feature

Electing the Commission

More than a few races for Shelby County's legislative body are contested.

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All races on the May 4th primary ballot are restricted to a single party, with the exception of District 5.

DISTRICT 1, POSITION 1: Perhaps to his own surprise as much as anyone else's, first-term Republican Mike Ritz, a retired financial executive with ample prior experience in county government, ended up without an opponent this time around.

That guarantees four more years of unrelenting attention to fiscal matters large and small from Ritz, a watchdog and numbers-cruncher par excellence.

DISTRICT 1, POSITION 2: This seat is being vacated by the deep-pocketed radiologist/radio tycoon George Flinn, a Republican who opted this year to run for Congress in the 8th District. Flinn hopes to bequeath his seat to longtime personal assistant Heidi Shafer, whose status as a conservative activist dates back to her leadership, almost a decade ago, of a petition drive to forestall the FedExForum deal.

Shafer is being challenged by a political newcomer, Albert Maduska, a physician who has declared the salvation of the financially beleaguered Med to be his major concern. Shafer's ties to Republican grass-roots organizations and her support from Tea Party groups give her the edge.

DISTRICT 1, POSITION 3: Right up until the last hour before filing deadline, it appeared that incumbent Republican Mike Carpenter might go unopposed, but GOP conservatives irked by Carpenter's deviations from the party line on some key votes went looking for a champion.

They found one in Joe Baier, the owner of a breast cancer clinic, who has paid for large, highly visible signs that proclaim him "A True Conservative Republican."

Carpenter, though, can boast an impressive array of across-the-board supporters, including Republican establishmentarians, who admire his hard work on educational funding and other county problem areas.

DISTRICT 2, POSITION 1: To virtually everyone's surprise, veteran commission warhorse Walter Bailey, a Democrat who was term-limited out four years ago, ended up without opposition when, eligible once more, he filed for his old seat. (Incumbent J.W. Gibson chose not to run for reelection.)

DISTRICT 2, POSITION 2: Former state representative and first-term commissioner Henri Brooks functions as an all-purpose exponent of historical black grievances, and, though her indifference to protocol and finesse has rubbed all of her colleagues wrong at one time or another, she soldiers on pugnaciously.

It's an approach that must be working. Her only opponent in the Democratic primary is security consultant David Vinciarelli, a Frayser-area activist who has yet to gain much specific gravity in local politics but, to his credit, keeps trying.

DISTRICT 2, POSITION 3: This seat, currently held by the term-limited Deidre Malone, now a mayoral candidate, is being contested in the Democratic primary by no fewer than six contenders — Melvin Burgess, Tina Dickerson, Eric Dunn, Norma Lester, Reginald Milton, and Freddie L. Thomas.

The main contenders would seem to be Burgess, chief auditor for Memphis City Schools and son of the well-remembered former police director Melvin Burgess Sr.; Lester, a respected activist for both nursing and Democratic causes; and Milton, a community organizer with some significant endorsements to his credit. Expect a runoff.

DISTRICT 3, POSITION 1: Businessman James Harvey, a first-termer on the commission, has earned a profile as an independent-thinking swing voter, who genuinely seems to think out his position on every issue.

He may be in for a tough fight, though, from James O. Catchings, whose long career as teacher and principal in Memphis city schools has earned him significant name identification.

DISTRICT 3, POSITION 2: Longtime political broker Sidney Chism is one of the true opinion leaders on the current commission, and the fire and snap of his impassioned oratory is often at the service of overtly Democratic or inner-city issues.

Though much of the retired Teamster leader's time now is being devoted to managing the congressional campaign of his old ally Willie Herenton, he would seem to have enough wherewithal left over to deal with a challenge from Andrew Jerome "Rome" Withers, a financial counselor and son of the revered late photographer Ernest Withers.

Ironically, Chism himself may have given Withers' campaign valuable publicity and an unexpected boost with his charge that Herenton's opponent, incumbent 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, had political motives for funneling federal funding into a foundation, administered by Rome Withers, that oversees the Withers photographic archives.

DISTRICT 3, POSITION 3: Democrat Edith Ann Moore was a dark-horse candidate for appointment last year to the commission seat that interim county mayor Joe Ford had to relinquish to assume his current position. But the retired IBM executive was sufficiently impressive in her interviews with commissioners that she out-pointed a field that included Justin Ford, son of the interim mayor.

To no one's surprise, Ford the Younger has renewed his challenge, and he brings to bear the resonance of the family name and much of the political network that has always boosted members of the clan.

DISTRICT 4, POSITION 1: Chris Thomas, for whom social conservatism has always figured large, is also a practical politician. Figuring his present Probate Court clerkship to be a risk as the Democrats' countywide edge widened, he began campaigning for the Position 1 seat in heavily Republican District 4 more than a year ago.

Thomas' early start did not faze John Pellicciotti, a youngish high-tech maven and vintage-car restorer who has made a career of taking on long-odds races — finally winning one when the commission selected him from a crowded field to fill what was then a District 4, Position 3 vacancy late last year.

Sticking to the letter of his pledge not to seek reelection to that seat, Pellicciotti decided to take on Thomas, perhaps figuring that the presence of a third contender, veteran Lakeland politician and frequent candidate Jim Bomprezzi, would further skew the voting.

Pellicciotti has made a race of it, holding public meetings to oppose consolidation. And he took the fight directly to Thomas, including the Probate clerk in a censure motion that had no chance of passing (and, in fact, garnered no votes) but managed to publicize a modest if recurring irregularity in Thomas’ books.

DISTRICT 4, POSITION 2: This seat has been held for the last four years by incumbent Wyatt Bunker, arguably the most conservative member of the commission, both in social and in fiscal terms (though frequent voting partner Ritz would challenge him on the latter score).

Bunker has two challengers — Memphis policeman Ron Fittes, making a spirited first run for public office, and John Wilkerson, a well-liked elder statesman on the local Republican scene. But the incumbent may have paid enough political dues to hold on for another term.

Interestingly, Bunker bookends commission colleague Steve Mulroy in an odd way. He claims to have been instrumental in the “defeat” of Mulroy’s gay-rights initiative, the same measure the Democrat cites as a triumph. They’re both right, in that, during the commission debate last year, Mulroy’s ordinance was transformed into an all-purpose equal-rights resolution that did not specifically mention gays or apply beyond county government itself.

DISTRICT 4, POSITION 3: Like Thomas, Millington grocer Terry Roland has been campaigning for well over a year, and the public attention he garnered from his daring and near-miss race against Democrat Ophelia Ford in a state Senate special election some years back gave him an enduring hero status among many Republicans.

But George Chism, a former educator and businessman and son of a longtime member of the Shelby County School Board, has been running hard too and is an effective stump presence in his own right.

The indefatigable Roland, out of sheer determination as much as anything else, is favored.

DISTRICT 5: Other than 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, there is no political figure on the local scene who resounds as well with avowed progressives as Democrat Steve Mulroy, a bona fide leader not only with the aforesaid equal rights initiative but on behalf of such other causes as Living Wage and Prevailing Wage ordinances.

A swing vote on many partisan issues, he is also an accomplished debater whose vocation as law professor at the University of Memphis has helped arm him with many a defining legal argument in he course of rhetorical battle.

Mulroy is opposed in the Democratic primary by Jennings Bernard, a local broadcaster whose political luster has been considerably dimmed by the frequency of his many election efforts over the years.

A Republican candidate, physician Rolando Toyos, also has filed for the District 5 seat, in tacit acknowledgement of the swing status of a district which was previously held by Republican Bruce Thompson.

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