Politics » Politics Feature

Party Purity

Shelby’s Democrats have adopted a rigid standard for party loyalty. Can they stick to it?



The most surprising aspect of last week's decision by the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee to censure several party officials for "disloyalty," i.e., siding with Republicans in electoral situations, was the unanimity of the committee's vote.

Not a peep of dissent was heard from the membership, as veteran committee member Del Gill read out the bill of particulars against state Senator Reginald Tate, state Representative Joe Towns, Shelby County Commissioner Sidney Chism, and state Executive Committee Member Hazel Moore.

All were accused of violating what the censure resolution called "existing protocols for bona fides, loyalty, and political behavior."

Chism was cited for efforts to dissuade Democratic sheriff's candidate Bennie Cobb from running against incumbent Sheriff Bill Oldham, a Republican, so as to allow Oldham "to be the only filed candidate of any party for the position." Tate, Towns, and Moore were censured for their presence "at a campaign opener and fund-raising event" for Republican Jimmy Moore, the incumbent Circuit Court clerk, a longtime former Democrat before changing his nominal party affiliation in the 1990s.

Gill, a Democratic primary candidate for the Circuit Court clerkship now held by Moore, and a longtime advocate of strict party-loyalty requirements, was the prime mover in seeking the censure resolution.

The censure resolution was in the same spirit of the one voted last year against Shelby County Commission Chair James Harvey — who was cited in September for awarding chairmanship of the commission's key budget committee to Republican Commissioner Heidi Shafer. An unspoken premise of that censure was that Harvey, who was about to become commission chair, had bargained with GOP members to achieve their support for the chairman position.

It is uncertain what effect the censure resolution will have on the party status of Tate, Towns, and Chism, although the censure resolution, in its final sentence, states, "The Democratic Party reserves the rights under Tennessee Election Codes to control who appears on its ballot."

Gill informed the Flyer that, in his words, "the party could declare these persons 'non bona fide' Democrats if further violations of party conduct are affirmed by the executive committee. They would then not be able to file a future petition for Democratic Party candidacy."

Short of such a draconian move as that, the real issue is: What practical difference will the censure make?

Harvey, who is not known to have apologized for anything, had filed this year for the office of Shelby County Mayor — as a Democrat — and had been allowed to speak to the same executive committee that voted last week's censures, along with three other mayoral candidates, at the committee's February meeting.

He withdrew his filing for county mayor at the deadline for withdrawal, two weeks ago, but not, it seems, out of any concern — his or anybody else's — about party fidelity.

The issue of ecumenism versus political purity is certain to resurface during this year's election contests, at least on the Democratic side, with various candidates already vowing to pick over their primary opponents' voting records with an eye toward finding telltale votes in Republican primaries.

Local Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson says the rule of thumb for certifying a candidate on the Democratic ballot is whether he or she has voted in a Republican primary more than once in the last five election cycles.

Apropos that, a visitor at last week's censure meeting, one Tom Reasons of Dyersburg, who says he is running this year as a Democrat against 8th District GOP Congressman Stephen Fincher, offered an interesting excuse for having voted in the most recent Republican presidential primary. It was in order, he explained, to help pick the "worst" GOP nominee for President Obama to run against.

• The past weekend saw several political events bearing on the forthcoming May 6th primaries for countywide office. One of the key ones, a forum involving all three Democratic candidates for county mayor, took place on Saturday at Caritas Village in Binghamton, at a luncheon of the Democratic Women of Shelby County.

The candidates, who appeared in alphabetical order, were former County Commissioner Deidre Malone, current Commissioner Steve Mulroy, and the Rev. Kenneth Whalum, a former school board member. All had their talking points, and all got them said.

As she has at previous events, Malone reminded the audience of her political credentials, including a prior run for mayor in 2010, and her business credentials (a former ALSAC-St. Jude administrator, she now operates a PR company). And she looked past her current Democratic rivals to assail "the current Republican county mayor," Mark Luttrell, for what she said was inattention to the needs of the less fortunate and for his refusal even to offer opinions on "things that are important to Democrats."

She said her business experience would allow her to repair what was an "inefficient" county operation under Luttrell.

Asked about the county's shift of Title X funding for women's health issues from Planned Parenthood, the traditional recipient of the funding, to Christ Community Health Services (CCHS), Malone pronounced it a "mistake" and vowed "to do something about it" as county mayor.

She may have felt that Mulroy was vulnerable on that score, in that he had voted in 2011 with the majority to award the Title X contract to CCHS. Mulroy, though, was able to address the issue from what he felt was a position of strength. Earlier in the week, he had held a press conference announcing his dissatisfaction with CCHS for, among other things, allowing its service level to drop precipitately for two years in a row from the level previously maintained by Planned Parenthood.

He said at the press conference and repeated on Saturday that he had voted in 2011 to switch from Planned Parenthood to CCHS only after realizing that there were already nine votes on the commission to approve CCHS (two more than needed) and that he used his position on the prevailing side to insist on strict monitoring to assure that CCHS a) engaged in no religious proselytizing and b) didn't attempt to steer patients away from abortion.

Because of CCHS's sub-par service levels, said Mulroy, he was insisting that the county re-bid the contract, using independent medical experts to score the bidding agencies for expertise.

Thus did the commissioner attempt to solidify his position with pro-choice Democrats who felt that Planned Parenthood, identified by the political right with the abortion issue, had been targeted by state and federal sources for separation from its historic Title X role. Mulroy described himself as the commission's chief progressive activist on a variety of hot-button issues.

Whalum continued, as in the past, to burnish his maverick credentials, proclaiming," I am the underdog candidate for Shelby County mayor. All of the pundits, all of the professionals are saying, 'Whalum doesn't have a chance. He doesn't have any money. He can't get the support of the political professionals.' I don't need it and I don't want it."

Whether the eloquent minister is protesting too much can be debated, in that his personal abilities and grass-roots appeal have been amply noted in most public commentary, as has his leadership in the successful recent effort to turn back a proposed sales-tax increase to fund city pre-K programs.

"The city of Memphis is the county seat of Shelby County, not the toilet seat," said Whalum, who described the imminent closing of several Memphis schools as symptomatic of serious community crisis, and promised to address that problem, "if we have to move all the county departments into the buildings they want to close."

He promised to raise the pay for women in the county administration to a level commensurate with men and to bring in young people with fresh governmental ideas. Asked if he was pro-choice, Whalum answered as follows: "I am pro-choice. I represent the ultimate pro-choice person. 'Choose ye this day.'"

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