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Shelby County Democrats Need to Open Up

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Among other significant matters that may go largely unnoticed by the general public this week will be a Thursday night meeting of the Shelby County Democratic Committee. The chief order of business will be the selection of a new chairman for a party that in theory should be the dominant political organization of Shelby County but, on the basis of actual election results for the last several years, manifestly isn't.

Oh, the Democratic Party may come to look like the dominant local party for at least a week this November, when the county's voters turn out to elect a president. If tradition holds, a majority of the vote in Shelby County will go for the Democratic nominee, who at this writing would seem to be almost surely former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Of course, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders might somehow still be the beneficiary of a miracle. That would be partly the result of his own impressively over-achieving primary-season campaign and partly the consequence of as yet unforeseen external events — e.g., possible legal complications stemming from the zombie-like email controversy bedeviling frontrunner Clinton. If so, Sanders, too, could probably count on a majority out of Shelby County. The demographics of Shelby County, so largely African-American and working class, favor Democrats (though the Republicans will apparently have a presidential nominee this year whose unpredictable appeal could, er, Trump expectations).

But, if Democrats usually prevail locally in presidential elections, they have fallen into a rut in the quadrennial elections for countywide political office, losing most or all such races and losing them badly. Such has been the case in every county election since the institution of local party primaries in the mid-1990s. In recent years, Democrats have at least managed, by dint of fielding clearly qualified candidates with crossover potential, to win the offices of Shelby County Assessor and General Sessions Clerk in off-year elections. (For what it's worth, legislative changes in the election cycle leave that clerkship as the only county position on this year's August 4th ballot.)

What accounts for the discrepancy between the outcomes of local races and those for president? One explanation — and, to be sure, it is controversial — is that, in an age of transformative and fluid political loyalties, local Democrats (or those who have prevailed in the party's executive committee) have adopted a "closed-shop" view of party membership and have adopted rigid bylaws and policies that make it virtually impossible to attract converts of mixed political backgrounds or to license them to run for office under the party banner. Local Republicans have adopted, by contrast, a relatively "open door" policy, and their ranks teem with former Democrats — one possible explanation for their consistent primacy in races for local political offices.

When the Shelby County Democratic Committee meets to hold its ad hoc reorganization meeting, and beyond that point, for that matter, its members would be well advised to keep this thought in mind. While they're jibing at Republican presidential candidate Trump for his infamous proposal to build an exclusionary wall, they should be on guard against self-defeating tendencies within their own party in favor of building one.

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