It ain’t over yet. Apparently, state Rep. John DeBerry, who was voted off the August Democratic primary ballot by the state Democratic Committee on Wednesday, has legal recourse against that action, as well as support for his intended appeal from within party ranks, notably from the legislative Black Caucus.
DeBerry said Thursday he had not yet, as required by statute, received a formal letter from the committee notifying him of its action and of his right to appeal but that he is already busy preparing that appeal, which apparently would need to be completed and submitted to the committee by Thursday of next week.
The 13-term legislator said he had been “ambushed and blindsided” by the action against him, which had been “timely done” from the standpoint of his critics, put before the committee “after the filing deadline and in the middle of a pandemic.”
DeBerry said he had received no advance notice and learned of the pending removal action only on Monday night, not in any official way from the committee itself, but from his House colleague G.A. Hardaway, chair of the Back Caucus, which would go on to send the committee a letter of support for DeBerry as someone who had “faithfully served his constituents in the 90th House District” and “had earned the respect of his Democratic colleagues and the respect of other lawmakers across the aisle.”
Opponents of DeBerry had cited a pattern of his votes they declared to be in violation of the party’s interest, on such subjects as abortion and private-school vouchers, of receiving significant financial support from Republican sources, of voting for Republican Glen Casada over Democrat Karen Camper in the 2019 House Speakership race, and of making a substantial cash contribution to an election campaign of Republican state Rep. Bill Sanderson.
The case against DeBerry had been formally submitted to the Democratic Committee in an April 1st letter by Memphis activist Janeita Lentz. The letter said that DeBerry had “utilized the power of his office to work against the constituents in which he serves, undermining the voice of the people and the ‘vision’ of the Tennessee Democratic Party.”
The committee would end up voting to oust DeBerry in a virtual session on Wednesday morning by a vote of 41 to 18, with two abstentions. Among those publicly opposing the ouster move were members of the Back Caucus, including the aforesaid Camper, as well as Hardaway and state Senator Raumesh Akbari, both of whom were no votes on the committee.
Echoing an accusation made by another Black Caucus member, state Rep. Joe Towns, DeBerry said the case against him was supported by “a group of people who don’t look like us,” suggesting that there was an element of racial bias in the removal action.
He denied absolutely the alleged financial contribution to Sanderson and said his 2019 vote to make Republican Casada Speaker of the House was in conformity with an arrangement made between Democratic leaders and Casada in which House Democrats were promised a number of perks. The arrangement was later disavowed by the party caucus, which opted to support Camper, “but I had already given my word to Casada,” DeBerry said.
As for his votes on various subjects, DeBerry defended those as expressing the wishes of his constituents. On the voucher issue, he added that he had himself, as a high schooler in Crockett County, had the opportunity to attend a school previously reserved for whites, had profited from the experience, and thought vouchers would open such opportunities for others.
Aside from his formal appeal of the committee’s action, which he seeks to have reversed, DeBerry said he was also interested in investigating whether the Anti-Skulduggery Act of 1991, sponsored by then state Senator (now Congressman) Steve Cohen, might apply to his situation. The Act was prompted by a last-minute withdrawal of candidacy in 1990 by then state House incumbent U.A. Moore of Millington, whose friend, then Millington alderman Ed Haley, became an automatic primary winner by virtue of being the only remaining candidate on the ballot.
The purpose of the Act, which allows a seven-day grace period for new filings past the withdrawal deadline, was to prevent such de facto prearrangements. Whether the act applies to this week’s committee action, which theoretically might favor one of the remaining Democrats on the primary ballot, would have to be adjudicated.
DeBerry said that he had no intention, however, of spending months before the election researching other legal loopholes that might invalidate his removal from the ballot.