The residents of state Senate District 29, which runs from top to bottom of the Shelby County riverfront, will just have to wait a while for representation in the Tennessee General Assembly
After a dramatic week in which both of last year's major-party contenders ceased to be immediate prospects for holding the office - one voluntarily, one involuntarily - and in which the Shelby County Commission decided to put off deciding on the matter, the seat seemed likely to go unfilled for the duration of this year's legislative session.
First, in a dramatic and long postponed session of the state Senate in Nashville last Wednesday, Democrat Ophelia Ford, who was sworn in as the apparent 13-vote winner of a special election last September, became an ex-senator Wednesday afternoon when her colleagues voted 26-6 to void that election result as "incurably uncertain." Next, Terry Roland, the Republican contender in that election, took himself out of the running as a possible interim replacement at a Monday-morning press conference this week. Roland, who had been in the Senate gallery when the historic vote occurred last week, had hinted of his intentions then, suggesting that public hearings be held before the Shelby County Commission declared a successor to Ford.
And finally, later on Monday, the commission concluded intermittent debate on the matter by shelving plans for a vote on May 8 and scheduled one for May 22 instead. A date that late could actually occur after the completion of the current legislative session - a point recognized by Republican Bruce Thompson and Democrat Walter Bailey, each of whom, arguing that otherwise District 29 would go unrepresented, pushed for the earlier voting date.
Bailey, who wanted assurances from his colleagues that the historical "ethnic" and political character of the predominantly black and Democratic district would be respected in naming an interim senator, was nevertheless willing to take his chances without such guarantees.
Ultimately, though, the commission adopted the position of Democrat Julian Bolton, who said there should be no "rush to judgment." At a fundraiser for his 9th District congressional campaign later Monday, Bolton acknowledged his own concern that the commission, which has a 7-6 Republican majority, might name a Republican to cast the last few votes for what has been a traditionally Democratic district.
Thompson saw the issue differently, maintaining that the closeness of the disputed election called for a fresh look on the part of all commissioners. Asked after Monday's commission meeting about persistent rumors that his refusal to commit his vote in advance had prompted Roland's decision to withdraw, Thompson said only, "I made it clear to everyone that I was keeping an open mind."
Under the circumstances, whoever gets appointed on May 22nd is likely to be regarded as an honorary senator. Among those who have expressed interest to commissioners about the interim position is Belz Enterprises head Ron Belz, who has also nursed thoughts of running for city mayor.
Roland and the now deposed Ford are both on the ballot again this year, though Ford must first defeat Steve Haley in the Democratic primary for a reprise of last year's race to occur.
The new suit is accompanied by a request for expediting judgment, but Cocke acknowledged the unlikelihood of a judicial resolution sooner than two weeks time.
Along with a request that Judge Donald render last weeks Senate action void and unenforceable, the new suit seeks to enjoin the Shelby County Commission from acting to replace Ford with an interim appointee.
Cocke said that even the late date adopted by the commission as a time to vote-- May 22, by which time the legislature may well have adjourned -- would be unacceptable.. "There's still the matter of constituent service to be performed and standing committees that meet," he argued.
"I have said to the Senate: You are acting in such a way that it is going to becme a precedent in other legal situations," Cocke said, adding, "To my mind, the Senate would never had gone to such extremes to oust anybody else."