Politics » Politics Feature

New Directions

In Nashville, state Democrats get revved up; in Memphis, the county commission changes course.



NASHVILLE — When U.S. senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) was announced as the keynote speaker for this year's Jackson Day dinner in Nashville, a staple of the Tennessee Democratic Party's annual calendar, there was initially not much enthusiasm in party ranks.

A somewhat tentative official party response by Kaine, then a Virginia governor, to one of George W. Bush's State of the Union addresses was well remembered, and it seemed unlikely that he could kindle much enthusiasm among cadres of a Tennessee Democratic Party that in recent years had seen Republicans gain control of the General Assembly and hold the governorship, Tennessee's two U.S. Senate seats, and a majority of the state's congressional delegation.

But there had clearly been good advance planning for the Jackson Day dinner, held this year in the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, a venue whose moderate rental fee allowed the Democrats to clear an impressive $350,000 for the state party coffers.

State party chairman Roy Herron proved adept at pumping up enthusiasm from the dais, noting that the party's current doldrums resembled those of the early '70s when Democrats had lost most major offices but were able to launch a comeback and regain power.

Roy Herron
  • Roy Herron

The message was reinforced by a parade of Democratic mayors from the state's four largest cities — notably Memphis' A C Wharton, who compared the party's capacity for "backin' up and getting' ready" to the billy goat which, in his youth, had seemingly been ensnared in a wire fence but had given him an unexpected and powerful head butt in a sensitive part of his anatomy.

Said the mayor: "Ruby tells me I got a bunch of boys at home, but, after where that billy goat hit me, I don't know whether that's true or not. ... [But] that's what we're getting ready to do. Y'all remember that old billy goat. We've been backing up, but we're gettin' ready!"

Other Democrats, including 5th District congressman Jim Cooper, honored by the state party at an earlier ceremony, delivered similar — if more prosaic — forecasts. And Kaine, in fact, did connect — with an animated address that reprised the "democratization" efforts of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson and praised President Obama for his reaction to the use of chemical weapons in Syria and his decision to involve Congress in the run-up to possible military action there.

A standout cameo at the event was that of Sara Kyle of Memphis, the wife of state Senate Democratic leader Jim Kyle and a longtime member of the now sunsetted Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Kyle was hailed by Herron and others as a probable gubernatorial candidate in 2014 and responded to the crowd's chant of "Run, Sara, Run" with a smile and broad waves. In a later conversation with the Flyer and other media, she would acknowledge a clear interest in running but would stop just short of declaring. • Prior to the Democrats' big evening in Nashville, the state Democratic executive committee had met and considered a number of matters, including a resolution brought by Memphis committee member Jay Bailey seeking an official censure by the state party of new Shelby County Commission chairman James Harvey.

The premise of Bailey's resolution was that Harvey had acted against party interests by choosing not to reappoint fellow Democrat Melvin Burgess as the commission's budget chair, instead naming Republican Heidi Shafer, a fiscal conservative who had opposed county mayor Mark Luttrell's recent budget and tax-rate increases and a self-proclaimed watchdog against county spending.

On its own tack, the executive committee of the Shelby County Democratic Party had voted to censure Harvey last week and had wanted the state party to reciprocate. However, after what amounted to a pro forma discussion late in its morning deliberations, the state committee declined to act, asked for more details on the matter, and deferred action on it until its next meeting in November.

The delay and deferral are for obvious reasons likely to defuse the issue.

• Back in Shelby County, those mad (as in angry) suburbanites who have been railing about the county commission's "8-to-5" voting ratio for the last two or three years might have to lighten up and adjust their arithmetic. On the evidence of Monday's commission meeting, the numbers appear revised — to the point that, a year from now, people on the other, city side of various issues might be grumbling about the "same old seven and six."

For, on the basis of the two key votes on Monday — the commission's naming of Shante Avant to fill a vacancy on the Unified School System board and its vote of approval for new chairman Harvey's appointment of Shafer as the body's budget chairman — the commission may now have not only adopted some new math but reversed philosophic direction.

Two members of the long-standing coalition of seven Democrats and one Republican that has determined commission policy on school-merger issues and the budget, among other matters, have shown clear signs of defection. They are Democrats Harvey and Justin Ford.

It was the latter who cast the decisive vote Monday to defeat a motion by Democratic commissioner Walter Bailey (father of Jay Bailey) that would have rejected Shafer and retained instead Democrat Burgess as budget chair.

Harvey's appointment of Shafer to replace Burgess had been a red flag to Bailey and other Democratic commissioners, who saw it as a quid-pro-quo concession to the suburban Republican commissioners who had swung their votes to Harvey late in last July's three-way chairmanship contest involving Harvey; former chair Mike Ritz, a breakaway Republican; and liberal Democrat Steve Mulroy.

Contributing to the suspicions of Bailey et al. was the fact that the GOP vote switch back had been preceded by Harvey's announcement reversing his prior support of the budget and tax-rate increases sought by Luttrell and aligning himself with objections to those increases by the suburban GOP commissioners.

Ford, himself a frequent ally of the Republicans on disputed issues, had also gone from favoring the Luttrell proposals to opposing them but, unlike Harvey, had reverted to his original support in a final commission vote that had enabled their passage.

But on Monday, Ford joined Harvey and the GOP contingent in backing Shafer and opposing Bailey's motion to reject her budget chairmanship. Supporting Bailey were three Democrats — Burgess, Sidney Chism, and Henri Brooks — along with Republican Ritz. Mulroy abstained, but, if Ford had voted with Bailey, he, too, would likely have concurred and become the 7th vote for the Bailey motion.

Instead, the finally tally was 7 against, 5 for, and 1 abstaining — a reprise of sorts of last July's circumstances and further indication of a possible realignment of voting sentiment on the commission.

A further omen of that sort had been the earlier election of Avant to fill the school board District 6 seat vacated by Reginald Porter, who resigned it to become the Unified System's chief of staff.

Avant, the deputy director of the Women's Foundation for a Greater Memphis, had always been regarded as a chief contender for the vacancy, but her victory over four other applicants who received nominations from the commission may have owed something to her relatively circumspect response to questioning by Mulroy, who tried to pin her and the other applicants down regarding three issues confronting the school board.

They were: whether "fair market value" considerations should be attached to the relinquishing of board-owned school properties to prospective new municipal school districts in the suburbs; whether an "interlocal" agreement between the commission and the board should have precedence in such matters over legislation by the General Assembly; and the degree to which memorandums-of-understanding with local teachers' associations should be respected by the board.

Avant's responses were sufficiently open-ended to gain her support from both Democrats and Republicans to occupy what many believe will be the swing seat on a board balanced between inner-city and suburban interests. Avant received a clear majority of 8 on the first ballot, triumphing over the other four nominees: Cherry Davis, Rosalyn Nichols, David Page, and Rhoda Stigall.

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