This past weekend, even as phase one of the 2014 election cycle —Tuesday's party primaries for countywide offices — was on the cusp of fulfillment, phase two, involving the August 7th county general election and state and federal primaries, began to amp up its imminence.
Two back-to-back events on Saturday — a fund-raiser for Juvenile Court judge candidate Tarik Sugarmon, followed by the annual Republican Lincoln Day Dinner at the Racquet Club — demonstrated a curious symbiotic quality to the pending August vote that was absent from the just-concluded county primaries.
Present at the Sugarmon affair at the Whitehaven home of Robert Hill was a mixed crowd of Democrats and Republicans. Among the latter were incumbent Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and County Trustee David Lenoir, both ranking GOP officials. Among the former were Memphis Mayor A C Wharton and a laundry list of this year's Democratic candidates. And, yes, there were beaucoup Republican candidates, as well.
What made this ecumenical party somewhat ironic is the fact that, while the race for Juvenile Court judge is formally nonpartisan, like all other judgeships on the August ballot, it is no secret that Sugarmon's base of support is more Democratic than not, while his opponent, current Juvenile Court Magistrate Dan Michael, began the race with a basically Republican constituency.
Even so, Sugarmon was a mountain to which the various potentates of Shelby County, actual and aspiring, felt compelled to pay homage to, regardless of their political orientation, even if some of them withheld specific endorsements of the honoree or financial love offerings. (Others were quite lavish in both regards.) So it will be on large occasions featuring Michael, of which there are sure to be some.
Another major event this past Saturday, the annual Shelby County Republican Lincoln Day Dinner, held this year at the Racquet Club, reversed the process somewhat. This time it was the legion of judicial candidates who, regardless of their origins in this or that political party, felt compelled to place themselves at the very altar of Republicanism.
Over the years, a handful of declared Democratic candidates and officials have attended the Lincoln Day events, and the same has been true of bona fide Republicans at the Shelby County Democrats' annual Kennedy Day Dinner.
That line-crossing phenomenon has pretty much disappeared by now, thanks to some partisan whip-cracking by loyalist enforcers on both sides of the party line, but especially on the Democratic side, where official censures have been levied of late on those Democrats who attend GOP candidate events or dare to make nice with Republicans in other public ways.
But, regardless of their political origins, the judicial corps of sitting judges and candidates still can be counted on to appear en masse at the major events of both Democrats and Republicans, and were there in force Saturday night. An anomaly much commented on by the Republican regulars at the Lincoln Day dinner was the presence of Jim Kyle, the state Senate's Democratic leader, now a candidate for chancellor on the judicial ballot.
The common pragmatic principle ensuring all this crossover traffic to the Sugarmon event and later to the GOP's annual gala is a simple one: If you are running in a nonpartisan race — and all judicial races in Shelby County are officially nonpartisan — you want as many votes from as many different types of people as you can get, and the bottom line is that if you aspire to be a Mohammad, you will go to all the mountains on the map. The reverse, too, is true. Partisan candidates feel free to attend as many judicial-candidate events as they can.
There is the occasional snag. Sheila Bruce-Renfroe, a candidate for the Division 1 General Sessions judgeship, managed a fair amount of equanimity when the incumbent in that division, Judge Lynn Cobb, a Republican in good standing, had a prominent place on the dais, opening the dinner with an elongated invocation to the Almighty.
She was less tolerant of the fact that, as she put it, she had paid for a full-page ad in the Lincoln Day program, which, alas, was not there. Once she satisfied herself of that fact, she ate the meal she'd paid for, then up and left. Rieta Selberg, one of those in charge of producing the event program, declared emphatically, regarding Renfroe's ad and/or payment, "We never got it."
That would not be the last awkward moment for non-Republicans at the dinner. Another came when Arkansas Congressman Tom Cotton, now a candidate for the U.S. Senate and the event keynoter, shared an observation about an occasion when his then wife-to-be brought her supposedly housebroken dog over to his apartment, whereupon the animal promptly pooped on Cotton's couch.
"Mainly, I was wondering why she had a Democratic dog," was Cotton's commentary on the event.
Otherwise, the congressman, who left his prestigious job at a law firm after 9/11 to join the Army, going on to serve as a combat officer in both Iraq and Afghanistan, delivered a litany of Republican talking points that was fairly standard and brief — the brevity owing somewhat to widespread curiosity in the audience about the then ongoing Game 7 in the Thunder-Grizzlies NBA playoff series.
There were a number of cellphones tuned to game results and, consequently, a generous amount of table-to-table gossip about what was going on. Coincidentally (and perhaps ironically), the audience numbers began to decline as the Grizzlies' fortunes did, and by the end of the event, there was only a modest remnant left from the teeming crowd that had been present at the beginning of the dinner.
• There was a dramatic fissure in the GOP ranks this week as ranking state Republican officials made a point of distancing themselves from state Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), a right-wing controversialist, who may finally — and fatally — have jumped the shark.
On his personal blog, Camp4u, the "Don't Say Gay" senator, infamous as well for his abortive proposal last year to deny families of failing school-children access to state social assistance, entered the following sentence on Monday as his "Thought of the Day":
"Democrats bragging about the number of mandatory sign ups for Obamacare is like Germans bragging about the number of manditory [sic] sign ups for 'train rides' for Jews in the '40s."
Denunciation of the remark was virtually universal and across party lines. State Democratic chairman Roy Herron denounced the statement as "outrageous, pathetic, and hateful" and related it to "Tea Party Republicans" endangering the health of Tennesseans by resisting Medicaid expansion funds under the Affordable Care Act.
Republican officials joined in the chorus of denunciation. Said Republican state chairman Chris Devaney of Nashville: "While Stacey Campfield routinely makes remarks that are over the top, today's comments are ignorant and repugnant. No political or policy disagreement should ever be compared to the suffering endured by an entire generation of people. Those comments have no place in our public discourse. He should offer an apology to members of the Jewish faith immediately."
Gerald McCormick (R-Chattanooga), the state House majority leader, was no less emphatic, saying he was "shocked" that Campfield's "disgraceful blog post compared a policy dispute with the suffering of an entire race of people ... and any effort to cheapen that suffering is distasteful and classless."
Thus far, Campfield has made no effort to recant or take back his statement, suggesting only that his critics have somehow missed his point.
Not too coincidentally, the state's Republican brass have pretty much lined up this year behind Campfield's primary opponent, Dr. Richard Briggs of Knoxville.