The special election on January 25th will decide whether Robert Spence gets the Democratic Party nomination to represent Midtown in the state Senate. The issues being raised by an attack ad on Spence will linger long after this week.
Spence, a former city attorney, is running against state representative Beverly Marrero. But he's also being opposed unofficially by Richard Fields, who, like Spence, is an attorney, a former political candidate, and an on-again off-again City Hall insider and confidant of Mayor Willie Herenton.
On January 12th, Fields sent out 10,000 copies of a letter attacking Spence. A shorter version of the letter was published as paid advertising in this newspaper last week. Spence countered with a letter of his own, accusing Fields of "unmitigated lies" and "unstable behavior." Both letters are ricocheting around via e-mail and in the Internet blogosphere, embellished with mostly-anonymous third-party commentary and more accusations of sexual, marital, professional, and ethical misconduct.
To recap, it's an old-fashioned political story, a new-media story, a media-law story, and a nasty public clash of strong personalities all in one. While it's not exactly taking place in a vacuum, you could say it's taking place in a test tube, because there are no other races on the ballot that day. A single-digit-percentage turnout would not be surprising. And the mudslinging could be a taste of things to come in the city election in October.
Fields fired the first shot. In 2006, he wrote an open letter giving his views of judicial candidates in an upcoming election. Because judicial candidates are often unknown to the general public, attorney recommendations sometimes carry some weight in races where turnout is low. On January 12th, he took it up a notch, taking dead aim at Spence for "faulty advice and his personal pursuit of wealth to the detriment" of citizens. He endorsed Marrero by default. Fields says he did it because "the information needed to be known by voters and it's all documented."
Spence, whose first career was in pharmacy, has been an attorney for over 20 years. His educational and professional credentials outstrip Marrero's, just as former senator Steve Cohen's resume was more impressive than Jake Ford's. Spence was city attorney under Herenton from 1997 to 2004, when he resigned to return to full-time private practice. A father of school-age children and a Midtown resident, he ran unsuccessfully for the Memphis City Schools Board of Education in 2004.
He thought about buying his own newspaper ad but decided instead to respond to Fields with a letter of his own, sending out 23,000 copies by snail mail and posting it online. "My letter says it all," he said in an interview Tuesday. Asked about specific examples of "lies," he said "the litigation [Fields] cites."
It's important to separate some accusations from the accuser. Well before Fields weighed in, Spence invited scrutiny from reporters and City Council members by mixing high-profile city work (the building of FedExForum and its parking garage) with private clients, including the Tennessee Lottery and former county mayoral aide Tom Jones. A search of www.memphisflyer.com, for example, will produce stories about Spence and his private practice, his law partner Allan Wade, and the garage. Then as now, Spence noted that his predecessors did outside work and that Herenton was not opposed to it. (His successor, Sara Hall, did no private work and said representing the city was "more than a full-time job.")
But that was before Tennessee Waltz shed fresh light on consulting, conflicts of interest, and ethics reform. Spence, whose firm has seven lawyers, said he will review their accounts for possible conflicts if he is elected. One of his clients is the Riverfront Development Corporation, where he makes $25,000 to $40,000 a year as general counsel and his wife is a full-time employee. He did not work for the RDC while he was city attorney and making about $120,000 a year. The Senate job pays about $30,000 a year.
Barry Sussman, editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project at Harvard and a former Washington Post editor for Watergate coverage, said a newspaper is liable for defamatory material that appears in its ads or letters to the editor. Sussman, who is not a lawyer, said when he started a journalism Web site he at first edited reader comments but stopped after he was told that would make the site liable. He now removes some comments altogether but doesn't do any editing, even for spelling or punctuation.