Yes, Virginia, there is a Democratic Party, perhaps depending on when and where you look for it. Outspokenness was not in short supply last Saturday at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new West Tennessee Democratic Resource Center on Poplar. On hand for the event were 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, Memphis mayor A C Wharton, and state Democratic chairman Chip Forrester of Nashville.
Cohen's declared Democratic-primary opponent, Tomeka Hart, was among those in the crowd, but the congressman paid her little heed. Likewise ignored in his remarks was Charlotte Bergmann, his Republican opponent in 2010 and a candidate again in this year's GOP primary.
Cutting to the chase, Cohen focused on the man he saw as the likely winner of the Republican primary: radiologist/radio magnate George Flinn, the former Shelby County Commissioner.
"While our Republican opponent is going to spend lots of money," Cohen said, "we're going to let him spend it. It's unfortunate that his ego doesn't allow him to spend that money by contributing it to the Med and having a Flinn Medical Center, which would be remembered for time immemorial and would do some good for some people."
Characterizing today's Republicans as committed to the welfare of millionaires and oil companies and dedicated to the destruction of Medicare and Social Security, Cohen also expressed concern that a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives would "do their dirty work" and strike down President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Rhetorically invoking the more familiar Republican term, Cohen said, "It's 'Obamacare' because Obama cares."
In his remarks, Wharton welcomed the advent of the new party facility here. "The values of the Democratic Party should not be itinerant," he said.
Among the others on hand for the dedication were Democratic nominees Ed Stanton Jr. (General Sessions Court Clerk), Cheyenne Johnson (Assessor), and Carol Chumney (District Attorney General). Stanton and Johnson are incumbents. Chumney is a former legislator and city council member. But, if Democrats locally manifested signs of vigor and seemed optimistic about recovering from the election debacle of 2010, which saw the party's slate of countywide candidates defeated by the GOP's, it was otherwise in Nashville, where Democrats are a distinct minority in the General Assembly.
A case in point was the final chapter in what has been an off-and-on debate for the last two years concerning the educational future of Shelby County.
In general, Shelby County's Democratic contingent has expressed solidarity with the premises of the Shelby County Unified School District, launched by the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter in late 2010 and destined to be formally completed in August 2013.
The Republicans from Shelby County represent the county's suburban areas and are intent upon bolstering the efforts of six municipalities — Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington — to establish independent school districts, in conformity with the Norris-Todd Act of 2011.
It has been a notable aspect of the division that, in showdown matters, the GOP members have been more focused and better organized — a result, no doubt, of their superior numbers. As of now, there are 65 Republicans and 34 Democrats in the House of Representatives and, in the Senate, 20 Republicans and 13 Democrats. The leadership of both bodies is Republican, and the GOP controls the chairmanship of all legislative committees.
Those are hard odds to buck, though Memphians Jim Kyle and Beverly Marrero gave it their best shot in the Senate during Monday's final debate on Senate Bill 1923/House Bill 1105, a piece of education legislation on which Senate majority leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) had grafted an amendment allowing the Shelby County suburbs to hold referenda this year on the establishment of independent districts.
The purpose of Norris' amendment was to counteract an opinion by state attorney general Robert Cooper that the suburbs could not take such preliminary moves until city/county school merger was completed in August 2013. The likely effect of that late start would have been to ensure that the suburbs would log at least one year within the confines of the Unified School District.
The ultimate Senate vote on Monday, 22-9, was largely foreordained by party lines. The one surprise was a vote by Democrat Reginald Tate of Memphis for the House-Senate conference-committee report on the bill that was technically being voted on. As a member of the six-member House-Senate conference committee on the bill, Tate assented to the Norris amendment, as did the other Democrat from Shelby County, Memphis state representative Antonio Parkinson, a first-termer.
Whatever their reasons for assenting to the conference-committee report and giving it the sanction of unanimity, Tate and Parkinson were out of kilter with their party colleagues in both House and Senate, particularly those from Shelby County.
Just as Kyle and Marrero had played Horatius-at-the-Gate in the Senate, so did an assortment of Shelby County Democrats during House debate on the conference-committee report last Friday.
A pause here for a vital parenthetical point: The only reason there was a conference committee in the first place was that Republican unanimity had somewhat broken down on the issue of whether the latest series of Norris-initiated bills on school merger would confine their effects to Shelby County or open up a Pandora's box of new school districts elsewhere in Tennessee.
Republicans in the House had made it clear they would block the bill until Norris clarified the point to their satisfaction, and the GOP majority leader ultimately complied, recrafting his amendment so that it applied only to counties where a merger process was under way under the aegis of a Transition Planning Commission.
That could only be Shelby County, and there was a multiple irony, in that the TPC in question had been created by Norris-Todd in 2011 but had only barely refrained from passing a resolution recently urging the legislature to butt out and pass no more legislation until the commission could complete its work.
Governor Bill Haslam and Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, both Republicans, had also urged that legislators hold off until the TPC could finish its work.
But the GOP party lines had meanwhile been restored in the legislature and would hold on behalf of the new Norris bill. With Democrats, it was otherwise, though, again, the ultimate outcome was never in question once Norris did his fix on the bill.