Where's the Beef?

A wild Democratic convention produces lots of excitement -- but no party chair.



A propos that old adage about politics being a sausage factory: The Shelby County Democrats' biennial convention last 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 Wolf 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 aplenty 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 month's preliminary pre-convention caucuses. Mitchell denied the allegation.

As Carson 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 -- starting with the fact that longtime antagonists David Upton and Del Gill, both Bowers advocates on Saturday, were on the same side. And, though most known partisans of 9th District U.S. Representative Harold Ford Jr. were deployed on Bowers' behalf, at least one, field rep Clay Perry, was on hand to give apparent lip service to Ford's public statement on behalf of Carson.

That statement, made last month as some of Ford's 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.

Late in the game, 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, freelance journalist Bill Larsha. The crucial argument was supplied by lawyer David Cocke, a Bowers proponent, who somehow prevailed on a hastily assembled jury of fellow barristers to accept his interpretation that parliamentary rules exempted election of a chairperson from that sort of tie-break.

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.

Wolff, who was suffering from nausea (presumably for reasons other than the raucous events at the convention), had been carried home early by her Cordova neighbor, Nancy Kuhn, a Carson supporter whom Wolff had beat out for a District 99 committee slot. To compound the irony, it was Kuhn who dutifully drove Wolff back to the auditorium after Wolff finally said yes to her insistent implorers. By then, the convention had adjourned, however.

"That was insensitive," Carson said scornfully about the prolonged effort to persuade an ailing delegate to return.

Insensitive or not, the Wolff mission was as nothing compared to the arm-twisting and cajoling and threatening and subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- bribery that will go on (as all of it had during the run-up to Saturday's convention) in the days remaining before the newly constituted committee is reconvened to break the tie.

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 Carson's behalf at last month's 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 convention's subtexts, invoked subtly by Bowers in earlier remarks from the stage calling for more "inclusion."

Just as clearly, many Democrats faithful to Carson's cause (and the mayor's) were among those who have traditionally been alienated from what they have seen as the party's establishment -- an ill-defined aggregate including partisans of the party's Farris and Ford clans and, these days, members of the county's legislative delegation.

In any case, the Democrats will take one more crack at creating a sausage when they meet again, though it is doubtful that the next attempt will have quite the sizzle and spectacle of Saturday's convention.

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