Last-minute Democratic maneuvering; plus other political notes.



While most attention in local Democratic Party circles remains focused on a five-cornered contest for the party chairmanship, Bradley Watkins, who has achieved a measure of prominence as an organizer for Democracy for Memphis, has thrown his hat in the ring to become to become the party’s first vice-chair at Saturday’s long-awaited Democratic convention at the University of Memphis.

Democracy for Memphis is affiliated with the national Democracy for America movement that grew out of Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy. The organization is associated with another newly active local group, Mid-South Democrats in Action, which had its roots in the Women for Kerry organization of 2004. The two groups together are loosely allied as the “Convention Coalition” and constitute a bona fide bloc of sorts.

Watkins appeared at a meeting of Mid-South Democrats last week, making an impassioned appeal for the future use of the party’s current Poplar Avenue headquarters as a regular meeting place for various non-party groups on the progressive or left-liberal side of the political spectrum. (Among them: Mid South Peace and Justice, Mid-South Interfaith, Tennesseans For Fair Taxation, Initiative Fairness, Memphis Now, and Stonewall Democrats.)

And he made an effort to collect funds on the spot for the continuation and maintenance of the headquarters – though he was ultimately asked by Libby de Caetani, who was presiding over the MSDIA meeting, to do his soliciting after the meeting.

Through the intensity of Watkins’ appeal drew some raised-eyebrow reactions from several of those present, he got public backing afterward from David Upton, generally regarded as the major strategist for one of the traditional local Democratic factions – one, in fact, that is increasingly referred to by opponents as the “Ford-Uptonite” faction, in recognition of the fact that many of its members consider themselves loyal to U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

In fairness, there is little or no evidence that Rep. Ford, currently a U.S. Senate candidate, is taking a hands-on part in the local party’s reorganization – though he has publicly endorsed the chairmanship candidacy of lawyer David Cocke, a two-time former chairman.

In any case, Upton said of Watkins’ proposal, “He did exactly the right thing. Everybody’s fixated on who gets to be chairman, and we ought to be thinking of what happens after the convention, on what we do with things like the headquarters.”

Meanwhile, maintains Upton (fixated or otherwise), the chairmanship race is being fairly evenly contested between his man Cocke and current executive committee member Cherry Davis. “She’s got the Chism vote,” Upton says, referring to what is also referred to as the Herenton faction. Former chairman Sidney Chism, a close political ally of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, is regarded as its de facto head. The mayor himself, like the congressman, is taking no active role in proceedings.

Besides Cocke and Davis, the other announced or presumed candidates are current acting chairman Talut El-Amin, Joe Young, and Matt Kuhn. All three are regarded as fallback choices if neither Cocke nor Davis can prevail on an early balloting, once the party’s new executive committee is elected Saturday.

Both the Ford and the Herenton factions have charged the other with various forms of improper meddling in an effort to influence the votes of whatever committee members end up being elected from the ranks of DFA and MSDIA. Though prominent personalities in both new groups are widely presumed to be leaning toward candidates other than Cocke, Upton sent out an email this week containing endorsements of Cocke from two board members of Mid-South Democrats, Lea Ester Redmund and Bob Hatton.

Also endorsing Cocke were various labor leaders – Ruth Davis of AFSCME; Fred Ashwell, president of the AFL-CIO Labor Council; Paul Shafer of IBEW, and Howard Richardson of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union.

But what first became evident after the party’s June 25th caucuses remains the case on the eve of the convention: The balance of power lies with the two new groups – the self-styled “Convention Coalition” – not with the old, pre-existing factions.

U.S. Rep. Ford, who has been under attack from Republicans for a recent vote he cast on the subject of eminent-domain appropriations of private property, released a statement this week meant to clarify his position.

The statement reads in part: “As a Member of Congress, I recently voted for a resolution expressing the Congress’ disapproval of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Kelo v. New London case and our firm support of the rights of property owners. Our nation was founded in part on the fundamental right to own property and government cannot take that right away arbitrarily. I support the rights of homeowners and business owners….

“However, the importance of economic rehabilitation in many of our urban and rural communities cannot and should not be ignored. It is critical for the democratically elected officials in our communities to have the ability to seek, with support of property owners, the revitalization of local economies, the creation of much-needed jobs and the reversal of blight, crime or poverty in that community.”

Accordingly, said Ford, he voted against a Republican-sponsored measure – the Garrett Amendment – because, he said, it “like the Supreme Court decision, went too far.” He said he opposed the Garrett Amendment “because if were it to become law, any initiative of the Department of Housing and Urban Development that involves private development or investment, like Hope VI, could be put in jeopardy.”

The absence of Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson from the commission’s third and final reading of the county’s tax rate at a specially called meeting last Wednesday has drawn some attention – most recently from Thompson’s colleague John Willingham, who wondered out loud about it at a meeting of the Southeast Shelby Republican Club Monday night.

Thompson’s decision to recuse himself from last week’s controversial vote on city-county school funding at the commission’s regular meeting had also piqued the curiosity of some attendees – notably members of the county school board, who had counted on his vote for a proposal, backed by the county and city school boards, that was ultimately tabled.

The 5th District commissioner dealt with both matters this week. He had recused himself on the funding vote, Thompson said, because a business partner of his had a stake in the construction issue. As for his absence from the special meeting, he explained that this, too, was related to business – the consequence of a long-standing appointment set for last Wednesday.

Thompson said he had been assured by both Commission chairman Hooks and county mayor A C Wharton of the strong likelihood that the special meeting would be reset for Thursday and accordingly did not attempt to reschedule his business appointment.

“But you could certainly interpret my absence as a no vote on the tax rate,” Thompson said. The $4.09 county property tax rate – technically the same as last year’s but a de facto increase of some $20 million countywide -- was passed despite opposition from Commissioners Willingham, George Flinn, and chairman Michael Hooks.

Almost lost in the ruckus over school funding and the county’s tax rate at last week’s regular commission meeting was an announcement by chairman Hooks concerning a novel proposal to give property tax relief to senior citizens.

The proposal, brainchild of veteran tax-appeals representative Jerry Carruthers, was scheduled for discussion by the commission’s general-government committee at noon on Wednesday – with the evident endorsement of chairman Hooks.

Differing from a pending constitutional-amendment measure sponsored by state Senator Mark Norris of Collierville and applying statewide, the proposal before the commission is Shelby County-specific and is the aftermath of legislation already passed in last year’s session of the General Assembly. To become effective, however, it requires a two-thirds majority vote of the commission.

What the proposal would do is permit senior homeowners to apply for property tax freezes lasting for the life of the homeowner or for a maximum duration of 20 years. To be eligible, a homeowner would have to be at least 70 years old with either an annual household income of less than $25,000 or a record of having paid property taxes for at least 20 of the last 30 years on the affected property.

Technically, says Carruthers, the tax freezes would operate in a manner similar to the freezes granted to various business and industrial taxpayers under the PILOT (Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes) program. Title to the property would be transferred to the county, which would lease it back to the homeowner at a dollar a year. Like the PILOT recipients, the homeowner would make an annual lump-sum payment in the amount of the tax owed when the freeze took place.

Terry Roland, a Millington businessman and Republican candidate for the District 29 state Senate seat vacated by Tennessee Waltz indictee John Ford, apparently has decided he’s running against State Representative Henri Brooks, one of several Democrats seeking their party’s nomination on the primary election date of August 4th.

Addressing the Southeast Shelby Republican Club at Fox Ridge Pizza Monday night, Roland cited a recent ad by longtime legislator Brooks asserting that she needs no “learning curve” and chose – perhaps a bit arbitrarily – to interpret the remark as being aimed at himself.

“I don’t need a learning curve to know I should pledge allegiance to the flag,” Roland said, among other things. This was a reference to a celebrated incident several years ago when Brooks conspicuously remained seated as the pledge was administered to open a session of the state House.

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