Politics » Politics Feature

No Down Ballot

For Shelby County’s diminished band of Democrats, every contest counts large.



In a normal election season, Ed Stanton Jr. and Cheyenne Johnson, both Democrats and the incumbent general sessions clerk and assessor, respectively, would have reason to feel at ease about their reelection.

Shelby County, which now has an African-American majority, is presumed to be predominantly Democratic as well. That arithmetic certainly held four years ago, when Johnson handily won her seat, as did Democrat Otis Jackson, who was defeated by interim clerk Stanton in this year's party primary after being indicted for official misconduct and placed on suspension.

But Stanton, who got boosts from Mayor A C Wharton and 9th District congressman Steve Cohen at a rally in his packed Plaza Drive headquarters on Saturday, and Johnson, who has similar support and appeared at the rally alongside Stanton, have cause for concern.  

Stanton is opposed by Republican nominee Rick Rout, son of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, an effective campaigner but one who has had past intramural problems with fellow Republicans as well as on county jobs, where he has suffered two suspensions. Johnson's GOP opponent is Tim Walton, a well-credentialed real-estate appraiser but a political unknown before this year.

There are several reasons why Rout and Walton have chances to come out ahead on the countywide component of the August 2nd ballot, which also features state and federal primary races and, importantly, referenda on independent school districts in six Shelby County suburbs.

The probability of a large turnout for those referenda was touched on by state representative Jeanne Richardson, another attendee at the Stanton rally.

"I'm going to be the politician that'll tell you something straight," Richardson told the gathered throng. "We should win. ... There are more Democrats in this county than Republicans. However, now that the municipals are voting to have their own schools, those people are going to come out in droves. Not only do all of you have to make a commitment to vote, you have to find people, you have to get them registered, you have to take them to the polls. I am deadly serious. If we don't do that, our candidates are going to lose, because the suburbs are going to be voting for their own schools, and we all know what that — excuse me — crap is about."

Richardson, who has been serving in District 89, is one of several Democratic officeholders, many in Shelby County, who had been redistricted either into races against fellow Democratic incumbents or out of their home districts altogether. She is one of two incumbents (the other was District 92 state representative G.A. Hardaway, now matched against longtime District 93 Democrat Mike Kernell) who opted — or were forced — to change residence in order to find a venue for reelection.

In Richardson's case, that came down to a choice between two fellow Democrats as opponents — first-termer Antonio "Two-Shay" Parkinson in District 98 or John DeBerry in District 90. She chose DeBerry, a veteran legislator whose conservative positions on a variety of social issues had alienated liberal activists in his district.

Yet Richardson, whose sponsorship of medical marijuana legislation and support of gay adoption, among other measures, have reinforced her already stout liberal credentials, still must deal with the reality that she is white in a majority-black district

Another widely watched showdown in Democratic ranks is the reapportionment-driven race in state Senate District 30 between incumbent Beverly Marrero and the Democrats' longtime leader in the state Senate, Jim Kyle, formerly of District 28. Both have influential supporters. Cohen has promised Marrero unstinted backing, and, in an odd circumstance, both she and Kyle this week claimed the endorsement of the Memphis Education Association.

From the party point of view, these one-on-one legislative races will at least result in a sure Democratic winner — though the end result is an even further reduction in the severely diminished number of Democrats serving in the legislature. From the candidates' point of view, it's survival of the fittest.

An oddity of the August 2nd election is that it lacks the usual division between marquee races and down-ballot races. On the countywide part of the ballot, the race for district attorney general — in effect, a special election, since incumbent Republican Amy Weirich is an appointee seeking to fill out the  vacated term of Bill Gibbons, currently state safety commissioner — could have been a ticket-topper of sorts.

But Weirich got such a head start on Democratic nominee Carol Chumney — in endorsements (including several by nominal Democrats), in financial support, and in sheer omnipresence — that a true race has not yet developed, though some frustrated Democrats believe that one could if Chumney could manage to link Weirich to the deficiencies in juvenile court pointed out in a recent U.S. Department of Justice report.

The keynote race on the primary side of the ballot might have been the 9th District congressional primary between Cohen and his latest challenger, Unified School Board member and former Urban League head Tomeka Hart, but this race, too, seems to be a non-starter, with Cohen owning an apparently prohibitive lead.

Thus, the anomaly of an election in which the few contested races are normally down-ballot affairs with unusually up-ballot consequences, especially for Democrats.

For what it's worth, the county's Democrats managed to hold what appeared to be a successful mid-campaign celebration Friday night, with the annual Jackson Day Dinner/fund-raiser, held this year at the Balinese Ballroom in Uptown.

There was no dearth of exhortatory rhetoric, especially evident in a rousing keynote address by author, actor, and former circuit court judge D'Army Bailey. And there was proper recognition for such recently retired party luminaries as former election commission members O.C. Pleasant, Myra Stiles, and James Johnson and state representative Jimmy Naifeh of Tipton County, who reigned as speaker of the state House of Representatives for a record 18 years.

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