Enter "The Force"

Newly energized cadres seem ready to transform the Shelby County Democratic Party.


The first stage of the local Democrats' reorganization is over, and after Saturday's party caucuses at the University of Memphis, it is no easier than it was beforehand to predict who will be the next party chairman.

But one thing was obvious: The affair was not dominated by either of the party's traditional blocs (usually referred to as the Ford faction and the Herenton faction in rough but accurate shorthand).

No, the leading influence on Saturday was —how to say it? — the Third Force, the New Force, or maybe just The Force.

In any case, as many as 150 new Democrats (new to party processes, anyhow) were on hand — largely at the behest of such freshly organized groups as Democracy in Memphis and Mid-South Democrats in Action and by activist leaders like Bradley Watkins and David Holt and, most notably, Desi Franklin.

Estimates varied as to just how many delegates these groups managed to elect to next month's party convention — maybe 30, maybe more. Enough, anyhow, to become the likely balance of power on July 23rd, when a successor will be elected to state senator Kathryn Bowers, who resigned the chairmanship in the wake of her arrest last month in the F.B.I.'s Tennessee Waltz sting.

A new executive committee will also be elected on July 23rd, and this one is unlikely to be riven into two feuding halves, as was the one elected just two years ago, when Bowers, supported by most Fordites, eked out a one-vote victory over Gale Jones Carson, Mayor Willie Herenton's press secretary.

And where did these new Democrats come from? Some of them were "Deaniacs," who entered the political process with near-revivalist fervor to support the reform efforts of Howard Dean, a presidential candidate in 2004 and now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Others got involved to support the 2004 Democratic nominee, John Kerry, against President Bush. And still others materialized in response to the Tennessee Waltz scandal itself or to Governor Phil Bredesen's TennCare reductions or to a myriad of other signs that the process, in their eyes and for their purposes, had ceased to function.

Whatever brought them, they were there on Saturday, and their energy, quite as much as their numbers, seemed to carry the day.

The usual political brokers were there too, of course: Sidney Chism, chief tactician of the Herenton cause, was on hand, and longtime Ford loyalists David Upton and John Freeman were there to hold the fort for Congressman Harold Ford, who was reportedly elsewhere in Tennessee campaigning for the U.S. Senate seat he hopes to win in next year's election.

But David Cocke, the worthy longtime Democrat who is the congressman's designate for chairman (and the choice as well of Shelby County mayor A C Wharton and assessor Rita Clark) was unable even to win a delegate's seat, much less to organize a clear majority for next month's election. (Full disclosure: Flyer publisher Kenneth Neill defeated Cocke in the would-be chairman's District 92 precinct.)

Other chairmanship wannabes were present Saturday — Cherry Davis, Joe Young, and current vice chair (and acting chairman) Talut Al-Amin. But all of them must have been as uncertain as Cocke about their prospects next month. (There was even a little brushfire chairmanship talk in favor of Franklin, who planned to take off for a vacation in Italy the day after the caucuses.)

A Compromise Candidate?

For the record, Cocke professed continued optimism about his candidacy and said he'd been assured that Representative Ford was still behind him. And the Ford organization's spin machine, spearheaded by Upton, wasted no time this week in suggesting that the newly activated Democrats would end up on its side of the ledger.

Chism, who claimed victory for his side after Saturday, would have none of that. "I doubt that he [Cocke] will end up with five delegates when it's all over," he said, maintaining that two areas the Ford organization had counted on in recent years — predominantly white Midtown and East Memphis — had gone over to the insurgency.

After Saturday, there were two Democratic factions, just as there were before, Chism said, but he identified these as "my side and the new people" and suggested that these two groups could fairly easily be reconciled around common goals. As for the slate backed by Ford, Wharton, and Clark — "they're dead in the water."

Chism, who had vowed last week to block Cocke's election at all costs, called the two-time chairman "a rubber stamp for Ford" and said that the congressman and Wharton "had no business" trying to dictate a chairmanship candidate.

There were some reports that Davis — whom Chism praised without expressly backing — might be within a few votes of victory once the dust settled, but there was also talk of a compromise candidate, and the name of Matt Kuhn, a party activist who has served as a chief campaign aide for several Democrats, was being suggested on various sides of the factional line.

"I'm considering my options," Kuhn, who now works as a sales marketing representative, said this week. "If I can help bring a consensus to the party, I'd certainly be interested." Kuhn said he felt closest of all to the newly engaged Democratic groups.

To the naked eye on Saturday, these new party cadres were overwhelmingly white, though some of their key figures (Watkins, for example) were African-American. But race was not the factor that bound them together. Most of them, when asked, professed to be motivated by a desire to throw off the perceived timidity and uncertainty that have accompanied Democratic defeats in recent years.

A spirited pre-caucus speech by state senator Steve Cohen on Saturday denouncing "Republican-lite" attitudes was met with thunderous applause, and the same kind of intensity was evident in the caucus proceedings themselves.

Maybe one of the party's traditional factions will still end up in control at next month's convention, and maybe not. But it is unlikely that any of the same-old/same-old attitudes will persist in the usual form.

Saturday's caucuses made it clear that something new was under way, and the increased turnout, especially in predominantly white precincts, was surely enough to pique the curiosity not just of traditional Democrats but of the county's Republicans as well.

 Meanwhile, the qualifying deadline passed last week for candidates running in the special elections for state Senate District 29 and state House District 87 (vacated, respectively, by John Ford and Kathryn Bowers, now a senator).

A few names might sift out on Thursday of this week, the withdrawal deadline, but as of press time, these were the candidates' names certified by the Election Commission:

State Senate District 29 (Democrats): Jennings Bernard, Henri E. Brooks, John A. Brown, Barbara Cooper, Laura Davis, John DeBerry Jr., Ophelia E. Ford, Stephen Haley, Kevin McLellan.

State Senate District 29 (Republicans): John Farmer, Terry Roland.

State Senate District 29 (Independants): Robert "Prince Mongo" Hodges.

State House District 87 (Democrats): Omari Faulkner, Alonzo Grant, Gary L. Rowe, Andrew "Rome" Withers.

There were no Republican or Independent candidates qualifying for the House seat. Primary elections will take place on August 4th, with the general election for these seats occurring on September 15th.

Though hope springs eternal for long-shot candidates, perennials, and unknowns, the Senate candidates whose chances have been most touted in political circles are Brooks, Cooper, and DeBerry, all now serving as state representatives, and Ford, whose family name should count for something.

Among the relative newcomers, Haley, a Southwest Tennessee Community College professor, has indicated he intends to run an energetic campaign on the Democratic side, and Roland, a Millington businessman, will command some stout support among the district's Republicans, a distinct minority of the whole.

Candidates appearing at a forum held Sunday at Mt. Olive C.M.E. Church were Brooks, Cooper, Davis, Roland, Faulkner, Grant, and Withers.

 Mike Ritz, who is seeking the County Commission seat now held by Marilyn Loeffel, was the beneficiary of a well-attended fund-raiser last week at Homebuilders on Germantown Parkway. Other possible entries in that predominantly Republican district are Karla Templeton, daughter of Commissioner John Willingham, and Mark Loeffel, husband of the incumbent, who is prevented from running for reelection by term-limits restrictions recently upheld by Chancellor Tene Alissandratos.

 Businessman Bob Hatton this week tossed his name into the hat for another term-limited seat — that of Commission budget chairman Cleo Kirk. Political broker Chism, who also has several business interests, had previously announced as a candidate for the seat.

 Correction: Debbie Stamson, a candidate for Shelby County clerk and a current employee of that office, is not related to the family of the late former clerk, Richard "Sonny" Mashburn, as was reported last week.

 Daily sit-ins at Governor Bredesen's Nashville office protesting his TennCare cuts are now in their second week. The Rev. Dwight Montgomery was among the Memphians joining in the demonstrations.

Though the governor began the year looking like a shoo-in for reelection, with portions of the national media touting him as a possible presidential or vice-presidential candidate in 2008, his poll standings have declined somewhat, and Republicans statewide have been correspondingly encouraged.

State representative Beth Harwell of Nashville is reportedly giving strong consideration to leaving the U.S. Senate race she has announced for and taking on Bredesen instead. 

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