Anybody who has attended a meeting of the Shelby County Commission since Sidney Chism got elected to it back in 2006 has no doubt where the former Teamster leader and onetime Democratic Party chairman stands on the issue of term limits for elected officials. Chism, whose normal mien is robust and affable, becomes hoarse and virtually apoplectic when the issue is even discussed, seeing it as a means whereby the future Republican minority in Shelby County (for such, virtually all observers concede, is the demographic prospect) intends forevermore to straitjacket and tame the Democratic majority.
"This is the first time a majority has ever voluntarily handed over power to a minority," was Chism's refrain countless times during the debates earlier this year that led to referenda featuring two different versions of term limits for Shelby County elected officials. The first variant of the idea - prescribing three four-year terms as the max for the county mayor, county commissioners, and five newly defined countywide offices -- went on the August election ballot and represented something of a triumph for Chism, who had thundered vigorously whenever the subject of term limits came up.
He had something of a point. The commission, which devoted innumerable hours, considerable heat, and every now and then a modicum of light to the issue of charter revision last year and this, had never been enjoined to do or say anything about term limits. All the commission had been faced with, as a result of a January 2007 finding by the state Supreme Court, was a need to re-create in its charter the five offices -sheriff, trustee, assessor, register, and county clerk - which had invalidated on a technicality by the Court.
At length, during the course of many contentious meetings, augmented by a series of public forums, a plethora of other issues crept into discussions - term limits, a popular concept in the white Republican government-distrusting suburbs, prominent among them. Chism did his best to keep the issue off the ballot, and he and various commission allies - mainly Democratic and mainly black - did the next best thing in getting the three-term proposition on, especially since it would have raised the existing limits on future mayors and commissioners by a whole four-year term.
But that proposition lost in August - by a hair. And Chism and his allies had shot their wad. Try as they might, fulminate as they would, they could not prevent a commission majority, cowed by the August defeat of the relatively liberal three-term provision, from putting together a new series of referenda, including one imposing a stricter two-term limit on the five redefined county offices. The Shelby County mayor and the 13 members of the commission were already limited to two terms as the result of a 1994 referendum which, after the narrow failure of the August proposition, would remain in effect.
The term "ballistic" is probably too mild a descriptor for the state of mind this fact has induced in the Chism wing of the county commission and, equally importantly, of the Shelby County Democratic Party, whose steering committee is dominated by Chism partisans.
Fade to this past week when the first of an estimated 60,00 copies of official party voter guides rolled off the presses at A-1 Print Services on Brooks road and got seen by party cadres. The letter-sized full-color one-sheeter sample ballot bore mugshots of the party's nominees and endorsed candidates: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Bob Tuke for U.S. Senate, Steve Cohen for Congress, etc., etc, through various legislative candidates and a candidate for the Memphis school board.
So far, nothing out of the ordinary. It's the kind of thing both major political parties and various other organizations that endorse candidates do just before election time. Only one problem: Mixed in with the candidates' portraits is a small but prominent box bearing the message: "Vote on Referendums/ SAY NO TO REFERENDUMS."
- The "official" Shelby County Democratic ballot, with the suspect box circled
What did we say about the word "ballistic?" Reassign it to numerous aggrieved Democrats, both executive committee members and rank and file, who were never consulted about the all-encompassing wording and were now prepared to out-Chism Chism in their outrage. Not to mention the county commission majority who had worked all those months to put together a referendum package. Nor the seven members of the Memphis Charter Commission who had labored even longer to put together a package of referenda revising the city charter.
"SAY NO TO REFERENDUMS": That took in a lot of territory: two commission-approved options: one merely re-establishing the five redefined county offices, another establishing a two-term limit for them; two city council ordinances: one laying down the conditions for recalling officials, another establishing revised residency requirements for certain classes of city employees; and six recommended revisions to the city charter proper.
Ironically, it is only these last six ballot options - all relating to the city charter -- that each go by the name of "referendum." The county term-limits provision so loathed by Chism and his cadres on the Democratic steering committee is termed an "ordinance." Talk about drowning the baby with the bathwater! Here were nine other offspring going down the drain along with the targeted one.
Although much of the preliminary activity that resulted in the publication of the party ballot is still shrouded in mystery, the facts would seem to be these: At the September meeting of the full Democratic executive committee, a resounding majority of the member present voted to reject the ballot initiative for county term limits. At the October meeting of the party steering committee, which is the executive committee's smaller governing core, county commissioner Steve Mulroy, the leading local proponent of city-charter referendum Number Five, pitched the initiative, which would approve an instant runoff formula for municipal elections. The issue was not approved -- on the grounds, said party vice-chair Cherry Davis, that the steering committee had not had ample opportunity to study the initiative.
Period. Those are apparently the only formal actions ever taken by an established organ of the Shelby County Democratic Party.
Who then approved the ballot with its mischievous box on "referendums?" Apparently not party chairman Keith Norman, who was handily reelected early this year despite widespread criticism of his absentee hands-off style. It was Norman, in fact, who, along with Mulroy, called a press conference Monday to vent criticism of the suspect ballot. Typically, groused Norman's critics, the chairman was a no-show at the press conference, which was presided over in his absence by city councilman and city charter commission chairman Myron Lowery, Mulroy, councilman Shea Flinn, local NAACP chair Johnnie Turner, steering committee member Lynn Strickland, and former party chairman David Cocke.
Chism was the prime suspect as the prime mover of the unauthorized mystery ballot. It was party members close to him who delivered it to the printer, and it was Teamster allies who reportedly had already begun to pass out copies. But the commissioner declined to take credit Monday, saying, "I had nothing to do with it. Didn't even know about it. But I agree with it!"
What the protesting group at the press conference asked was that those copies of the sample ballot - the great remainder - that had not been passed out should have labels pasted over the offending box before being distributed. In a meeting of the steering committee that took place later Monday various alternative actions were reportedly discussed, including an offer from Mulroy to foot the bill for the proposed labels.
Some who were there described the steering committee meeting, in part, as a "bash-Mulroy" session. That sentiment, such as it was, emanated from the Chism cadres, who apparently sought an apology from the commissioner for his part in voicing public dissent concerning the suspect ballot. Certainly Chism himself had earlier expressed himself adversely: "Who appointed Steve Mulroy to speak for Democrats?" he had said.
A resolution of sorts to this proverbial Mell of a Hess was finally reached at Monday night's steering committee meeting . The committee voted to have one more press conference,presided over by Mulroy and Norman, wich would clarify the fact that only one act of opposition -- to the term-limits resoluion -- had ever been resolved on by the Shelby County Democratic Party. And the committee died in fact accept Mulroy's offer to pay for new labels, to be pasted over the offending boxes, pointing out that reality.
Nobody was quite certain what the effect of the brouhaha would be on voters contemplating the affected ballot provisions. The affair could result in their damnation. But it could equally well end in a backlash favoring the ten referenda, city and county.
Given that early voting is now well under way, either reaction is entirely possible.