Politics » Politics Feature

Local and National Election Preview 2012

A few real choices and some legal uncertainties highlight the voting that ends on Tuesday, November 6th.

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The national election campaign, in which the country is being asked to make a fundamental choice about its destiny, may have been put on hold (briefly) because of weather. But locally the storms are man-made, and they have managed to heighten the electoral action, not bring it to a halt.

Even as Hurricane Sandy was approaching the eastern seaboard, a fact causing presidential rivals Obama and Romney to temporarily rise (or at least pretend to rise) above their partisan battle, a Memphis congressional race got down and dirty, and the city of Memphis was in a legal showdown with the state of Tennessee over photo-ID credentials.

And this latest election imbroglio put Shelby County Election Commission chairman Robert Meyers in the middle of his umpteenth controversy of 2012. Meyers is the mild-mannered Republican lawyer who has headed the five-member local commission since the Tea Party elections of 2010 gave Republicans a legislative majority and, ipso facto, control of the state's electoral processes.

So far Meyers has had to deal with charges that the commission, among other things, improperly erased voter records and lopped eligible voters off the rolls, and while those accusations may ultimately have proved to be based more on miscommunications than on actual malfeasance, it is undeniably true that the SCEC issued more than 3,000 erroneous ballots to voters in the August 2nd primary and countywide elections.

That very real mistake, first unearthed by amateur local watchdogs Steve Ross and Joe Weinberg, was authenticated by state Election Coordinator Mark Goins in Nashville and finally confirmed by Meyers and other commissioners in Memphis. The circumstance brought disapproving state officials — both Goins and Secretary of State Tre Hargett — into direct contact with local politics, and, as much as anything else, it eventually prompted the commission to put SCEC administrator Richard Holden on six-month probation.

Whatever the eventual fate of Holden (or of the commissioners themselves, who must at some point be up for reappointment by their parties), the state was not through with Memphis. Goins found himself at cross-purposes with the city this very week in a confrontation over whether IDs for the city's library system would satisfy the mandates of the photo-ID law passed by the GOP-dominated 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

That law, requiring evidence of voter identities in the form of photo-IDs issued under state (any state) or federal auspices, has been criticized by Democrats on grounds that it is a mere template of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council. Critics aver that the law's primary purpose is not the ostensible one of preventing fraud, but the ulterior one of suppressing the vote of constituencies — the young, the elderly, minorities — that historically vote Democratic and are most likely not to have acceptable photo-IDs.

Such allegations are further fueled by some of the law's restrictions — including the disqualification of student IDs and photo-IDs issued by city governments. Lawyers for Memphis mayor A C Wharton were able to convince the state Court of Appeals that cards issued by the Memphis library system — theoretically a tributary of state government — would satisfy the law's requirements.

Goins wouldn't say uncle, however, and filed an immediate appeal with the state Supreme Court, meanwhile directing the SCEC to continue issuing provisional ballots for voters presenting library card IDs. The city saw that as defiance of a court order, the state regarded its appeal as constituting a de facto stay, and the state's high court may well be forthcoming with a definite ruling in a season that has already been replete with legal contests involving political disputes.  

A visitor from Mars might wonder what all of the fuss is about regarding the November election. If anything is obvious, it is that, for all the cash-fueled sturm and drang that of late has marked the one marquee contest on this year's local ballot — the Ninth District congressional race — the probable result is a comfortable victory for incumbent Democrat Steve Cohen, who has easily vanquished a series of foes since his first, reasonably close primary race in 2006.

Similarly, the local results of the presidential election would seem a forgone certainty: President Barack Obama, on the strength of a dominant African-American majority in Shelby County, will win in Memphis, while Republican nominee Mitt Romney will coast to Tennessee's 11 electoral votes in a former bellwether state that has been trending GOP in a big way since 2008.

There are no legislative races to speak of. Such true contests as there were got settled in the August primaries, and locally, as in most other places in Tennessee, those were cases of Democratic incumbents running against each other for survival after a redistricting overseen by Republicans.

Most Democrats are resigned to their predicament. The state's Democratic chairman, Chip Forrester, made no attempt to cushion the reality when he addressed the Tennessee delegation at this year's Democratic convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The status quo, making allowances for the party's losses due to redistricting, was something on the order of 24 Democrats in the 99-member House and nine in the 33-member Senate. Even in the unlikely event that here and there a Democrat could unseat or upset a Republican, it was a mathematical inevitability that Republicans would command a super-majority in both legislative chambers and make whatever policy they chose to.

Only last week, Forrester, who seems to have reaped a whirlwind that was blowing long before he became chairman, announced he would not seek another term.

Six years ago, there was a neck-and-neck contest for an open U.S. Senate seat between Memphis Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Chattanooga Republican Bob Corker. The race for the same seat in 2012 is a snoozer, with Corker an ultra-prohibitive favorite over one Mark Clayton, a throwback to the time of white supremacy or maybe even further back, to the daffy days of 1930s crypto-fascists.

Clayton stole the nomination from a large, multi-untalented field of unknowns and has since been disavowed by the Democratic Party (though not in time to get him off the ballot).

There are two races in Tennessee which will test the capability of Tennessee Democrats to make a comeback anytime soon.  There is a nearby one, for state Senate District 24 in upper West Tennessee, in which a well-scrubbed young political vet named Brad Thompson, the Democrat, hopes to beat a Republican named John Stevens, a lawyer who allegedly entered the hospital room of a dying, unconscious woman, tore up her will, and authored a new one that, he insisted,, she had authorized.

Another case involves Fourth District congressman Scott DesJarlais, who won office in the GOP tsunami year of 2010 but has been exposed in just the last two weeks as a physician who carried on with patients and apparently impregnated one of them. And as demonstrated in a recording just made public, this pro-life champion tried his hardest to talk the woman into an abortion.

State senator Eric Stewart is DesJarlais' Democratic opponent. If he and Thompson can't win under circumstances such as these, it would seem to indicate that the state has gone indelibly and irrecoverably red.                

Cohen v. Flinn:

The shift in political coloration must be what George Flinn is counting on in what would otherwise look to be a Quixote-like attempt to depose the redoubtable Steve Cohen in District 9, the same Steve Cohen who defeated his last Democratic primary opponent, the well-regarded Memphis School Board member Tomeka Hart by a 9-to-1 margin and who held his last Republican foe, Charlotte Bergman, to 25 percent of the electorate.

Like every other district in Tennessee, the Ninth has been reapportioned to suit Republican needs, but its core continues to be Memphis' predominantly African-American inner city, plus the liberal enclave of Midtown.

Even as reshaped, with a hunk of prime East Memphis turf handed over to Republican Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump in rural Crockett County in return for a large part of Cordova and northern Shelby County, it remains dependably Democratic.

Flinn, a wealthy radiologist and radio magnate, has spent considerable hunks of his personal fortune in pursuit of political office. To date, he has run unsuccessfully for Shelby County mayor, for the Memphis City Council, and for Congress in the Eighth District. His expenditures in that last race, in 2008, ran to something like $2 million, and he is likely to equal or exceed that in his current venture.

He is no mere dilettante, however, having served a full term and a half as a Shelby County commissioner, gaining appointment to a vacancy in 2004 and winning without opposition in 2006. Flinn is counting on name recognition from that service, coupled with being a familiar figure to droves of patients who have passed through his several medical clinics over the years. To capitalize on that potential advantage, Flinn's yard signs say simply, "Dr. Flinn."

He has not forsaken attack ads, however, and of late he has let go at Cohen, characterizing the congressman as a frequent absentee from the job who spends taxpayer money "playing" in junkets at home and abroad.

Unsurprisingly, Cohen, who can be quite a warrior when aroused, has taken umbrage, noting that his absenteeism — resulting in a handful of missed votes (130, by Flinn's count) out of some 5,000 by Cohen's estimate — does not exceed the congressional mean and suggesting that his absences from Washington, such as they are, have never deflected his attention from district needs.

Cohen says that his mother's illness and death accounted for some of his missed votes and attendance at the funerals of distinguished constituents for a few more. And he contends that his foreign travel, including trips to the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, was entirely work-related.

The congressman attributes his opponent's attacks to an obvious need for attention, and he has consistently resisted Flinn's demands for a debate, so long as Flinn declines to release his income-tax filings, as Cohen has recently done.

Other Choices:

Beyond the presidential race and the Cohen-Flinn contest, virtually everything else is what politicians call "down-ballot," with no competition going on or with races that are merely pro forma. Corker-Clayton is no contest, and so is the race in the Eighth Congressional District, though Democrat Timothy Dixon is well-spoken and at least is making an effort against incumbent Republican Fincher.

For the record, Republican George T. Edwards is making his biennial challenge to incumbent Democrat Barbara Cooper in state House district 86, and unknown Harry Barber is carrying the GOP banner against Democratic state representative Larry Miller in District 88.

There is, to be sure, some real electoral action in the suburbs, including school board races in the six Shelby County municipalities that have taken advantage of ad hoc legislation allowing them to opt out of the forthcoming Unified School District and to create their own municipal school districts — though the validity of those elections and of the potential districts themselves has been challenged by the Shelby County Commission and is even now awaiting judgment in the court of U.S. district judge Hardy Mays.

There are several contested school board races in the affected suburbs of Arlington, Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Lakeland, and Millington.

Bartlett's alderman race is between Paula Sedgwick and Jason Sykes in Position 6.

In Collierville, there is a hot race for mayor between incumbent Stan Joyner and Alderman Tom Allen, as well as alderman races involving candidates Greg Cotton, Carl Wayne Hardeman, and John Worley for Position 3; and Jeremy Lott and Steven Shelton for Position 6.

In Germantown, there are alderman races involving Sidney Kuehn and Mike Palazzolo in District 3; Mark Billingsley and Forrest Owens in District 4; and Rocky Janda and Kyle Williams in District 5.

Millington has a mayor's race between Terry Jones and Kenneth Uselton.

Ballots often contain numerous referenda and initiatives. There are two of special interest on the current ballot. Residents of Memphis are being asked to consider an ordinance for a one-cent gasoline tax, and residents of the entire county must decide on a half-cent sales tax increase. Both these initiatives are considered in further detail in this week's editorial.

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