Recently the state Democratic Party's governing committee, meeting in Nashville, ratified a decision made locally by the party's Shelby County executive committee that prohibited two candidates for public office, Michael McCusker and Derek Bennett, from running in the May 4th Democratic primary. Bennett had wanted to run as a Democrat for the office of Shelby County trustee; McCusker sought the party label for his candidacy for Criminal Court clerk.
The reasoning given by members of the local committee majority in rejecting the petitions of the two candidates was that each had been active fairly recently under the rubric of the Republican Party.
Bennett had previously sought the GOP's nomination or endorsement in vain for a variety of offices. Cynics on the county Democratic committee opined the obvious — that, as an African American, Bennett had finally been able to observe that black candidates tend to do better in election situations where black voters predominate, a situation that prevails in local Democratic primaries and not in Republican ones. Hence, they judged, his proposed switch smacked of the opportunistic.
Whether or not that was the case, Bennett responded to his rejection by filing a petition as an independent and made the August general election ballot in that guise.
McCusker's case was somewhat different. Like Bennett, he had a recent history as a Republican, but his activity was not of long standing. He had supported Mitt Romney during the 2008 presidential campaign and had pulled a petition to serve as a Romney delegate at the Republican National Convention.
But McCusker, who recently had concluded military service in Afghanistan, argued that he was in fact a lifelong Democrat who wanted to return to the fold. He said further that his support of Romney had been temporary and situational and based on two factors: his preference for Romney's stated position on matters of war and peace and a sense that, as a Mormon, the former Massachusetts governor was the victim of religious bias. The committee thought both arguments were strained.
In any case, the vote went against McCusker, who chose not to run for the clerk's position under the Republican label or as an independent.
There are arguments for and against the Democratic committees' actions, but there's another issue involved here that wasn't spoken to in the various debates on legitimizing the two candidates. Trustee? Criminal Court clerk? Just how should party affiliation impact the conduct of these two positions? Is there a Republican way to oversee court dockets? A Democratic way to collect property taxes?
Well, maybe so, maybe no. But, in our judgment, these are offices that should be independent of ideological slant or political affiliation. We suggest that clerkships and the county's other elective administrative posts, like judicial positions, should be nonpartisan and that the two political parties should agree on the fact well in advance of the next election for countywide offices, which is just two years off.
The current reality is that candidates running for these positions as independents have no real chance against organized party backing for their opponents. McCusker knew that fact, and Bennett will find it out. Once party loyalty ceases to be a factor, though, personal credentials will get their proper weight.