Monday night’s matchup of candidates for District Attorney General, in a forum conducted by the League of Women Voters at Hooks Central Library, was more of an even-steven affair than most attendees might have expected, to start with.
The proponents of incumbent D.A. Amy Weirich, the Republican candidate, had every reason to believe that she would perform competently and well, and she did. If there was a surprise in the event, and perhaps there shouldn’t have been, it was the degree to which Carol Chumney, the Democratic candidate, was able to match Weirich answer for answer overall.
Weirich has made a generous number of personal appearances since being appointed by Governor Bill Haslam in early 2009 to succeed her former boss, Bill Gibbons, now serving as state Director of Homeland Security and Public Safety. That shows, as does her 21 years as a prosecutor, the ample trial experience that goes with it, and the sheer familiarity with the business of her office.
Chumney had been more of a question mark. She can boast 13 years in the state legislature and four years as a member of the Memphis City Council. But legislative experience – for reasons corresponding to the distance between Nashville and Memphis – tends to go less noticed than it should, and Chumney’s Council term, in which she figured as a constant and conspicuous critic of customary practices, is now five years in the past.
And, though she ran well in a mayoral race against then incumbent Willie Herenton in 2007, finishing a strong second in a three-candidate field, her follow-up race against eventual winner A C Wharton in the special mayoral election of 2009 was a relative bust.
Moreover, Weirich’s opening remarks at Monday night’s forum effectively removed from Chumney’s arsenal the “glass ceiling” issue of gender representation: “My name is Amy Weirich I am your District Attorney General, and I am the first female to hold that job in Shelby County.”
So far this campaign season, Chumney had not been front and center to nearly the same degree as Weirich – a fact that had troubled Democratic activists – though she did hold a recent press conference at the local party’s new Poplar Avenue headquarters, in tandem with Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner.
At that press conference Chumney — whose resume includes the former chairmanship of a legislative committee on children’s services and her sponsorship of reform measures — had expressed concern about a Department of Justice report finding deficiencies at Juvenile Court, ranging from what was arguably racial discrimination to vague presentation of charges at hearings.
Predictably, the Juvenile Court matter came up Monday night, though the League’s strictures against ad hominem comments and direct challenges of one candidate against another, which were firmly stressed by LWV president and event moderator Peg Watkins, effectively kept the issue from gaining real traction.
And Weirich was able to argue plausibly that several of the alleged defects had been mitigated since DOJ investigators had acquired their data and that much of the problem could be blamed on incomplete reports by arresting officers.
In general, Weirich had a commanding presence, especially in regard to the practices and procedures of her office. But Chumney held her own, consistently making connections between issues being discussed and matters she had dealt with in the legislature and on the Council.
If either contender displayed a leaning, it was, in Weirich’s case, toward the meting out of justice in the sense of imposing specific curbs on crime, and her history of biting that bullet of “tough enforcement,” and, in Chumney’s, on seeking out preventive measures like youth mentoring programs. But each candidate displayed an ability to discuss both ends of the process –the before and the after scenarios regarding crime in the community.
Weirich had an eloquent moment addressing the subject of victims’’ rights in the context of holding lawbreakers "accountable,” while Chumney approached the level of inspiring in speaking of “restorative justice,” an innovative method of handling first offenders though such means as mock trials and peer pressure.
The candidates hit specific issues head on when their buttons were pushed. . Asked about the proposal of Councilman Shea Flinn (a Weirich supporter) for an official “red-light” district, Weirich would have none of it. “As I have said many many times to my good friend Shea Flinn,” such attempts at rationing vice would not succeed. “That industry creates crime and creates dysfunction”
And to a question as to whether the D.A.’s office should actively investigate claims of voter suppression, Chumney grew impassioned: “I can’t imagine anything more important than making sure the democratic process works. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure that when you cast your vote it’s going to be for who you want."
Monday night’s event suggested that, all other things being equal, this could be a race. But there’s the rub. Weirich has considerably more financial backing, and her support is to some degree bipartisan. If she wants to be a true contender, Chumney will have to play some serious catch-up. But her performance Monday night should at least give her the opportunity to try.