POLITICS: Same Old...



SAME OLD... NASHVILLE -- Everybody knows the famous Will Rogers line: “I don’t belong to an organized political party; I’m a Democrat.” And, sure enough, Democrats sometimes appear to regard the fact of discontent in their ranks as cause for pride. As of the weekend, however, that portion of the party’s honor was being upheld almost exclusively in Tennessee by Democrats from Shelby County.

Consider: Normally, there’s enough ruckus to go around at the biennial meetings of the party’s executive committee, the ones that elect party chairs. Six years ago, when then Vice President Al Gore, about to embark on his presidential run, requested the election of his man Doug Horne, a Knoxville publisher relatively unknown to party members at large, as state party chairman, there was grumbling amongst the rank and file, but they acceded to Gore’s wishes. Four years ago, there were three contenders for the chairmanship (eventually won that year by lawyer William Farmer of Lebanon), as well as a demand that party leaders account for the failure of the Gore campaign to win Tennessee’s electoral votes in 2000.

Then there was the contentious meeting last summer to select delegates to the Democratic convention in Boston. Said state committee member David Upton of Memphis. “That was a tough one. Sometimes we have to play Solomon.”

But Saturday’s meeting was, by contrast, the kind of namby-pamby affair that would have left Will Rogers yawning. Party chair Randy Button of Knoxville was reelected to a second term without opposition or even a breath of complaint, and there was a raft of resolutions -- some harmless, some noble -- that were passed by acclamation.

The only discord came from Shelby Countians, who took one of their never-ending private disputes before the full committee.

The issue was whether the Shelby County Democratic committee would be permitted to hold its reorganization meeting this year at a different time than Democratic committees elsewhere in the state, who by state party resolution, will be holding local conventions in April, as they did in 2003 and 2001. In those years, Shelby County Democrats also convened in April -- though it had been the local party’s practice in previous years to hold their conventions in October.

In Nashville on Saturday, Upton formally requested that Shelby County be allowed to hold its two-part convention (first a round of caucuses; then, a week later, the convention per se) on the dates of July 16th and July 23rd. And he passed out copies of a letter to Button from state Representative Kathryn Bowers of Memphis, the current Shelby County Democratic chair, requesting the change. Since Shelby County is one of five counties in Tennessee empowered both by state law and by party sanction to make such requests, it was a routine matter, right?

Wrong! Gale Jones Carson, the Memphian who serves as state party secretary (and was reelected in that role Saturday), objected that Bowers’ request and Upton’s motion did not represent the will of the Shelby County Democratic committee, who had never voted to put it forth, she said. And Carson, who serves as Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s press secretary, also took umbrage at some of Upton’s rhetoric about her boss, who had, as Upton pointed out in his remarks, chosen to support Republican Lamar Alexander for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

After some back-and-forth on the point, it became clear, even to delegates from remote counties in the far corners of Tennessee, that Shelby County Democrats comprised at least two, bitterly competitive factions. There was the one represented by Herentonian Carson, who lost the Shelby County chairmanship to Bowers two years ago by a single vote. And there was the one represented by Upton, Bowers, and other Democrats, who happen -- coincidentally or not -- to be close to U.S. Rep. Harold Ford. One of the reasons for the date-change request, as Upton noted, was that April was an inconvenient time for members of the state legislature, who would be in session, to take part in the local convention process. Bowers presumably could expect the support of a majority of her legislative colleagues.

No doubt, as both factions contend, some principle is involved in the disagreement, but mainly it comes down to hardball politics and simple head-counting.

For its part, the state Democratic committee played Solomon, voting by acclamation to accommodate Bowers’ request -- so long as the Shelby County executive committee, at its next meeting, approves the change. Members of the two Shelby County factions disagree as to whether, and to what extent, the matter got broached at the local committee’s January meeting. There won’t be any doubt that the matter’s up for a vote at the next meeting, on February 3rd, when heads will be counted.

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