When and if the Shelby County Commission is required to name someone as an interim appointee to the Distict 29 state Senate seat, what will its members do?

To judge by a sampling of commissioners’ opinions taken Wednesday, that jury is still out and will likely remain so until the moment of decision is at hand. With the exception of current commission chairman Tom Moss, a Republican who told reporters he would gladly nominate party-mate Terry Roland for the job, most commissioners hedged their bets.

Roland, of course, is the plaintiff in the ongoing case to unseat Democrat Ophelia Ford, who was certified last fall by the Shelby County Election Commission as the winner over Roland – by 13 votes – to succeed her brother John Ford, who had resigned the seat after being indicted in the FBI’s Tennessee Waltz sting.

Charging various frauds and improprieties, including voting by felons and votes in the names of dead people, Roland and his legal representatives have challenged the outcome, in and out of court.

To the surprise of many, the state Senate – which is the ultimate arbiter of its own membership -- cast a preliminary committee-of-the-whole vote Tuesday to void the election results , a circumstance that, if formally ratified Thursday when the body meets again, will vacate the seat and make it necessary for the commission to appoint a temporary successor.

Normally, a gentleman’s agreement prevails whereby an interim appointment goes to a member of the same party which customarily controls the district. There is no disputing that District 29, which hugs the Mississippi River line, is heavily African-American and traditionally Democratic.

Arguably mitigating that fact, however, are the results of last year’s special election, in which Ford and Roland essentially ran neck-and-neck. Not only Moss but two other Republican commissioners, George Flinn and Bruce Thompson, suggested Wednesday that no party label should be taken as automatically applying. Both Flinn and Thompson made it clear that they were open to a variety of choices, irrespective of party-line or racial factors.

Two black Democrats, Cleo Kirk and Walter Bailey, insisted just as strongly that an interim appointee should be an African-American Democrat, in keeping with the district’s tradition and, both noted, the relative dearth of black legislators in the General Assembly. Kirk specifically called for the reappointment of Ophelia Ford.

But neither Kirk nor Bailey seemed prepared to draw a line in the sand on the matter. Bailey said that a black Republican would be worth his consideration and that he could live with whatever the commission – divided 7-6, with Republicans in the majority – ended up deciding.

Though no consensus had yet developed among commissioners, there seemed to be developing sentiment for a compromise choice of some sort. Whether coincidentally or not, one name being mentioned was that  of Sidney Chism, an African-American Democrat who last year served a term as interim senator for the District 33 seat ultimately won by Democrat Kathryn Bowers in a special election.

It wasn’t so much that Chism himself was being touted for another go-round in Nashville as that he was the type of nominee who might be able to get a crossover vote among commissioners.

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