Today's special-election Democratic primary in state Senate District 30 has engendered much more than the normal quota of divisiveness in party ranks.
Both former city attorney Robert Spence and state representative Beverly Marrero have significant support from established political and civic figures; both also have highly animated opposition, and some Democrats privately worry that enduring hostilities will hobble the winner in the March 13 showdown with Republican Larry Parrish.
The battle is for the Midtown-based seat given up by new 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, and Cohen is on record as endorsing Marrero, a longtime political ally. But Cohen aide Randy Wade has made a series of statements tempering that endorsement as more pro forma than active -- perhaps in acknowledgement of a potentially combustible racial issue.
So far, there is no such fire, but there was enough smoke that Spence supporter Jerry Hall, upon learning of Cohen's endorsement plans on New Year's Day, made a point of saying to the then congressman-elect, "I hope this doesn't become racial."
Neither Marrero, who is white, nor Spence, an African American, has encouraged any such split, and both have both white and black backers, but the fact remains that the cores of their respective support bases are somewhat racially divergent.
Besides Cohen, other leading supporters of Marrero are City Council member Carol Chumney, Shelby County commissioner Steve Mulroy, and Memphis school board member Jeff Warren, all of whom are white. Marrero, however, has also been endorsed by black legislative colleagues John DeBerry, Joe Towns, and Larry Turner.
For his part, Spence is supported by city councilman Myron Lowery, county commissioners Deidre Malone and Sidney Chism, and other prominent African Americans close to Mayor Willie Herenton.
Just under the surface of the public discourse is a campaign-within-the-campaign against Spence focusing on his service as city attorney. Critics notably lawyer Richard Fields and blogger Rick Maynard (thefreedonian.blogspot.com) have published online broadsides accusing Spence of numerous misdeeds, including facilitating the now notorious $6 million FedEx Forum deal whereby federal and state funds for a public transportation facility were channeled into construction of the Grizzlies-owned for-profit garage.
Spence responded to the Fields letter with one of his own, denying responsibility for the garage deal or for the contract under which the construction of the Cannon Convention Center was beset with overruns. The latter circumstance occurred before his watch, Spence pointed out. Spence went on to assert that Fields criticism was motivated by resentment that unspecified improper demands of his were rebuffed by Spence in his role as city attorney.
Partisans of Spence, with widely read blogger Thaddeus Mathews in the van, also launched an attack of their own against Marrero, charging that her education was limited to a G.E.D., while defenders promptly responded with evidence of college attendance by Marrero.
The two Democrats sounded quite similar on the issues at public forums pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-environment, pro-tax reform (though backing off from an income tax per se), pro-ethics. Given the truism that issues which confront legislators are rarely if ever the same as those they discuss in pre-election campaigns, Spence and Marrero have to be considered as occupying the same page, ideologically. (The backstory of the campaign against Spence, however, is that his critics consider him to be the willing exponent of projects hatched by the citys power establishment; Marrero has less baggage in that respect.)
Many observers who were exposed to all three candidates expressed surprise at the fluency and broad-mindedness of most of Republican Parrishs views. As an advocate of environmental and ethics issues, especially, Parrish may even have been more articulate than the two Democrats. The onetime Democratic youth leader also made a point of defending government against the kind of bashing that post-Gingrich Republicans have made fashionable.
Only in the course of a brief defense of my hero George W. Bush at last weeks Mid-South Democrats in Action/New Path forum and in his firm positions in favor of the death penalty and against abortion has attorney Parrish, a onetime anti-porn crusader, deviated significantly from Parrish and Marrero. Indeed, his unexpected ability to talk the kind of talk acceptable in moderate-to-progressive District 30, gives him real chances against the Democratic nominee in next months general election.
Thats especially true since, as was indicated by last years near-miss by Republican Terry Roland versus Democrat Ophelia Ford in a special state Senate election, low turnouts in special elections, together with well-organized ad hoc campaign efforts, can produce unexpected results. And whatever post-primary bitterness might remain in the currently opposed Democratic camps could alter the outcome as well.