Politics » Politics Feature

Litmus Test

The local Democrats' annual Kennedy Day Dinner becomes an occasion for some ritual purification.



Except for a generous number of judges and judicial candidates one also sees at Republican events these days, and for the several MOR Democrats (like businessman Karl Schledwitz) active in the campaigns of district attorney general Bill Gibbons and Sheriff Mark Luttrell, there was no taint of Republicanism at the Kennedy Day Dinner held Monday night by a newly cleansed Democratic Party.

Even so, there was still a large enough crowd to nearly fill the third-floor ballroom of the University of Memphis-area Holiday Inn to hear Governor Phil Bredesen's keynote address. Ironically, the famously centrist governor would proselytize for a commitment to the U.S. Senate campaign of Congressman Harold Ford Jr., not exactly a stickler for Democratic orthodoxy himself.

As another irony, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton -- whose loyalty to party causes and candidates has been, to put it mildly, uneven -- was also on hand, at least at the beginning. But Gibbons and Luttrell were kept away, and that certainly represented a victory for the Democratic Party nominees -- every countywide candidate save Mayor A C Wharton and the mysteriously invisible Circuit Court clerk nominee Roderic Ford -- who had protested the possibility of the two Republican officeholders' showing up as paying guests.

The group of nominees held two press conferences over the weekend to prevent that indignity and had gone so far as to issue an ultimatum to Shelby County Democratic chairman Matt Kuhn demanding that he disinvite Gibbons and Luttrell. That the letter bearing this demand was hand-delivered to Kuhn's address after its 5 p.m. Saturday deadline had already expired was an unfortunate piece of bad timing.

Perhaps understandably, the normally laid-back Kuhn was perturbed by that circumstance, as well as by a statement made Sunday by Gibbons' general-election opponent, Gail Mathes, the Democratic nominee for district attorney general. Mathes, who was serving as spokesperson for the group of nominees, said of Kuhn, "He did not return calls until the very last minute, when he may have called Mr. Gibbons -- only Mr. Gibbons, and not necessarily the other incumbents, and he may have talked Mr. Gibbons into not coming."

Kuhn would later characterize the implication that he ignored calls from Democratic nominees as a "boldfaced lie." He said the only calls he had not returned were from Democratic activist David Upton, who played a major role in organizing the nominees' protest, and that he had specifically and immediately returned a telephone call from Shep Wilbun, the party's nominee for Juvenile Court clerk.

Kuhn said he had twice last week discussed with fellow Democrats the issue of a Republican presence at the dinner. This was after rumblings had started among Democrats in the blogosphere. The matter came up on Wednesday night at a planning session for the dinner and again on Thursday night at a meeting of the party's steering committee. By then, Kuhn had evolved a policy, which the committee gave its unanimous backing to.

In essence, the party would not obstruct the attendance at the event of Gibbons and Luttrell, who had purchased tickets online and not by anybody's invitation.

Kuhn and the committee members agreed that the two GOP officials would not be recognized from the dais or be allowed to do any electioneering. Kuhn called Luttrell and Gibbons on Friday, briefing them on the ground rules. Neither objected.

But the party nominees did, and the brouhahas of the weekend ensued. Luttrell bowed out, and an intermediary prevailed on Gibbons to do the same. (Gibbons issued a formal statement to that effect on Monday, pointedly appending to it a lengthy list of his Democratic supporters.)

When it came time for Kuhn to address Monday night's gathering, he conveyed a tone of battle fatigue -- understandable for one who, in scarcely 10 months at the helm, has had to deal with continued factionalism and case after case relating to the issue of party fidelity vs. inclusiveness.

"Are you a Republican?" he began brazenly. "If you are, as a last resort, we may ask our sergeant-at-arms ... to come around ... to ask about a litmus test and see if you're a bona fide Democrat, to give you the secret handshake and hear the password."

As the crowd began to stir with nervous energy -- some of it delighted, some of it clearly not -- Kuhn delivered the clincher: "That secret password is 'minority.'" A brief and, as they say, pregnant pause ensued, punctuated with an audible gasp or two. Kuhn proceeded to detail the fact of a current Republican majority on the County Commission and segued into a castigation of the local GOP for having led the way into partisan and "divisive" local elections more than a decade ago.

The young chairman then launched into a conventional call to arms on behalf of the party's candidates this year, and the rest of the evening proceeded along more or less traditional lines, culminating with Bredesen's speech. But, just as Kuhn's critics within the party had made their point, so, finally, had he made his.

The GOP "Homecoming"

The Shelby County Republicans had just put on a formal dinner of their own only two nights earlier at the Al Chymia Shrine Temple on Shelby Oaks Drive, where Republican chairman Bill Giannini had an easier time of it.

The Saturday-night event, called "A Tennessee Homecoming," featured patriotic songs by former Miss America Kellye Cash, a skit from impressionist Paul Shanklin, remarks from former county mayor Jim Rout and former governor Winfield Dunn, and -- the pièce de résistance -- an appearance by actress Dixie Carter. Carter entertained the crowd with a speech that focused on Republican "values" and detailed her lifelong loyalty to the Republican Party.

State senator Jim Bryson of Franklin, the state GOP's favored candidate for governor this year, also dropped in. A home truth was spoken, perhaps inadvertently, when Dunn spoke of his, and the party's, gratitude to Bryson -- who forfeited his chance for reelection to the state Senate -- for making the governor's race.

Said Dunn: "Surely, we're not going to let that guy in Nashville, in the Capitol building, who's a pretty nice guy, as everyone would acknowledge, have a free ride into the governorship for four more years. And we looked hard for a candidate." That was an oblique way, perhaps, of saying "sacrificial lamb."

Also on hand were the three Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate -- former Chattanooga mayor Bob Corker and former congressmen Van Hilleary and Ed Bryant. The latter two, who huddled together before the event, may have been appearing in the same place for the first time since they recently agreed to avoid attacks on each other and to make common cause against the perceived "moderate" Corker.

"I'm flattered," said Corker Saturday night.

To no one's surprise, a straw poll at the dinner went overwhelmingly in favor of Bryant, who, as a longtime congressman from the 7th District, is something of a favorite son in Shelby County.

Last Thursday night a crowd of some 300 at the University of Memphis Law School auditorium saw the largest turnout yet of declared Democratic candidates for the open 9th District congressional seat -- 12 candidates and a surrogate -- at a forum sponsored by the Shelby County Democratic Party and participating Democratic clubs.

A review of that event, which generated some sparks and may have shaken up the perceived pecking order somewhat, will appear online at MemphisFlyer.com and in next week's Flyer, along with a retrospective on the congressional campaign to date.

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