BOWERS, CARSON BATTLE TO STALEMATE FOR DEM CHAIR
If politics really is like a sausage factory, then what we got here is a metaphor thats out of date. The Shelby County Democrats biennial convention Saturday at Hamilton High School may have been a messy and shocking spectacle, but it was at times spicy and even delectable. And lots of fun. The only problem was that the process ended with no sausage.
Which is to say, no chairperson. Current chair Gale Jones Carson and her challenger, State Representative Kathryn Bowers, both ended up with 20 votes apiece -- thanks to a sudden illness that forced a presumed Bowers delegate, Marianne Wolff of Cordova, to go home early. When various remedies for the standoff -- including a proposed revote and an attempt to invoke a tie-break via Roberts Rules of Order -- failed to come off, both contestants (and their backers) finally agreed to an adjournment and a runoff vote at a special meeting of the newly elected executive committee to be called later on.
Some of the contests that produced the 41 elected committee members in conclaves (based on state House of Representatives districts) held throughout the Hamilton auditorium were close in their own right --and self-sufficiently dramatic. For example, in District 85, one of several to experience a tie vote requiring several ballotings, a shoving match erupted at one point involving radio talk-show host Thaddeus Matthews, a Bowers supporter, and Carson supporter Jerry Hall. In the end, the majority vote went for Carson.
There were accusations and controversies a-plenty in other district conclaves. A Carson supporter in District 87 (Bowers home district) was city council member TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, whose credentials were challenged by Bowers booster James Robinson on grounds that Mitchell had not participated in last months preliminary pre-convention caucuses. Mitchell denied the allegation, and it was, in any case, moot that post-convention challenges to her credentials, and those of other voting delegates, could still be heard by the conventions credentials committee, which had, however, been over-worked right up to, and including, game-time.
There were such accusations to be heard as one by delegate Nancy Kuhn that activist David Upton, one of Bowers floor leaders, had pulled credentials committee member Del Gill out of a meeting Friday, depriving the meeting of a quorum and preventing the adjudication, presumably in Carsons favor, of a disputed delegate member. Upton said Gill was outside the meeting room by the time he encountered him Friday and had already determined to leave, on proper parliamentary grounds. "Actually, the Friday credentials meeting was improper because the rules state that all challenges will be finished four days prior to the meeting and parties will have two days to respond," added Upton afterward in a clarifying email. Whatever the case, the contretemps was interesting in that it featured Upton and Gill, traditional antagonists, on the same side for a change.
Indeed, as Carson herself wanly noted toward the end of the proceedings, the old Arab proverb that the enemy of my enemy is my friend was very much in play. There were all manner of unnatural alliances and combinations to be seen -- with most known partisans of 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. deployed on Bowers behalf, for example, but with at least one, field rep Clay Perry, on hand to give apparent lip service to Fords public statement on behalf of Carson.
That statement, made last month as some of Fords cadres apparently invoked his name on Bowers behalf, seemed clearly pro forma and the result of what some of his supporters saw as a panic reaction. A Bowers backer on Saturday remarked bitterly that the congressman had left us high and dry after earlier promises of support.
One prominent attendee, State Rep. Carol Chumney, continued her efforts to be influential without obligating herself, and she brought with her Saturday a form letter to whom it might concern denying any involvement in anybodys campaign. Chumney, an attorney, had personally recruited a sizeable crowd of potential delegates at last months caucuses, and she found herself involved in what turned out to be the climactic act Saturday -- an impromptu congress of lawyers who huddled on stage to determine a legal strategy for beating the impasse.
At that point, Carson supporters were insisting that Roberts Rules mandated a tie-breaking vote by the chairperson or -- since Carson, in the apparent interests of propriety, declined to do those honors herself -- the first vice chair, who happened to be one of her supporters, free-lance journalist Bill Larsha. The crucial argument was supplied by lawyer David Cocke, a Bowers proponent, who somehow prevailed on the other barristers to accept his interpretation that a motion to elect a chairperson was specifically exempted from that sort of tie-break under parliamentary rules.
Presumably unbeknownst to the Carson supporters was the fact that Cocke, a newly elected committee member and voter himself, was under clock pressure to get something done fast, inasmuch as he was due to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law Saturday afternoon. We kept them from knowing that, gloated Upton, who with another Bowers ringleader, John Freeman, had been involved in another time-sensitive mission, pleading on the telephone to the ailing Wolff for her return.
Kuhn had incurred suspicion among the Bowers contingent because she was known to be supporting Carson and it was she who had done the friendly duty of transporting home Wolff, who was suffering from nausea (presumably for reasons other than the raucous events at the convention). But Kuhn -- who, to compound the irony, had been Wolff's opponent for a committee slot in District 99 -- proved her bona fides by dutifully driving Wolff back to the auditorium after Wolff finally said yes to her insist implorers. By then, the convention had adjourned, however.
That was insensitive, Carson said scornfully about the prolonged and insistent effort to persuade an ailing delegate to return. This was after the convention had finally thrown up its collective hands and adjourned (Carson concurring only because she had learned of Wolff's then imminent return, some Bowers supporters charged cynically).
Insensitively handled or not, the Wolff mission was as nothing compared to the arm-twisting and cajoling and threatening and bribing that will go on (as all of it had for the several days of runup to Saturdays convention) in the days remaining before the newly constituted committee is reconvened to break the tie.
Bowers is rated a slight favorite, if for no other reason than that Wolff, whose name was listed on the state representatives official handout as a delegate for her, will presumably vote for Bowers (she reportedly so assured the state rep upon her belated return Saturday). But there may be shifts of other committee members in both directions.
Whatever the final result, the course of civilization at large will not be much altered. Clearly, a Bowers victory would gratify those Democrats critical of Carson or of Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, whom she serves as press secretary, or of Carson/Herenton ally Sidney Chism, blamed by Bowers and other legislators for recruiting election opponents for them last year. (Herenton, who showed the flag on Carsons behalf at last months caucuses, was not on hand Saturday, though many members of his inner circle, including city finance director Joseph Lee, were.) White Democrats on the new committee seem mostly to be Bowers backers, testament to one of the conventions subtexts, invoked subtly by Bowers in earlier remarks from the stage calling for more inclusion.
Just as clearly, many Democrats faithful to Carsons cause (and the mayors) were among those who have traditionally been alienated from what they have seen as the partys establishment -- an ill-defined aggregate including partisans of the partys Farris and Ford clans and, these days, members of the countys legislative delegation.
In any case, the Democrats will take one more crack at creating a sausage when they meet again, and it will be disappointing -- to outside observers, anyhow -- if that attempt lacks the sizzle and spectacle of Saturdays convention.