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Tear Down the Shelby County Democratic Party and Start Over

A veteran Shelby County Democrat has a radical prescription for his party.

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What separates the current version of the Shelby County Democratic Party (SCDP) into camps is that we have no clue what we stand for. You have the old-guard white liberals who fought against the county-primary idea in the '80s, and there are the people who came into power with Mayor Willie Herenton in the '90s who want to hire their folks over the old folks.

Willie Herenton
  • Willie Herenton

Say you are in the middle of a countywide campaign, and you are attempting to ask a friend or neighbor to vote for a Democratic candidate for one of the county offices. You get into the spiel before you are stopped and told this: "Look, I vote Democratic in the legislative and executive races, but I have a spouse/child/sibling/parent/friend who works in that office, and if the Democrat is elected, they lose their job, and they really need it. I just can't go there with you."

What on earth can you say to that?

Let's look at another major problem we have: Because of the way legislative districts are drawn, there are rarely competitive races in the general elections any more. Look at this year. Outside of District 96, where Democrat Dwayne Thompson will be challenging Republican incumbent Steve McManus, what seat has the possibility of changing hands in November? None.

The races are all in the primaries, which hurts because Democrats do not turn out in the primaries, thinking that the only races that matter are in November. Because our countywide races are in August, we start out at a disadvantage. Not only that, but our incumbent legislators, who are trying to turn out their voters but not those of their primary opponent, aren't really much help. Frankly, they don't turn out their folks in November any more, because they have already been reelected at that point.

So what does all this have to do with the SCDP? With no real strong figure in charge, the party's executive committee is filled with the people who are looking to make money off the party on one side, and, on the other, the Old Guard who want to elect Democrats but are outvoted and overrun by those who obsess over procedural matters.

Because we have no power in Nashville and no power in the Shelby County administrative building (where there are a couple of Democratic commissioners willing to sell out the party at a moment's notice) and because — as all who can read a newspaper know — we apparently cannot keep financial accounts, who in their right mind would give the SCDP one red cent?

This issue has been exacerbated in recent weeks by further negative publicity about unexplained financial shortages under a previous party administration and with the resignation of SCDP chair Randa Spears, who left due to an increased workload at her day job.

Yes, in seven of those years (1997-2003 and 2014), I sat on the executive committee, and I have to take partial responsibility for what has occurred. The fact remains that, with no money coming in or any real reason for there to be any money coming in, the local party, in a county with the largest Democratic voting bloc in the state, finds itself completely irrelevant.

This is why I respectfully request that the Tennessee Democratic Party and its very able current chair, Mary Mancini, put this body out of its (and our) misery and pull its charter. We really have to destroy the Party in order to save it. Get a group of good Democratic lawyers, along with solid Democrats, young and old, who have campaign experience, to rewrite the bylaws in order to drive out the leeches of the party and, for stability's sake, to have the same number of Executive Committee members season after season.

And let's give them time to do it. For heaven's sakes, the Party nominee for president will carry Shelby and four other counties regardless if there is a SCDP structure in place. Same with the legislators, same with the Congresspeople.

Every second we wait is a second that we fail to have a real Democratic Party structure in the largest Democratic Party in the South outside Atlanta (Florida never counts), and we cannot truly hope to reestablish Democratic strength in Tennessee until this happens.

Steve Steffens is a longtime Democratic activist and proprietor of the well-read blog leftwingcracker.blogspot.com, where a lengthier version of this essay first appeared.

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