Believe it or not, the election season of 2012 is already under way, even as the last vestige of the 2011 election cycle, a November 10th runoff between Lee Harris and Kemba Ford for the District 7 seat on the Memphis City Council, has yet to run its course.
The deadline for candidate filing for Shelby County offices is December 8th, not quite a month after the District 7 runoff. County primaries will follow on March 6th (the same day as Tennessee's presidential primary), and the county general election will be held on August 2nd.
One of the first candidates actively running is Amy Weirich, the longtime assistant district attorney general who became district attorney in her own right when her former boss, longtime district attorney Bill Gibbons, was named state Safety and Homeland Security commissioner earlier this year.
Weirich is running as a Republican, though she's not exactly avid about the partisan aspects of her race. Her answer to a question about that after she picked up a filing petition at the downtown election commission office on Monday is worth quoting in its entirety:
"Of all of the elected positions in the county, it's the one that's the least partisan in terms of what we do and how we function and the way we work. We certainly do not pay attention to Republican Party agendas, Democratic Party agendas, or Tea Party agendas. We do what the people need. We do what the community asks. We are the voice of the community. Our job is to pursue the guilty and protect the innocent. We don't honestly care what their political affiliation is or what their party affiliation is. But that [partisan elections] is the way it is in Shelby County, and so we've got to deal with it."
That said, why is she running in the Republican primary rather than the Democratic primary?
"Just lifelong. I've always been a Republican, and it's the party I remember. But in terms of doing a job, it really doesn't have much to do with the functioning of the D.A.'s office."
So far no opponent has declared against Weirich, but, as Weirich notes: "The filing deadline is December 9th [again, actually December 8th], so who knows what will happen then?"
Many people regard her as almost a prohibitive favorite. Would she agree? "I do. I've done a good job since January. I've been doing a good job for 20 years in this office, and I think I have what it takes to lead this community to the next level."
Given the depth of Weirich's support in Republican ranks, it is unlikely she'll draw a serious primary opponent (though spoilers are always possible), and the Democrats have not yet fixed on a candidate. Speculation earlier this year focused on former state legislator and city council member Carol Chumney and former judicial candidate Glen Wright.
The term which Weirich and any potential opponent would be seeking is the final two years of the eight-year term to which Gibbons was elected in 2006. The full eight-year term will be up again in 2014.
• Even before the 2012 elections themselves take place in Tennessee, a war has begun over the ground rules for voting — specifically over the law, passed in the 2011 General Assembly, requiring would-be voters to present an officially recognized photo ID at their polling place.
Against a background of charges that the law was passed as part of a Republican-backed national effort to suppress turnout among likely Democratic voters, especially seniors and low-income voters, and of efforts to change the law, a series of informational events has been scheduled in Memphis, including two this week featuring Tennessee election coordinator Mark Goins.
On October 26th, Goins will appear at a joint meeting of the American Association for Retired Persons and the Aging Commission of the Mid-South at noon at 2670 Union Avenue. Later Wednesday, Goins will be on hand at the Board of Education building on Avery Street for an informational session sponsored by the League of Women Voters.
Another meeting, sponsored by the Shelby County Election Commission and featuring Tennessee Safety Driver Services director Michael Hogan, will be held in the Shelby County Commission chambers in the Vasco A. Smith Jr. Administration Building from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, November 1st.
Meanwhile, Lowe Finney and Mike Turner, the Democratic chairs of the state Senate and state House, respectively, have filed legislation to repeal the photo-ID bill, contending, in Finney's words, "This new requirement will put hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans in danger of losing their right to vote."
Objections to the law have focused on the difficulty and expense of acquiring photo IDs, especially for seniors, as well as on the exclusion of college IDs from eligibility.
Last week, state Safety and Homeland Security commissioner Bill Gibbons announced an agreement with 30 county clerks in Tennessee, including Shelby County clerk Wayne Mashburn, to provide free-of-charge upgraded drivers' licenses with photos to drivers who possess drivers' licenses without photos.
• A last-ditch effort by veteran Democratic cadre Lexie Carter and Shelby County commissioner James Harvey to rescue Planned Parenthood's hopes for a share of Title X family-planning action in Shelby County appeared forestalled early this week when Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell made moves to finalize a Title X contract with Christ Community Health Services.
On Monday, Luttrell signed a county commission resolution to extend such a contract, carrying with it a $397,000 federal stipend, and indicated he would sign the contract itself in short order.
Last week, after the commission voted 9-4 to approve the contract, Carter, who has held several Democratic Party offices and who co-hosts Eyes on Memphis, a weekly public-affairs program on KWAM, 990 AM, talked Harvey, one of three Democrats to vote for the CCHS contract, into using his position as someone on the prevailing side of that vote to call for a reconsideration at the commission's next meeting on Monday, October 31st. Parliamentary procedure mandates that only someone who had previously been with the majority on a completed vote can seek such a formal reconsideration.
Four of the commission's seven Democrats voted against the CCHS contract last Monday, either because they preferred the bid of Planned Parenthood, the traditional local provider of Title X services, on the merits or because they resisted state GOP efforts to disenfranchise Planned Parenthood, or for both reasons.
Three Democrats — Harvey, Steve Mulroy, and Justin Ford — joined the commission's six Republicans to approve the CCHS contract. Each did so in a context of some ambivalence. Mulroy and Ford had voted the other way in a preliminary vote the previous Wednesday in committee, while Harvey abstained.
Ford has not stated publicly his reasons for changing his vote. Mulroy agonized over the matter and voted for the CCHS contract last week only after obtaining spoken assurances from county CAO Harvey Kennedy that Christ Community Health Services would be held to strict compliance with the terms of the county's request for proposal on Title X.
Strict compliance, in that context, meant, for example, that CCHS would faithfully provide third-party referrals to patients seeking emergency contraception (e.g., via the "morning after" pill), though the agency would not perform such measures on its own premises. It also meant that CCHS would include abortion in the alternatives it described to patients, though, again, no such procedure would be performed at any of the CCHS centers (seven, including one mobile unit).
Abortion itself is not directly covered by Title X funding, though Planned Parenthood's historical inclusion of abortion among the services it provides patients at large has been the sticking point for the social conservatives who loom large in the state GOP establishment. Only a technical flaw in a General Assembly measure last spring kept Planned Parenthood from being proscribed from Title X funding altogether.
Subsequently, state GOP officials lobbied hard for county health departments on their own to exclude Planned Parenthood from Title X activities.
Local Planned Parenthood director Barry Chase has indicated his agency may sue for the right to continue as a Title X participant.
• The pace of local school-merger activities continues to pick up. A group of Chattanoogans involved in the mid-'90s Hamilton County school merger related their experiences last week to a joint meeting of the new 23-member interim county school board and the 21-member planning commission required by the Norris-Todd bill.
Meanwhile, the interim school board was scheduled for another meeting this week.