Politics » Politics Feature

Coming to Grips

Harris-Ford runoff, photo-ID controversy, country commission redistricting all get ripe.



Next week will see the formal end of the 2011 city election season with Thursday's runoff election for the District 7 city council seat. And the outcome of that contest between University of Memphis law professor Lee Harris and actress and Ford-family scion Kemba Ford will determine a good deal of the tenor of city politics for the next several years.

Harris began the campaign year as something of a known quantity, having run in the crowded Democratic primary for the then open 9th District congressional seat in 2006, and though he finished well behind winner Steve Cohen and runner-up Nikki Tinker, he impressed many with his effort. Unlike that year, his 2011 race was relatively well-funded, with receipts of just under $40,000 reported in late September. Just as important was Harris' network of supporters, including Mayor A C Wharton.

If her family name is well-known in local politics, Ford, who lived for several years in California, was something of an unknown quantity. Indeed, in an early stump speech, she declared as one of her qualifications for office, "I was raised by John Ford." Her father, former longtime state senator John Ford, was indeed a major figure in local and state politics for decades.

Kemba Ford was not a total unknown. Convention & Visitors Bureau director Kevin Kane remembers her as an energetic and able employee a decade or so back.

Though her late-September financial disclosure showed receipts that were modest (less than $10,000), Ford may have done considerably better in that regard since, having continued to enjoy the avid support of local employees' unions discontented with Wharton's support at budget time for 4.6 percent pay cuts.

• State election coordinator Mark Goins made two appearances in Memphis last week as part of his statewide public-information effort regarding the controversial photo-ID law passed by the 2011 General Assembly and binding on all Tennessee elections as of January 1st.

Stressing that he had no part in making the law, Goins made the point that, in essence, it replaced a requirement that voters show state or federal identification containing a legitimate signature with a requirement for a state or federal ID containing a bona fide photo.

The bill's Republican sponsors touted it as a way of guarding against election fraud. The bill's detractors, including members of the legislature's Democratic leadership, see it as a means of suppressing voter turnout, especially among college students, whose student IDs are not regarded as acceptable, and seniors, whose reduced mobility could make their acquisition of an appropriate photo ID difficult.

Goins made an effort to allay concerns about the bill, pointing out that the law permits exemptions — e.g., for absentee voters, for residents of nursing homes or assisted-living centers, for voters with religious objections to being photographed — and that indigent voters and driver's-license holders over 60 without photo IDs could receive "express service" upgrades at driver's license centers.

Goins also noted that voters without photo IDs could cast provisional ballots on election day that would be counted if they could furnish legitimate photo IDs within two days of the election.  

At neither of his appearances last week was Goins pressed hard by opponents of the photo-ID measure, but that honeymoon is destined to end. State Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester announced on Monday the beginning of a statewide voter-education program on the matter under party auspices.

Among other differences of opinion, Forrester contends that some 675,000 Tennessee voters now find their previously valid credentials to vote under challenge, as against the 126,000 currently invalid driver's licenses cited by Goins.


• For an elected body that has at times elevated contentiousness to new heights of rancor and intensity, the Shelby County Commission has somehow settled down and come up with a reapportionment plan that has managed to please everybody.

Well, almost everybody. Two members had reservations on Monday when the commission met for what was intended to be the first of three readings of a redistricting ordinance.

District 1 commissioner Mike Ritz was upset that the mapmakers at the Office of Planning and Development had concerned themselves more with keeping precinct lines intact than with leaving municipal boundaries undisturbed.

And District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy is a holdout for Scenario 2, an alternate OPD plan that posits 13 single-member districts rather than the six dual-member districts and one single-member district of Scenario 1.

For the record, both Ritz and Mulroy are term-limited and presumably don't have personal axes to grind.

"It might as well be an incumbent-protection plan," Mulroy says of Scenario 1, noting that the larger districts of that configuration would require proportionately greater effort and expense for first-time, unestablished campaigners. He also contends that multimember districts dilute the influence of minorities.

For his part, Ritz believes strongly that city and county constituencies should be treated as discrete blocs, and, though he has ample confidence that he has served his mostly Memphis-based constituency well during his two terms so far, he notes that his residence is in a corner of Germantown that was attached to District 1 10 years ago in a manner halfway between jerry-built and gerrymandered.

Ritz made enough headway with his fellow commissioners that a majority opted for sending Scenario 1 back to committee to attend to some modest nipping and tucking of the proposed district lines.

Mulroy is likely to have tougher sledding in his effort to convince a majority of his colleagues to ditch the idea of multimember districts. In preliminary discussions last week in committee, several of them endorsed the concept of shared responsibility in a district.

And Mulroy himself, like virtually everybody else on the commission, acknowledges that Scenario 1 offers something for everybody: seven of the 13 proposed districts have clear African-American majorities, and the same ratio promises fruitful election results for Democrats.

At the same time, outer-county Republicans will have picked up an additional representative — going from three suburban members to four — if Scenario 1 is approved.

The proposed single-member entity would continue to be District 5, and though the district would be pitched farther north than at present, it could prove balanced enough to be competitive, racially and party-wise. Similarly, the East Memphis-based District 1 should allow both Democrats and Republicans a chance at election.

Commissioners will have an opportunity next week to review the situation before proceeding with the first of three required readings in two weeks. They have a deadline of December 31st to submit a finished and approved plan to the election commission, and the third and last reading will require a two-thirds vote to be official.

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