Raucous Party

In keeping with a venerable tradition, local Democrats have their disagreements.



Shelby County Democrats continue to conform to the hoary characterization of the party coined by the late Will Rogers, whose standup act sometimes often included the line "I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat."

Some think that local party members continue to justify such a description; even their attempts at organization can often lead to greater confusion. Take recent efforts to form a Shelby County coordinating committee to collaborate with the state Democratic coordinating committee, the Nashville-based organization that will oversee the statewide campaigns of Phil Bredesen and Bob Clement, Democratic nominees for governor and the U.S. Senate, respectively.

At one point, Reginald French, a veteran associate of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton's, was tapped by the state organization to head up the local coordinating committee. But the state committee, directed by veteran Democratic operative Bob Corney, could never agree on terms with French, who divided his time during the past year between the campaigns of Bredesen and A C Wharton, the newly inaugurated Shelby County mayor.

Corney and company then settled on the expedient of asking five recent chairpersons of the Shelby County Democratic Party to serve as co-chairs of the local committee. These were Gale Jones Carson, the current chair, and four of her predecessors: John Farris, Jim Strickland, Sidney Chism, and David Cocke.

That, in turn, didn't sit well with several elected officials -- especially members of the state legislative delegation, several of whom found themselves opposed in the recent state Democratic primary by candidates allegedly handpicked or supported by Chism, a power broker in his own right.

On Monday night of last week, Corney met in Memphis with the five members of the proposed local coordinating committee. Later the same night, Democratic members of the legislative delegation met with Bredesen, and several expressed dissatisfaction with the committee's makeup. (This was one week after various local legislators and other officials had met with Clement in Memphis to express their concerns.)

State Rep. Kathryn Bowers, one of the aggrieved legislators, recalls the group's perspective this way: "We didn't want the same thing happening with Bredesen and Clement that happened two years ago with Al Gore." The Democrats' presidential candidate in 2000 carried Shelby County by a margin of some 50,000 -- but only, maintained Bowers, after the late involvement locally of former Congressman Harold Ford Sr., now a consultant living mainly in Florida.

"We just felt there wasn't enough input from elected officials on the coordinating committee, and we felt there were people on the committee that didn't hold office and might be too remote from actual voting Democrats and their concerns," said Bowers, who acknowledged that she and several other legislators were not exactly enamored of Chism's election efforts.

Accordingly, she said, the legislative group proposed to Bredesen that she, state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, and state Rep. Ulysses Jones be added to the local coordinating committee. And Bredesen, the former Nashville mayor who, as gubernatorial nominee, has clout second to none with the state committee, endorsed the idea, according to Bowers.

Carson, who doubles as Mayor Herenton's press secretary, said she had not been apprised of such a change and doubted its value. "None of these people has approached me," she said. "And what good would it do to appoint three members of the delegation to the committee and leave the others off?"

As of early this week, no final resolution had been made of the issue. One member of the current committee, asking not to be identified by name, characterized the disagreement as "a lot of B.S., essentially, a lot of fuss over nothing," pointing out that Corney and the state organization, in close tandem with the campaigns of Clement and Bredesen, would decide most matters.

In part, of course, the dustup is a patronage matter, since the local committee will select participants in GOTV (get-out-the-vote) efforts, and several of these will be handsomely compensated for their efforts. In part, too, it reflects continuing factionalism within the party, coinciding in some ways with the not-altogether healed Herenton/Ford schism of recent years as well as newer divides in the evolving local party.

In any case, Will Rogers wouldn't have any trouble understanding it.

Carson, incidentally, did her best to put to rest a rumor that Herenton might support Clement opponent Lamar Alexander, the Republican Senate nominee with whom the mayor has shared one or two corporate board memberships in the past. "That's somebody attempting to make mischief," she said. "I can say categorically that the mayor will not support Alexander."

Air War: Like his Democratic opponent Bob Clement previously, GOP Senate candidate Lamar Alexander visited the Mud Island site of the Memphis Belle, where he proposed on Tuesday federal action to reemphasize the teaching of civics.

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