Down 'n' Dirty

Local Democrats trade punches and split hairs as the chairmanship contest heats up.


Whether TV reality shows fade away or continue to proliferate, they have clearly left their mark on - well, reality. In that curious way in which life imitates art, any number of local political, governmental, or community scenarios have begun, for better or for worse, to show strong resemblance to what's on the tube.

Take, for example, the way in which the cadres of the Shelby County Democratic Party are going about selecting someone to, er, lead them. The drama has overtones of Big Brother, American Idol, and - perhaps most obviously - Survivor.

The field of contestants now stands at five, though a number of spectators believe that last-minute dark horses have yet to show themselves. The competition is, in any case, scheduled to end on July 23rd, when delegates elected at last month's party caucuses gather to name a successor to state senator Kathryn Bowers, who resigned her chairmanship after being indicted in the F.B.I.'s Tennessee Waltz sting.

Bowers' two-year term would have been up anyhow. The burgeoning scandal just hastened her departure. It had other consequences as well.

For one thing, it elevated to the role of acting chairman one Talut El-Amin, a previously somewhat obscure figure (at least to the public) who had been serving as Bowers' vice chair.

For another, the scandal was one of the factors (the Dean movement and last year's presidential race were others) that swelled the turnout at the party's June 25th caucuses, bringing in a flock of newly active Democrats. This group - actually an overlap of two groups, Democracy for Memphis and Mid-South Democrats in Action - constituted somewhere between a quarter and a third of the elected delegates.

Both factors count for something:

Win or lose, El-Amin has become a major factor in the drama. On the debit side, his mode of expression leaves something to be desired. At the two candidate forums held so far, he has tended to talk too much, and he has authored some online self-advertisements that push grammar and syntax to the breaking point.

The "Purge" Gets Purged

On the plus side, El-Amin has managed to impress neutral observers with a certain openness of outlook and clarity of vision. Here is how one of the newly active party cadres saw it in an e-mail commentary of the sort that, along with postings on a variety of hothouse Web logs, have become a staple of the intramural Democratic debate: "Despite the malapropisms, misstatements, provincialism, and rampant egotism ... you've got to give Mr. El-Amin some credit. He's been talking about the party being top-heavy and the need to rebuild it from the bottom up. He's been talking about financial accountability, getting precinct captains active, encouraging the establishment of Democratic clubs, and setting up think-tanks. All this sounds familiar. And while the [local Democratic] Web site does nothing positive for the party's image due to its lack of professionalism, at least he's made an effort to get one going."

El-Amin also came off well last week at a meeting of the party's executive committee in his defense against what would seem, in retrospect, to have been a misfired purge attempt.

Various members of one of the party's two preexisting factions had begun to talk about challenging the credentials of the newly involved Democrats on grounds that several of them - Desi Franklin, a leader of Mid-South Democracts in Action, was mentioned in particular - might have previously voted in Republican primaries.

Here is where matters get tricky, and even a scorecard is of little use to the observer. Franklin herself would pinpoint the origin of the purge effort in what she called the "Ford-Uptonite" faction of the party - after U.S. representative Harold Ford Jr., to whom many members of a major party faction are loyal, and longtime activist David Upton, a party mover and shaker both within and without that group.

It is simple common sense to conclude that Ford, whose chief political concern these days is with his ongoing race for the U.S. Senate, had no direct involvement in floating the purge idea. It is also simple common sense - augmented by ample evidence - to conclude that Upton, who can no more do without controversy than a fish can do without water, did.

In fairness, Upton, a member of the state Democratic committee but not the county committee, has since made an effort to dissociate himself from the concept of a purge per se. He did maintain this week that long-standing state-party bylaws prohibit Democrats whose last primary vote was Republican from becoming party officers. "But I have no idea who that might describe," he insisted.

In any case, the party's steering committee briefly discussed the credentials issue last Thursday night before El-Amin convened the full executive committee for its regular monthly meeting. That meeting turned out to be unofficial for lack of a quorum, but it did allow members to vent in one direction or another.

The upshot finally was that the purge fizzled. With a sizable corps of the new Democrats sitting by, looking and - according to the later testimony of several of them - feeling uneasy, El-Amin ended up expressing the obvious: It made little sense, he pointed out, for a party struggling to attract new adherents in time for next year's elections to start excluding potential members, isolated former votes notwithstanding. "Welcome," he said to the "newbies" with an expansive gesture.

Involvement in the purge effort had also made little sense for members of the faction backing the chairmanship effort of David Cocke, a distinguished and widely (though not universally) admired former chairman who has the on-the-record support of Representative Ford, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, and county assessor Rita Clark, three of the county's ranking Democrats.

Cocke was plainly uncomfortable with the brewing credentials controversy, especially since he believed, with some reason, that he had done well enough in the two candidate forums held so far to win the support of many of the newly involved Democrats. Accordingly, he let it be known that he favored waiving the state bylaw mentioned by Upton - a position ultimately taken by Upton himself.

Dimes to Dollars

So what's over is over - or is it? To judge solely by the tenor and volume of e-mails now in circulation, many members of the Democracy for Memphis and Mid-South Democrats in Action remain offended by the events of last week - which included one effort at borderline press-bashing, when an outgoing member of the local committee took issue with part of a line in the Flyer's July 7th Politics column.

A portion of one sentence in that column suggested that some attendees at a candidate forum held by the Germantown Democratic Club two weekends ago wondered aloud "why the party was behind on the rent for the local Democratic headquarters." The word "why" might better have been rendered as "if," but there was no doubting the tone of challenge mounted by questioners.

At the Germantown forum, the issue of rent possibly being in arrears on the party's Poplar Avenue headquarters was first raised by longtime party member Nancy Kuhn, mother of activist Matt Kuhn, another current candidate for the chairmanship.

She was followed by Ann Sandberg, who said, "My question is: Why do we not have the money to pay the rent next month? Why are we facing as a party no money to pay the rent next month?" Shortly thereafter, Cherry Davis, a current Democratic committee member and yet another candidate for the chairmanship, discussed some of the party's past financial difficulties, and said, "Right now we're looking at if we've got enough money to pay for July and the campaign office. In August we don't."

At last week's informal committee meeting, party treasurer Myra Styles, one of the few party members approved of by virtually all Democrats, produced financial records demonstrating conclusively that the party had never been in default on headquarters rent or even late in making a payment.

Yet her report also made it clear - as for that matter all the chairmanship candidates, including her own endorsee, Joe Young, have - that the local Democratic Party, with a balance on hand of $1,737.52, has a heap of fund-raising to do to catch up with the local Republicans.

And the balance sheet does nothing to resolve the still-simmering question, raised by many of the newly involved Democrats, as to whether the funds they contributed to last year's Kerry presidential campaign had been spent in exactly the way they preferred.

Oh, and don't get the idea, just because the party's (broadly described) Ford faction and the two groups of newly involved Democrats figured most prominently in last week's dustup(s), that the other main group of Democrats, described (also broadly) as the Herenton faction, didn't get their licks in.

In response to the party-loyalty issue, Gale Jones Carson, Mayor Willie Herenton's press secretary and a former chairman, sent out an e-mail citing Election Commission records that showed party secretary Jody Hurt Patterson to have voted in two Republican primaries over the years.

And Carson sent another e-mail asserting that her boss was not acquainted with candidate Cherry Davis, who has been widely regarded as representing the Herenton wing of the party. That might be of some concern to Davis, though it bolsters her several public statements that her race for the chairmanship is independent of all existing factional disputes. n

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