"Nine days! That's all we've got!" Thus did George Chism exhort the supporters gathered around him last Wednesday for a meet-and-greet/fund-raiser at the Bank of Bartlett branch on Highway 64. The reference by Chism was somewhat obscure, since voting in the special-election primaries for the vacant District 32 state Senate seat, which he and four others are seeking, won't end until primary-election day on January 24th.
What former Shelby County Commissioner Chism apparently meant was that the climax of the special-election primary race would occur between January 14th, when ad hoc neighborhood voting sites became active, and January 23rd, election eve.
Chism, former state Representative Steve McManus, and former County Commissioner Heidi Shafer are competing for the Republican nomination for the seat vacated by former state Senate majority leader Mark Norris, a federal judge now, by appointment of President Trump. Meanwhile, the sole Democrat on the primary ballot, Eric Coleman, is assured of a chance to run against the GOP winner on the special general-election date of March 12th.
In any case and by any arithmetic, time is scarce, and all the candidates are hustling up multiple occasions to create or augment voter awareness of their identity and credentials. Chism claims among his supporters several of Shelby County's suburban mayors, including Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, who was on hand for his fund-raiser. Also there was David Reaves, who, like Chism served a single term on the County Commission and, again like Chism, was something of an outlier there, dedicated, or so said both of them, to the gospel of fiscal solvency.
Verbal homage by Chism and several other speakers was paid both to the idea that the seat, formerly held by Republican Norris, should remain in the GOP fold and to the idea that attention should also be paid to the Democratic voters in the district, which incorporates large parts of northern and eastern Shelby County, and Tipton County as well.
Similar concepts were to be heard a day before Chism's event, when McManus had held a meet-and-greet at the Bartlett household of Republican state Representative Jim Coley. McManus was well aware that Democrats are beginning to gain a foothold in District 32. After all, he had been upset in 2016, losing his seat as state Representative for House District 96, in the southeastern suburbs of Shelby County, to Democrat Dwayne Thompson, who held on to the seat against the GOP's Scott McCormick in November.
In the judgment of many observers, McManus had started slow in 2016, taking his victory for granted. Not so this time around. Advised by consultant Becky West, he was first among the candidates to air a TV spot and first also to sprout billboards in the district. Among the topics McManus discussed with visitors to his event were non-doctrinaire aspects of his prior service in the General Assembly, like his involvement in the legislation enabling the creation of tax-increment-financing districts (TIFs).
Another Republican candidate, former Commissioner Shafer, would hold a well-attended fund-raiser last Friday in Memphis, where her Commission district was located and where she lived until a family move to Lakeland last year. Like Chism and McManus, Shafer is unmistakably Republican in ideology, but her Commission service, both in 2018, when she served as the body's chair, and beforehand as well, was marked by an obvious ability to work across the partisan aisle. She was the acknowledged leader of bipartisan efforts to mount the now ongoing legal effort both to curtail the ravages of opioid addiction in Shelby County and to compensate the county for damages caused by careless and unscrupulous over-prescription.
There was a bipartisan flavor, as well, to Shafer's remarks at her Memphis event, at which she staked out positions for remedial action on both the education and health fronts. While not espousing previous Medicaid-expansion formulations as such, she made it clear that she would seek some means of remedying a circumstance whereby the state had not claimed its share of federal health-care funding, allowing it to go to other states by default.
Perhaps more than the other Republicans running, Shafer has a foothold in Tipton County, especially in the southern portion of it, a de facto bedroom suburb of Memphis. But she, like Chism and McManus, is aware of the vote-pulling power in Tipton County at large of a fourth Republican, Paul Rose of Covington. Rose, a businessman and a well-established presence in Tiption County, is a conservative who has emphasized his strong religious faith.
As of now, Rose is weaker than the others in Shelby County, but he would clearly stand to gain from anything resembling an even vote split between the other three.
Coleman, the sole Democrat running, is a business logistics specialist and evidently quite successful as such. He is an African American and a Navy veteran, severely wounded in the service of his country, and as such has a compelling backstory capable of winning him votes across party lines.
Coleman is not as hyper-active yet as the Republicans seeking the state Senate seat, but he has more time to develop his profile before testing it at the polls in March.