Politics » Politics Feature

It Was What It Was

In 2014, more-of-the-same was the case in state and local politics -- though there were some odd moments along the way and some surprises at the end.

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The year 2014 began with a call for unity from several of the political principals of Memphis and Shelby County — remarkable circumstances given that just ahead was another one of those knock-down, drawn-out election brawls that characterize a big-ballot election year.

Speaking at an annual prayer breakfast on January 1st, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen called for an end to bipartisan bickering in Congress and touted the achievements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (aka Obamacare). Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell asked for civility in county government, and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, amid a good deal of wrangling over city pension reform, among other matters, said something similar and declared, "I'm through with whose fault it is!"

Surely no one is surprised that few of these hopes were fully realized in the course of 2014.

Not that some concrete things didn't get done. The nervy national website Wonkette crowned Tennessee state Representative Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) "S***muffin of the Year," and, lo and behold, the voters of Knox County would come to a similar conclusion down the line, voting out the incumbent madcap whose most famous bills had come to be known, fairly or otherwise, as "Don't Say Gay" and "Starve the Children."

State Senator Brian Kelsey had mixed results, losing again on a renewed effort to force Governor Bill Haslam into a big-time school voucher program and in a quixotic attempt to strip Shelby County of two of its elected judges but getting his props from those — including a majority of Tennessee voters — who supported his constitutional amendment to abolish an income tax in Tennessee for all time.

All four constitutional amendments on the state ballot would pass — including one to strip away what had been some fairly ironclad protections of a woman's right to an abortion and another to transform the selection and tenure procedures for state appellate judges. Another little-noticed amendment guaranteeing veterans the right to hold charity raffles also passed.

The battle over the key three amendments all reflected a growing concern that Republican-dominated state authority had begun to enlarge its control over local governments and individual citizens alike, not only in the nature of the constitutional amendments but in the legislature's effort to override local authority in matters including firearms management, public school oversight, public wage policy, and the ability of localities to establish their own ethical mandates.

Shelby County Democrats, who had been swept by the GOP in 2010, had a spirited primary election, with most attention focusing on the mayor's race between former County Commissioner Deidre Malone, incumbent Commissioner Steve Mulroy, and former school board member and New Olivet Baptist Church pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr.

When votes were counted on May 6th, Malone emerged to become the head of a Democratic ticket that would challenge several well-established Republican incumbents. Democrats' hopes were high at first, but two of their expected election-day stalwarts began to suffer self-destructive moments at an alarming rate.

The two were lawyer Joe Brown — the "Judge Joe Brown" of nationally syndicated TV fame; and County Commissioner Henri Brooks, a former legislator who had an abrasive way about her but who had recently won laurels as the watchdog on Juvenile Court who had forced the Department of Justice (DOJ) to mandate a series of reforms.

Both District Attorney General candidate Brown, through his celebrity and what was thought to be his ability to bankroll much of the Democratic ticket's activity, and Juvenile court Clerk candidate Brooks, riding high on her DOJ desserts, were thought to be boons, but they rapidly became busts.

Brown, it turned out, had virtually no money to pass around, even for his own campaign efforts, and he got himself arrested for contempt in Juvenile Court. When, late in the campaign, he launched a series of lurid and seemingly unfounded attacks upon the private life of his opponent, Republican D.A. Amy Weirich, he was dead in the water.

Brooks engaged in successive misfires — browbeating a Hispanic witness before the commission; assaulting a woman she was competing with for a parking spot; and, finally, turning out not to have a legal residence within the commission district she represented.

The bottom line: Shelby County Democrats — underfunded, under-organized, and riven by internal rivalries — were overwhelmed once again on August 7th, with county Mayor Mark Luttrell, Weirich, and Sheriff Bill Oldham leading a Republican ticket that won everything except the office of county assessor, where conscientious Democratic incumbent Cheyenne Johnson held on against a little-known GOP challenger.

All things considered, the judicial races on August 7th went to the known and familiar, with almost all incumbents winning reelection on a lengthy ballot in which virtually every position in every court —General Sessions, Circuit, Criminal, Chancery, and Probate — was under challenge.

Meanwhile, 9th District Congressman Steve Cohen, who had dispatched a series of Democratic Primary and general election challengers since his first election to Congress in 2006, faced what appeared in advance to be his most formidable primary foe yet in lawyer Ricky Wilkins. Cohen won again — though only by a 2-to-1 ratio, unlike the 4-to-1 victories he was used to.

The final elections of the year, including the referenda for the aforementioned package of constitutional amendments, would take place on November 4th.

But for the amendments, there was no suspense to speak of. Two Democrats running for the U.S. Senate — Gordon Ball and Terry Adams, both Knoxville lawyers — had run a spirited and close race in the primary, but winner Ball ran way behind Republican incumbent Senator Lamar Alexander, despite Alexander's having barely eked out a primary win over unsung Tea Party favorite Joe Carr.

Haslam, the Republican gubernatorial incumbent, easily put away Charlie Brown, an unknown quantity from East Tennessee who had won the Democratic primary mainly on the strength of his comic-strip name.

Throughout the year, there had been persistent wrangles in City Hall between Wharton and members of the city council over dozens of matters — including pension and health-care changes, development proposals, and failures to communicate — with the result that influential councilmen like 2014 council Chairman Jim Stickland and Harold Collins were possible rivals to Wharton in a 2015 mayoral race that might draw in a generous handful of other serious candidates.

Toward year's end, though, Wharton pulled off a series of coups — announcing new Target and IKEA facilities and appearing to finesse the pension and school-debt matters — that underscored his status as the candidate to beat.

In Nashville, Haslam seemed to have achieved the high ground, finally, with his espousal of a bona fide Medicaid-expansion plan, "Insure Tennessee," and a determination to defend the Hall income tax and at least some version of educational standards. But battles over these matters and new attacks on legal abortion loomed.

We shall see what we shall see.

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