The Shelby County Democrats no sooner got themselves a nominee for county register Thursday night -- veteran party activist John Freeman-- than they got a challenge to their nomination from disgruntled supporters of two other candidates: county commissioner Shep Wilbun and former University of Memphis basketball coach Larry Finch. The upshot is that Freeman's 18-15 victory over Wilbun in a second-round runoff vote of the party's executive committee at the IBEW union headquarters on Madison will have to be adjudicated at 6 p.m. Friday at the same venue.
Two issues are up for discussion by the 13-member steering committee: whether a pair of new members added to the 34-member executive committee just before the vote distorted the outcome and whether Freeman, who voted for himself Thursday night, is a valid member of the executive committee because of a change of address. The two new executive committee members -- one of them a cousin of the member who nominated Freeman from the floor, Sheriff's deputy Jerry Fanion-- were voted in earlier to fill existing vacancies on the executive committee by ward and precinct chairman in the relevant districts. (Chairman David Cocke said later that every member of the executive committee had been notified in advance of the two bi-elections and that no one protested the outcome of the selection until after the register vote was completed. "Even so," Cocke said, "the steering committee will carefully review any protest of the process.")
The residence issue stems from the fact that Freeman moved last spring from the downtown Waterford Plaza address he'd been renting for economic reasons; he had, however, maintained an interest in the condominium property by tendering an offer to purchase it --an offer that fell through only last week. Wilbun had led Freeman in the initial round of executive committee voting Thursday night Ñ with Freeman one vote back and former University of Memphis basketball coach Finch two votes back.
A couple of veteran observers of Democratic politics credited Freeman's win less to the add-on committee members than to what they regarded as the likely behind-the-scenes efforts of former U.S. Representative Harold Ford Sr., Freeman's onetime boss. "I think the word Harold passed was that people should vote their preferences on the first ballot but to vote for Freeman on the second," said one. That interpretation was consistent with Wilbun's charge that committee member Roscoe Dixon had worked on Freeman's behalf after the narrow first-round loss of Finch, whom State Senator Dixon had earlier supported. Dixon, a sometime surrogate for the Ford clan, denied the charge.
Freeman's victory was ironic in that he was the only one of four candidates voted on-- the others being Wilbun, Finch, and chief General Sessions Court administrator Ed Stanton-- who had not been on a provisional list approved by the Shelby Democrats' special elections committee. The nomination by Fanion, a fellow cadre in the Ford family's political wars, qualified him for the competition.
For all of Wilbun's ill feeling about the outcome afterward, several committee members and observers predicted that he might decide to drop his challenge by the time of Friday night's meeting. "This sort of thing sends a signal of disunity," said one. "I don't think Shep really wants to come off as a sore loser."