Politics » Politics Feature

Trouble for the Charter

County commission vote shows inner-city split on consolidation.



A vote on Monday by the Shelby County Commission to oppose the November 2nd metro charter referendum succeeded by a relatively lopsided margin, on the basis of inner-city Democratic votes as well as suburban Republican ones.

The vote was significant insofar as the commission, along with the Memphis City Council, had voted to create and subsidize the Metro Charter Commission, which prepared the referendum after a year of labor.

The final vote was 8 for rejecting the referendum, 3 opposing rejection, and 2 abstaining. Joining several GOP commissioners in rejecting consolidation were Democrats Justin Ford, James Harvey, and commission chairman Sidney Chism. Democrats voting against the resolution of opposition to the charter were Steve Mulroy and Walter Bailey, who were joined by Republican Mike Carpenter. Two Democrats abstained: Melvin Burgess and Henri Brooks.

The division in Democratic ranks was no surprise to anyone who has been following the shift of sentiment in the African-American community. While no single monolithic point of view predominates among blacks or Democrats in Memphis, and proponents of consolidation remain optimistic about the outcome on November 2nd, the fact is that a surprising amount of opposition to consolidation has developed in the inner city.

A sampling of opinion last month by pollster Berje Yacoubian showed, in fact, that opinion inside the city of Memphis was divided almost equally between the pro and con points of view. (Sentiment in Shelby County outside Memphis was measured at four to one opposed to the referendum by Yacoubian.)

The Shelby County Democrats' executive committee has put itself on record against the charter referendum, and spokespersons for the Democratic legal challenge to the August 5th county election results — dismissed last week by Chancellor Arnold Goldin — had increasingly begun to feature adamant opposition to consolidation in their public rallies.

Resistance to consolidation among African-American Democrats in the inner city has focused on a sense that the political influence of blacks would be weakened overall by the absorption of Memphis city government by an enlarged metro government representing all of Shelby County.

The developing revolt against the charter in the inner city has even prompted many black leaders to rethink the assumptions that, several generations back, underlay the impetus toward racial integration.

In a posting on Facebook, city council member Wanda Halbert recently interjected a thought along these lines into a discussion of the consolidation issue. She was responding to a dialogue partner who had said black leaders espousing the metro charter "have no idea that they are selling their people out and placing us in a position of diluted voting strength."

Halbert disagreed: "I say, yes they do, just as they did with their support of the civil rights movement. These people were/are leaders in their respective communities. Doctors, lawyers, judges, etc. They are not ignorant, uneducated, low income, don't care, don't know people.

"Though I did not live during that day, I was surprised to discover, as well intended as it appeared to be, desegregation was the beginning of the destruction of black life as it was once known. Many thought it would bring about equality for all but it simply was the destruction of togetherness, purpose, passion, family, quality education, pride, etc.

"It is commonly known, government and the power structure put together 10, 15, 20+ year plans for the future. I refuse to believe it was not known where desegregation would lead many ...."

Coincidentally, proponents of consolidation last week asked for an expedited hearing on a federal suit seeking to invalidate separate city and county votes on the charter referendum.

• Lawyer Sam Muldavin, who attended Monday's rally for gay rights at City Hall with daughter Kate Mauldin, indulged himself in some wistful looking back.

"When I was 22 in 1972, casting my first [presidential] vote for George McGovern, I never imagined I would end up in Democrats' crosshairs," lamented Muldavin, who was one of several lawyers representing the Shelby County Election Commission in the suit brought against the commission by 10 losing candidates in the August 5th county election.

It was Muldavin, in fact, who made the motion for dismissal of the suit on Wednesday, after a day in which attorneys for the plaintiffs — eight Democratic nominees and two nonpartisan judicial candidates — had presented their case to void the election results as "incurably uncertain." On Thursday morning, after completing his reading of depositions in the case, Chancellor Arnold Goldin responded by dismissing the case.

Asked how many times he had seen such a motion for dismissal approved before both sides had presented evidence, Muldavin said, "Three times in 30 years." Jokingly, he said, "Maybe that's how many times I had clients who were obviously not guilty."

David Cocke and Regina Morrison Newman, two lawyers for the plaintiffs (one of whom was former Trustee Newman herself), were by no means convinced. Both argued that Goldin had adjudged the case wholly on grounds of whether fraud and illegality had permeated the election process — whereas, they contended, Tennessee law calls for a different standard, whereby a pattern of honest mistakes and "substantial irregularities" could invalidate election results.

In other words, the groundwork for an appeal is being laid.

In actual fact, most of the more sensational allegations made by representatives of the plaintiffs — some of which alleged the possibility of purposeful tampering with the votes cast — were not presented in court due to Goldin's decision not to admit as credentialed expert witnesses Bev Harris and Susan Pynchon, activists associated with blackboxvoting.org, who had compiled a lengthy list of alleged abuses by the Election Commission.

The plaintiffs' key witness turned out to be Julie Ann Kempf, a former supervisor of elections in Seattle, who testified essentially that accepted standards of logic and accuracy were not applied to the election results. • Sara Lewis, the once and (if she has her way) future Memphis School Board member, is mad as hell about a decision by the Shelby County Democratic Party's executive committee to endorse one of its officers, party vice chair Cherry Davis, in the multicandidate 6th District race involving Lewis, Davis, and five other candidates.

"The party took a position that it wouldn't choose between Democrats in a nonpartisan race, and here it is doing so," said Lewis, a public-sector veteran who served several previous terms on the board before leaving it in 2006.

She also formerly headed the Free the Children organization, Shelby County Head Start, and, most recently, the Office of Youth Services and Community Affairs. During her tenures, Lewis acquired ample numbers of both admirers and detractors. She was frequently involved in controversy — particularly over the quality of her administrative oversight.

A former Memphis City Schools superintendent, Johnnie B. Watson, once complained of what he called "harassment" from the strong-willed Lewis, who was always a major figure in school board debates.

Lewis' objections to the endorsement in District 6 aren't limited to her contention that the party is violating its own official policy. She wonders why the party executive committee chose to endorse in District 6 and not in the At Large, Position 2 race, which is also contested.

"They endorsed her because she asked them," Lewis said. "But no one else was even informed that an endorsement was coming and was even invited to address the committee."

Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner said Tuesday he was well aware of candidate Lewis' discontent and had taken steps to address it.

"It's true that generally we don't endorse in contested nonpartisan races involving more than one Democrat, but there is a precedent." He cited the committee's endorsement of school board member Freda Williams in a previous election in which Williams, a party executive committee member, had opposition by another Democrat.

Turner noted that in both Williams' case and that of Davis, the person endorsed had a prominent active role in the Shelby County party organization. He said the move to endorse Davis was made from the floor by member Howard Richardson at last Thursday night's monthly meeting of the party executive committee and was approved unanimously.

As for Lewis' other objection, that no move to endorse was made in the At Large, Position 2 race, involving incumbent K.T. Whalum Jr., Bob Morgan, and Richard Fields, Turner observed that no motion to do so had come from the floor.

On Friday, the day after the endorsement vote of Davis, Turner said he sent out an e-mail to all executive committee members scheduling a conference call to reconsider the action. "Only 10 people responded, and all of them were unanimous in favor of the endorsement we had made," Turner said.

In the two other board races on the ballot in November, District 2 incumbent Betty Mallot and District 4 incumbent Martavius Jones are unopposed.

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