Harris-Ford Runoff Legally Cleared for November 10



Harris (left), Ford
  • JB
  • Harris (left), Ford
As soon as the crowded District 7 City Council race ended on October 6 with two candidates — University of Memphis law professor Lee Harris and sometime actress Kemba Ford in a virtual dead heat and headed for a runoff — the two rivals and their supporters began looking for ways to seize an advantage.

The Ford contingent thought they had a shot at an endorsement by Coby Smith, a fairly distant third-place finisher , but Smith had another, more ambitious idea — that of challenging the residential bona fides of Ford, on the apparent theory that if her candidacy were ruled invalid, he would ascend to the runoff position with Harris rather than her.

That gambit — a long shot if there ever was one — seems not to have worked. Acting on a challenge to Ford’s legal standing by Smith, who cited Council residency requirements that a candidate be a resident of the city for five years prior to an election, Election Commission administrator Rich Holden submitted a formal query on the matter to City Attorney Herman Morris.

The answer, signed by both Morris and assistant City Attorney Jack Payne Jr., was simple and direct: “Residency challenges must be brought before a candidate’s name appears on the ballot and before voting occurs. The voters have already spoken.”

Citing past case histories, the City Attorneys’ response said further, “The Shelby County Election Commission is a ministerial body. Courts must decide substantive issues of election law.” And it quoted from a recent Tennessee Court of Appeals finding that “[c]hallenges to a candidate’s right to appear on a ballot should ordinarily be brought before the election — preferably in time for the issue to be resolved before the ballots have to be printed and before the start of absentee and early voting.”

After suggesting, “The challenged raised by Mr. Smith at this point would likely be dismissed by a Tennessee court,” the City Attorneys' response concluded, “The people have spoken and made their preference known. The residency requirements for candidates seeking to run for Memphis City Council positions are those as defined by the state election laws.”

So, back to Square One, and the fact that the November 10 runoff between Harris and Ford will go on as scheduled. And even the backers of the two candidates concede that the outcome is uncertain.

As before, Harris is presumed to have the financial advantage. His last financial report before the October 6 election showed receipts of $38,400, including a $15,000 loan to himself, and expenditures of $25,400 for targeted mailings and a variety of other campaign materials and activities. Harris, who has been endorsed by Mayor A C Wharton, has scheduled further fundraising events between now and November 10, including one this week hosted by current City Councilman Jim Strickland.

For the pre-election period, Ford’s receipts were $8,600, with expenditures of $5,700. But what she lacks in campaign cash will be compensated to some degree by what is presumed to a certain amount of residual grass-roots loyalty to members of the extended Ford family. Kemba Ford is the daughter of former state Senator John Ford, now confined to a federal prison in Mississippi after being convicted of bribery in relation to the Tennessee Waltz scandal. (Proponents of Harris contend that the Ford connection works both ways and could also turn out voters opposed to the family political dynasty.)

A controversy not directly related to either candidate stemmed from recent remarks made by broadcaster/blogger Thaddeus Matthews, who used an offensive term to disparage Harris for the candidate’s support of and by the Tennessee Equality Project, which champions the rights and aspirations of gay, lesbian, and transgendered persons.

In an effort to distance herself from that dustup, Ford issued a statement saying, “I do not support or participate in discrimination of any kind, and I have run a clean and progressive campaign without disparaging anyone's character or name.”

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