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Failing the Test

Primaries, not party litmus tests, should determine political nominees.

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While Memphis mayor A C Wharton's noble vision of "One Memphis" continues to spread through politics, it may be a while before it reaches many members of the Shelby County Democratic executive committee.

Their January meeting last week presented something of a test case. The committee voted to reject the petition of Afghanistan war veteran and assistant district attorney general Michael McCusker, who had pulled a petition to run for Shelby County Criminal Court clerk as a Democrat. But as far as a majority of the executive committee was concerned, he was not Democrat enough for them to allow him to run.

McCusker's loyalty to the party was called into question because of his support of Republican Mitt Romney during the 2008 presidential campaign. McCusker had voted for Romney in the Tennessee presidential primary and pulled a petition to serve as a Romney delegate at the Republican National Convention.

As McCusker explained things to the Democratic committee, he, a lifelong Democrat, supported the Republican Party during and briefly after his service in Afghanistan. A weary soldier, miles from home, he switched parties in an effort to validate the conflict he endured every day. In Romney, he saw a qualified candidate who faced political persecution that reminded McCusker of his own experiences growing up as a member of a Roman Catholic minority in East Tennessee.

But a dog (or donkey in this case) never changes his colors, and it wasn't long before McCusker came back to the Democrats. As he said last week to committee members, "This is the party that wants to make things better, while the other party just wants to keep what they have."

McCusker was honest about his past and appeared to be genuine about his reasons for rejoining the party, but he found himself an unfortunate casualty in the middle of a political storm.

With Shelby County demographics now favoring Democrats, there's a misplaced fear among many Shelby County executive committee members that Republicans will attempt to run as Democrats just to get elected. It is curious, though, that the local committee is so quick to reject a qualified candidate like McCusker, while, only last year, the national party was avid to accept in its ranks Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, a longtime Republican officeholder who admitted he was switching parties for a better chance at being elected.

Last week's meeting quickly descended into the kind of tense madness usually reserved for reality television.

The issue was simple. Would the committee recommend to the party's Primary Board an exception to their rule for officially recognized Democratic candidates (no Republican primary votes for at least four years)? The argument should have been "this is the rule" versus "he's worth the exception." Instead, those opposing McCusker's candidacy spoke of his "waiting in line" and "earning our trust."

The first argument is as hypocritical as the second is ridiculous. Why? Primaries.

Our sitting president entered his campaign as the guy who needed to wait his turn. It was Hillary Clinton's time, detractors said; who did this Barack Obama think he was? But whether or not party insiders liked it, Obama was the choice of the people. And what proved that? Primaries.

As far as earning trust is concerned, common sense would dictate that the entire voting body of the Democratic Party would be a more representative judge of character than a few dozen people arguing in a hall about who gets a chance to join their club. There's a system set up to allow voters to do that: the primary.

Those committee members who imagine that a Republican would run as a Democrat in some kind of elaborate infiltration might have a future as Hollywood screenwriters. But McCusker is no James Bond.

He's more like Captain America. A blue collar son, decorated war hero, Eagle Scout, and lifelong servant of the people, McCusker wanted a chance to improve a criminal justice system, which, in the Web 2.0 world, is inexcusably archaic, and he wanted to do it as a Democrat.

Instead he's left on the outside as a casualty of party infighting that makes everyone a loser. And the issue goes beyond this single deserving candidate. Party-loyalty litmus tests are undemocratic. Small "d" or capital "D." A bad idea for either party, for that matter.

(Douglas Gillon is a Democratic activist and a native Memphian)

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