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Head to Head

Election 2012 will test the two parties' strength in Shelby County.

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There will be only four contests on the county general election ballot on August 2, 2012, but each of them will constitute a test of which party dominates in Shelby County: The Republicans, who control state government and who swept the last county general election in August 2010? Or the Democrats, who own a significant demographic edge in the population at large?

The most eagerly watched race may be the one for district attorney general — between Amy Weirich, the interim Republican incumbent, and the winner in the March 6th Democratic primary, which features one marquee name, former legislator and city council member Carol Chumney, along with two other aspiring lawyers, Linda Nettles Harris and Glen Wright.

Weirich's chief advantage is a solid reputation in office so far and as a longtime prosecutor under former boss Bill Gibbons, who vacated the D.A.'s job early this year to become state Safety and Homeland Security commissioner; her chief drawback is that of name identification. Before Weirich became D.A., few voters had ever heard of her. But she will have ample financing and an impressive support base that, to some degree, crosses party lines.

If either Harris or Wright prevail in the Democratic primary, there would also be something of an anonymity gap to overcome. It is otherwise with the comeback-minded Chumney, who became something of a household name during her one term on the council and who has made two races for city mayor and one for county mayor.

That which works for her also works against her. Chumney's council tenure was contentious, as she battled then Mayor Willie Herenton and her council colleagues alike. Some saw her as a malcontent and headline-grabber; others regarded her as their reform-minded champion against a rigged and rigid governmental system. Her chances are largely dependent on whether she can rekindle the latter reputation and raise any kind of war chest.

The General Sessions Court clerk's race sees Rick Rout, the son of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, running unopposed for the Republican nomination. A large cast of Democrats, including several headliners, is vying for the right to bear the party's standard. Incumbent clerk Otis Jackson is under indictment for official misconduct in allegedly pressuring his staff for campaign activity and contributions and has been suspended, but he's running just the same. The interim clerk, a well-respected Ed Stanton Jr. (father of U.S. attorney Ed Stanton III) is also a candidate.

So is Sidney Chism, the current chairman of the Shelby County Commission. Chism, a veteran politician and political broker, reportedly was hotboxed by party officials to run but probably needed little convincing. One of his commission colleagues, Henri Brooks, also signed onto the race, just before the filing deadline came last Thursday at noon.

Democrats Marion Brewer and Karen Woodward, Republican James Finney, and independent Patricia Jackson complete the election lineup.

Both parties have primary contests in the race for county assessor. Incumbent Democrat Cheyenne Johnson is being challenged by Charlotte Draper and Steve Webster, while three Republicans — John Bogan, Randy Lawson, and Tim Walton — go after the GOP nod.

Then there is a race to fill the vacancy created on the Shelby County Commission by the departure earlier this year of Mike Carpenter, now executive director of a Nashville-based educational lobby. The Position 3 seat in District 1, which straddles Memphis and some near-suburban areas, is traditionally Republican and is now held, on an interim basis, by former Memphis councilman Brent Taylor.

Two Republicans are vying in the March primary — Steve Basar, a pharmaceutical executive who has apparent strength in the upscale Poplar Corridor, and former commissioner Marilyn Loeffel, a Cordovan who was long a major figure in the social-conservative organization FLARE. Steve Ross, an audio-visual technician and well-known blogger on public affairs, is the sole Democrat running and will oppose the GOP winner. Ross would need a major upset to prevail in August.

The other races at that point will be tests, to one degree or another, of whether Democrats can marshal what is, on paper, a sizable numerical advantage or Republicans can continue to avail themselves of what in recent elections has been a more activist and organized base. 

The March 6th county primaries coincide with the state's presidential primary; if the GOP presidential nomination race is still competitive at that point, it could impact the local primary contests between Republicans.

• Drawing the lines: Looking even further ahead, toward the elections of 2014 and 2018, the Shelby County Commission has been struggling to arrive at a consensus on how to redistrict the legislative body's 13 allotted seats in response to the 2010 census.

The current commission map, drawn according to the census of 2000, consists of four three-member districts and one single-member district.

More or less in keeping with the commission's known preferences, the joint city/county Office of Planning and Development researched the demographics and offered a choice of two possibilities — what was called Scenario One, featuring six dual-member districts and one single-member district, and Scenario Two, which divided the county into 13 single-member districts.

Both plans, in deference to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the current demographics of Shelby County, respected African-American dominance in the city of Memphis per se and give blacks a fair chance at a numerical edge on the commission as a whole. Both plans also acknowledged the fact that the county's population had expanded outward and that, as a result, the areas outside the city of Memphis should be guaranteed at least four seats.  

On the first reading, there were 10 votes for Scenario One, which would go through several permutations and eventually became known as 1-F. In the beginning, only Steve Mulroy, the Democrat currently serving in the only extant single-member area, District 5, insisted on single-member districts.

Mulroy offered two basic arguments — that there was a developing consensus in favor of an ultimate 13-member school board to govern the merged city/county school district now under formation and that a 13-member single-district commission would be able to dovetail precisely with such a board; and that single-member districts allowed for more identifiable and direct representation of constituent populations.

By virtue of the forbidding distances involved, triple-member districts and even dual-member districts are disproportionately difficult for first-time candidates to crack, and thus a multidistrict format is something of an "incumbent-protection" plan, Mulroy maintained.

Other commissioners argued that multiple representation benefited constituents, giving them alternatives for access.  

By the time the commission met last Monday, three plans were on the table: the 1-F version of Scenario One, largely midwifed by Commissioner Mike Ritz; a 3-B plan from Commissioner Heidi Shafer, which amounted to an update of the current five-district arrangement; and 2-B, the latest permutation of a single-district plan from Mulroy.

The commissioners could not agree. Mindful that if the commission could not approve a plan by December 31st, the issue would go to Chancery Court for possible judicial resolution, the commission agreed to meet last Friday to try to advance an agreement.

No dice. The impasse held. The commission recessed until Wednesday of this week, when it would make another try to break the impasse. With Ritz and District 4 Republican Terry Roland of Millington now making statements indicating they could accept some version of a single-member plan, there seemed to be something of a movement in that direction.  

Underlying everything was the unyielding fact that, on third and final reading, a plan will need a two-thirds majority — nine of this discordant commission's 13 votes — to be adopted. "Politics requires some giving and taking," the venerable Walter Bailey reminded his colleagues on Friday.

"I personally don't think any of the three plans we looked at Friday will make it through," said interim commission member Taylor, who is chair of the general government committee handling the issue and has so far remained uncommitted to any variant. Taylor says he wants to maintain his honest-broker status as long as possible but will tip his hand before time runs out.

And that is scheduled to happen at the stroke of midnight on December 31st.

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