In what may have been something of an omen, the first significant local event of the political year 2018 was the death on January 4th, at the ripe age of 100, of Lewis Donelson, legal and civic eminence, political pathfinder, and patriarch of both the Shelby County and Tennessee Republican parties.
Donelson, who hand-picked such Republican standard bearers as Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander, transformed the state GOP from an insignificant relic of the Reconstruction period into a dominant mainstream party. But he also lived to see that party, in the age of Donald J. Trump, morph from his own brand of moderation into an instrument he feared had become intolerant, monolithic, and regressive.
- Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris (here with supporters) reflected the blue wave that swept Shelby County.
If there was a predominant leitmotif in the subsequent year's politics, it concerned whether that state of affairs would continue or yield instead to the restoration of a two-party political system, which, more than the supremacy of a given party, had been the true object of Donelson's life-long activism.
That was the overriding political question of 2018, and the year would produce competing and contradictory answers to it.
In one sense, the concept of a "blue wave" favoring Democratic revival moved from the status of a speculation to one of reality in the course of the year's several electoral cycles. But in another sense, this regeneration seemed confined to the metropolitan areas of Memphis/Shelby County, where Democrats swept the county general election and showed surprising strength in suburban legislative races, and in Nashville/Davidson County, where Democrats maintained their local hold on legislative races and, as one Flyer story noted, no avowed Republican even ventured to run for a county office.
In the state as a whole, however, Republicanism — and a conservative version of it, at that — continued to prevail and even extend its dominance. The GOP's nominees for governor — Franklin businessman Bill Lee, a newcomer and pleasant personality — and for U.S. Senator — 7th District U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn, a right-wing populist — triumphed handily over their Democratic opponents, gubernatorial aspirant Karl Dean and Senatorial candidate Phil Bredesen. Both losers were former Nashville mayors. Early in the century, Bredesen managed to secure two consecutive terms as governor as an old-fashioned conservative Democrat.
Moreover, the political exigencies of the year seemed to have extinguished the relative moderation of the statewide Republican office-holders who were in power at the beginning of 2018. Governor Bill Haslam, who had attempted, in what may have been too feckless a manner, to accept the opportunity for Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), delivered his final State of the Union address in January. His successor Lee would propose such seemingly retrograde notions as universal gun carry and educational vouchers and declared himself opposed to Medicaid expansion.
Senator Bob Corker, another relative moderate, was widely considered to have bowed out of a reelection bid in 2018 due to the near-certainty of a challenge from Blackburn, and, though his Senatorial colleague Lamar Alexander, celebrated for his willingness to work across the aisle, faced no immediate challenge, Alexander announced in December that he would not run for reelection in 2020, leaving the way open for another fire-breather.
Charles Burson, the former state attorney general who served as Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff, appeared at Memphis' Novel bookstore in December on behalf of his book, The Ground Game, a work of photojournalism that chronicled the 2016 presidential election. He told the audience at his reading that the future would require yoking together the traditional power politicians of the Democratic Party and the progressive activists who have emerged in the movement for resistance to Donald J. Trump.
There are certainly several of the latter on the scene in Shelby County. After becoming unmistakably visible in the successful effort to force removal of Memphis' Downtown Confederate monuments, Tami Sawyer ran for and won a race this year for the Shelby County Commission, where she continues to call for overdue reforms. Other members of her progressive cohort have joined with more traditional politicians, like University of Memphis law professor Steve Mulroy, a former commissioner himself, and an exponent of voting reforms, to call to account the members of the Memphis City Council, grown notorious in the service of in-group politics.
Council sessions during the year involved numerous verbal battles between the body's dominant business-friendly bloc and critical attendees who challenged the council's endorsement of referenda that would nullify earlier referenda in favor of term limits and ranked-choice voting, a process designed to eliminate the need for sparsely attended runoff elections. The regressive referenda were defeated, but a new, still unresolved battle was joined over the issue of electing new members to replace departed ones rather than submitting the matter to an appointment process under the de facto control of the dominant council bloc. When a deadlock — essentially between black and white members — ensued for 100 votes on what was intended to be the council's first appointment decision, that conundrum was destined to be resolved in the new year.
Chancellor JoeDae L. Jenkins was kept busy during 2018, having to rule on disputes between citizens — mainly Democrats in particular and African-Americans in general — who feared that the Shelby County Election Commission was practicing subtle and not-so-subtle forms of voter suppression. Jenkins did his best to clear the way for an untroubled turnout for Shelby County's several elections.
The activism of the year had, earlier in April, joined memorably and more seamlessly with world history and the evolution of human ideals during the weeklong commemoration called MLK50. On April 6th, the date on which, a half century ago, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel, a host of dignitaries — including Dr. William Barber, Al Green, Jesse Jackson, and Bernie Sanders — joined city officials in a day-long commemoration of the slain martyr at the National Civil Rights Museum.
The year was also marked with transitions in the lives of influential local citizens. Johnnie Turner, longtime head of the local NAACP, resigned her position as a state representative, one which she assumed a decade earlier upon the death of her husband Larry Turner. And besides that of the aforementioned Donelson, were several other important deaths of politically active Memphians, including those of Democratic activist Lois Freeman, and Republican legislator Ron Lollar.
There were other memorable personalities and moments, in addition to those mentioned here, and the year ahead — which includes the 2019 city election — will bring even more to the fore. We'll do our best to let you know about them.