Consensus would seem to be an uncertain prospect, as Shelby County commissioners face the task of naming an interim replacement for the District 95 seat in the state House.
Neither the Commission's seven Democrats nor its six Republicans seem prepared to act as a bloc on the matter of a successor to Mark Lovell, the Eads Republican who was pressured into resigning from the legislature last month after serving 45 days in the position he wrested from former incumbent Curry Todd in the August 2016 Republican primary.
The departure from the General Assembly of Lovell, the proprietor of the annual Delta Fair and other business enterprises, followed allegations of sexual misconduct involving a staffer at the General Assembly. Lovell has denied any wrongdoing and has said he merely acceded to the urging of unnamed members of the House Republican leadership who, he has said, expressed a wish to sidestep whatever potential taint might result from a new controversy, following one that ended in the expulsion last year of GOP House member Jeremy Durham of Franklin.
And, while the commission may be influenced to some degree by matters of personal character and the likelihood of avoiding scandal in making a choice about an interim successor, the brevity of the term to be served by a replacement dictates that other considerations will loom larger.
- Mark Lovell
There is a certain sentiment on the commission that appointing anybody at all in District 95 might be beside the point, inasmuch as whoever might be named would likely serve for a very brief period, perhaps only a week or two before the adjournment of the legislature, which would probably occur in middle or late April.
As Democratic Commissioner Eddie Jones (who favors making an appointment) observes, "Whoever we send up there may end up serving less time than Mark Lovell did."
The earliest date that a commission appointee could arrive in Nashville to serve would be April 3rd. The current schedule calls for applications for the interim position to be made available between March 21st and March 27th, with applicants to be interviewed by the commission on March 29th and an appointment to be made during the Commission's regular public meeting of April 3rd.
Complicating that scenario further is the fact that, on the scheduled appointment date of April 3rd, a primary campaign to fill out Lovell's full term in District 95 may be underway in both political parties. An official writ last week from Governor Bill Haslam declaring the seat open and calling for a special election established a primary date of Thursday, April 27th, with a general election to be held on Thursday, June 15th.
And the deadline for filing candidate petitions is Thursday, March 16th — a date early enough to reveal who, among the applicants for the interim commission appointment, wants to occupy the seat both temporarily and for the duration of a full term.
In the case of interim appointments, the commission favors applicants who express no intention of running in a special election for a given seat, so as not to give any active candidate in the election a head start on others. That factor may not be so important this time around, even though — as indicated — the appointment process and the special election campaign will be overlapping.
As Republican Commissioner David Reaves of Bartlett pointed out, several key votes are generally left to be resolved in the final week or two of a legislative session. "We need to appoint somebody to represent the district," Reaves said, especially since an issue of more than usual interest to commissioners — that of school vouchers — is likely to still be hanging fire at the tail end of the session. "And the District 95 seat has generally been a swing vote on vouchers in previous sessions," he says.
A similar opinion was put forth by GOP Commissioner Mark Billingsley of Germantown, who notes that the commission recently recorded a unanimous vote opposing vouchers — the awarding of public funds to pay for education in private schools. "Vouchers would ultimately erode our public and municipal school systems," Billingsley maintains.
Even the few commissioners who are dubious about making such a short-term legislative appointment, like Republican Steve Basar, whose district encompasses much of East Memphis, concedes that there is unanimity on the point of vouchers. "I'll go with the will of the body on that, but I'm really not in favor of filling the seat for just a couple of weeks," he says.
The Democratic members of the commission concur on the importance of the voucher vote, and on the need for a District 95 representative to endorse the rest of the commission's adopted legislative agenda, which includes support for medical marijuana.
The commission Democrats could be vexed by another matter — whether to assert the fact of their numerical majority to appoint a fellow Democrat or, conversely, to adhere to a tradition of filling vacancies according to the accepted party preference of the district in question.
No one disputes that House District 95, in southeast Shelby County, votes overwhelmingly Republican in any partisan election, but various Democratic activists in Shelby County, like Dave Cambron, president of the Germantown Democratic Club, are campaigning for the party to name its own to the position.
In support of that position, Cambron points out that the White County Commission, with a 7-6 GOP majority, has just named a Republican, Paul Bailey, to succeed Democratic state Representative Charles Curtiss in a vacated House seat.
Two Democrats have expressed interest in the District 95 seat — Julie Byrd Ashworth and Adrienne Pakis-Gillon. Pakis-Gillon, a veteran activist who has run previously for a state Senate seat, has been contacting commission members in quest of their support for the interim post. An email sent out to fellow Democrats by Cambron suggests that all but three Democrats lean toward Pakis-Gillon, but Democratic commissioners on both sides of Cambron's count express doubt that any such determination can be made.
Circumstances as of now would seem to favor the appointment of a moderate Republican for the brief end-of-session interim. Reaves put forth a name — that of his former Shelby County School Board colleague, David Pickler.