Sidney Chism and friends
Although he has been a known candidate for Shelby County Mayor for upwards of a year, familiar Democratic figure Sidney Chism didn’t make it official until Thursday night at the Links of Whitehaven clubhouse on Holmes Road, where he formally launched his campaign in the company of longtime labor and political allies.
But, while the basis of his support is clearly among African Americans, the county’s majority population — and heavily concentrated in his Whitehaven/South Memphis bailiwick — Chism made a pointed appeal in his announcement remarks to members of the county’s ethnic enclaves: Hispanic, Indian, and Asian.
Chism, a well-known Teamster leader and political broker before winning political office, most prominently as a two-term county commissioner, promised, if elected, to name members of all these groups to prominent leadership positions, along with “black folks that’s been here for a number of years and still begs for things every day.”
“Together, we’re gonna win this campaign!” Chism said. Promising to “change the paradigm of this town,” he underscored the fact that “70 percent of our population are living in poverty,” and he singled out for special attention “an educational system that I think we need to revisit,” one that has not provided “enough to take our kids to the next level.”
Much of Chism’s speech, to a crowd that included numerous members of a women’s auxiliary, clad in pink campaign T-shirts, amounted to a denunciation of what he characterized as the county’s long dominant social and economic class, a group, he said, that was lining up behind an opponent of his in the Democratic primary for county mayor.
“That opponent was not chosen by the people of Memphis,” he said. “He was chosen by the fat boys that make the decisions for this town.” That candidate, described by Chism more through invective than by biographical particulars, was clearly state Senator Lee Harris, though he was never named as such.
“I refuse to call his name,” said Chism, “but I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m gonna beat up on him, morning, noon, and night!” — a vow that drew resounding cheers from his support group.
“We don’t need somebody to sit behind a desk and tell us what our leadership is going to be,” Chism said. “This county is 59 percent Democratic, and 51 percent black, and here we’re not running anything. We don’t run nothing , and they don’t want us to run nothing!”
Bearing down on the unnamed Harris, who the night before had been the beneficiary of fundraising cocktail party (billed as such), Chism expounded with near fury: “They’re running this person now who says he’s a leading candidate, a front-runner! My God, I’ve been in politics all my life, and they’ve made this guy a frontrunner. I can’t think of nothing he’s ever done!”
Chism said his opponent had been on the City council for two years before abruptly quitting and going to the state Senate. “He was in there for two years and talking about quitting that.” Chism offered a comparison of his own tenure as an interim state Senator to what he said was Harris’. “I was in the Senate for four months and passed or helped pass or signed on to 64 bills that passed. I’ll betcha he hasn’t signed on to six bills in his two years, and he had not one bill in the City Council…” (presumably, Chism meant “ordinance”) “...that was of benefit to the city of Memphis!”
In a brief interview afterward, Chism was asked about the developing likelihood that Bartlett banker Harold Byrd, a close ally of his through the years, might also become a candidate for county mayor in the Democratic primary.
“I wish he had talked to me before doing something like that,” Chism said. But he acknowledged that in a three-way primary, Byrd’s entry could actually help him.
Indeed, a three-way Democratic primary featuring Chism, Harris, and Byrd could see a variety of splits occurring among voter blocs, with most obvious vulnerability to Harris’ would-be mainstream campaign. The state senator would clearly have to share a considerable number of black votes with Chism and traditional white votes with Byrd, who may have significant support among African Americans as well.
In any case, Sidney Chism served notice on Thursday night that he’s definitely to be reckoned with.