The race for the District 96 state House district came down to a matter of whereabouts this week, as Mike Stewart of Nashville, the Democrats’ caucus leader in the House, came calling at the offices of the Shelby County Schools board on Avery.
The object of Rep. Stewart’s search was Republican House candidate Scott McCormick. Actually, the question of where McCormick was didn’t concern Stewart so much; his stated purpose was to find out where McCormick had been in the four years of his service as
Stewart outside SCS Hq with thumb drive
an elected member of the SCS board.
Or, more exactly, whether McCormick had been. At Board meetings, that is. The Nashville Democrat was inquiring about McCormick’s attendance record at Board meetings on behalf of the campaign of GOP nominee McCormick’s opponent in the District 96, incumbent Democrat Dwayne Thompson. In 2016, Thompson had won an upset victory over then incumbent Republican Steve McManus in the district, which straddles Cordova, southeast Memphis, and Germantown, and has been a marked man ever since to Republicans, who want the seat back.
As Stewart explained, first to the media at a Wednesday morning press conference and then to members of the SCS building’s reception tier, Democrats, tracking down what Stewart described as reports of McCormick’s absence from duty during “critical meetings” of the Board, have for some time been requesting McCormick’s attendance record and have been frustrated.
At one point, Stewart said, he had been told that SCS could not oblige his request because the school system’s office did not possess a storage drive on which to record the requested records. At his press conference held in front of the SCS office building, Stewart scoffed at the explanation and brandished a thumb drive he had paid a few dollars for at a supply store. “Since they claim not to have something so basic, I bought one for them to use,” he said.
Shortly thereafter, accompanied by members of the media, Stewart was inside the building, where he was greeted first by a genial security officer and then by a series of reception employees. To each of them he repeated what he’d said to the press members — namely, that he regarded it as essential for the public to know whether Scott McCormick would be attentive to duty as a legislator and that his attendance record as a Board member was a key to such a question and that he and others had been asking to see the challenger’s attendance record for some time and had been consistently blown off.
What happened afterward had a Kafkaesque tinge — meaning that it was hard to tell whether the SCS response to Stewart’s in-person renewal of his request was just plain bureaucracy or actual enemy action (Stewart wondered out loud if there was a connection between the difficulty he was having and schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s reported endorsement of Republican Bill Lee for Governor.)
In any case, the SCS personnel were uniformly cheery and accommodating, asking Stewart et al. to take seats in the lobby while the fulfillment mission was under way. Periodic
McCormick with co-host Billy Orgel at Wednesday night fundraiser
ally, someone would come down from upstairs and tell the waiting group that their request was being dealt with and would just take. A little bit. Longer. And Longer.
The wait went on past the time when Stewart et al. had to go to lunch. They returned in the afternoon and still no records. Ultimately, after Stewart and a party aide were on their way back to Nashville, the Office of Communications would release this statement:
“Shelby County Schools abides by all laws and policies with regard to open records procedures. As communicated to the requester on multiple occasions via email and phone since this open records request was received on September 13, this is a highly complex request due to the volume of files requested over a five-year period and the requirements for an approved device that can store digital recordings or over 150 Board Committee meetings.”
Stewart’s take was somewhat different:
“This morning we were told that we would receive the records and asked to wait for them. Hours later, officials changed their position and said they would get them to us days from now. It appears that higher ups intervened to delay disclosure to cover McCormick’s record of absences.”
As it happened, McCormick’s whereabouts on Wednesday night were easily pinpointed. He was the guest of honor — the beneficiary, as it were — of a campaign fundraiser at the East Memphis home of Cathy and Craig Weiss. A sizeable crowd of well-wishers were on hand for the event, and, in his remarks to the crowd, McCormick acknowledged the visiting Democrat’s quest for his records, making no secret of his view that the effort was politically motivated and bordering on the frivolous.
Somewhat earlier, he had told the Flyer that he doubted he had missed more than four Board meetings during his School Board tenure, and none that could be regarded as “critical,” although he acknowledged that he could make no exact count of committee meetings he attended.
In any case, Stewart has indicated that the hunt for McCormick’s records will go on and no doubt intensify as the campaign year heads into the first week of early voting.