POLITICS: Cohen Agonistes

A state Attorney General's opinion apparently sides with Steve Cohen on an election commission issue.


COHEN AGONISTES State Senator Steve Cohen, who is never shy about taking on potentially contentious issues nor concerned, evidently, about whom he might offend in the process (including Governor Phil Bredesen, a frequent nemesis), has two new causes on the front burner -- both involving local political figures.

One of them concerns the membership of the five-member Shelby County Election Commission -- currently up for reappointment. As of late Tuesday, when he was notified of a ruling by the state Attorney GenEral’s office, Cohen seemed sure to have one in the win column. At issue was whether Maura Black Sullivan, one of the commission’s three Democratic members, is eligible to serve.

Sullivan is director of planning for the Shelby County school system, and there, says Cohen, is the rub. The senator says that state law clearly prohibits elected officials or governmental employees from serving on the election commission and maintains further that state Election Commission director Brook Thompson has backed him up in that contention.

The issue came up last week during a meeting of the Shelby County legislative delegation’s Democrats to vote on members of the county election commission. The delegation’s Republicans had already renominated members Nancye Hines and Richard Holden. When the Democrats convened, several names were put in nomination, including those of Sandra Richards and Taurus Bailey, both of whom are employed by Shelby County.

It was at that point that state Rep. Ulysses Jones, a friend of Richards, made a disclosure to his fellow legislators about the requirements of the up-until-then obscure provisions of the statute and concluded regretfully that Richard was ineligible to serve. Further debate among the delegation suggested that, in that case, Bailey was also governed by the prohibition.

After perusing a copy of the statute, Cohen then insisted that, in that case, Sullivan should have been ruled ineligible for her first term, to which she was elected in 2003, and was in any case precluded from serving a second two-year term. Sullivan and various defenders emphatically disagreed, citing ambiguously worded exceptions regarding teachers and other school-system officials. The outcome of the voting put her and the commission’s other Democratic holdovers, chairman O.C. Pleasant and Greg Duckett, ahead of the other contenders.

Matters did not rest there, however. Cohen pressed the case and on Tuesday got the formal opinion he had sought from the state Attorney General’s office: Not only is Sullivan ineligible, but the members of the state Election Commission, should they go on to appoint her anyhow, would be subject to penalties themselves.

On another front, Cohen is pushing a proposal to redefine state law so as to extend pensions and other member benefits only to those legislators who have been elected to office. Cohen says his measure to that effect has won the approval of the Senate’s State and Local Government committee, which he chairs, but has been bottled up in the House State and Local Government committee, chaired by Rep. Jones.

Interim state senator Sidney Chism, who earlier this year was chosen by the Shelby County Commission to succeed former Senator Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to Wharton, says the measure is aimed at him. “I don’t know why he’s singled me out. I haven’t actively sought a pension or any benefits from being a legislator. I’m just here to serve,” says Chism.

Cohen -- who, along with several other legislators, had opposed Chism’s appointment -- insists that his bill merely concerns issues of equity, as does his position regarding the reappointment of Sullivan, whose husband Jeff Sullivan unsuccessfully opposed state Rep. Beverly Marrero in a special House election for District 89 last year. In that race, Cohen maintained that Jeff Sullivan did not live in the district and sought, at one point, to have felony charges brought against the candidate.

Homage in Bartlett

The overflow turnout at last Sunday’s funeral services in Memphis Funeral Home on Germantown Parkway for Velda 'Louise’ Bodiford Byrd, widow of Madison Arthur Byrd, was testament not only to the graces of the late Mrs. Byrd, who died last week at the age of 89, but a tribute as well to the extended Byrd family -- one with profound influence in Shelby County, through the family-owned Bank of Bartlett and through the political and community activities of various family members.

Two of the several successful children of Louise and Madison Byrd, Harold Byrd and Dan Byrd, had served as members of the state House of Representatives, representing Bartlett as Democrats -- no small accomplishment, given what in recent years has been the overwhelming domination of that sprawling community by the Republican Party. Harold Byrd also launched campaigns for Congress and for Shelby County mayor. Brother Bob Byrd served as a member of the state Board of Education, and various other family members have pulled their oar in a variety of causes -- notably in advancement of the University of Memphis.

Today’s Bartlett, a booming, bustling suburb, would be unimaginable without the efforts of the Byrds and the family bank. And it remains to be seen whether the political community has seen the last run by a family member.

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