Shelby Democrats Manage a Show of (Relative) Unity
In the Tennessee General Assembly, 200-odd miles to the east in Nashville, Democrats are little more than a trace presence. But in Shelby County, as was made obvious at the Democrats’ annual Kennedy Day dinner Saturday night, the local party can still manage a healthy turnout — enough, in any case, to fill the ballroom floor at the Bridges building downtown.
The annual fundraising affair began with several homages to late party icon Lois DeBerry, who served for more than 40 years in the once Democratically controlled legislature, for much of that time as the respected and even beloved Speaker Pro Tem of the House of Representatives.
The event ended with an unscheduled and impromptu oration from former state representative and City Council member Carol Chumney, who urged at some length that Democrats "stick together" this election year, in the process loosing forth a passionate recrimination or two at what she suggested had been uneven party support in her own campaigns.
In different ways, these bookend moments hewed to the evening’s theme, “The Year of the Woman.” And in between them, for a spell of almost three hours, local Democrats dined on chicken or fish and sat back to be regaled by inspirational presentations from U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, the evening’s keynoter, and a panel of women with experience in running and holding political office.
Democratic men were a presence at the event, too, of course — from county Democratic chairman Bryan Carson to state party chairman Roy Herron to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton to 9th District congressman Steve Cohen, who introduced House colleague Lee. In attendance also were a generous number of office-holders and candidates of both genders and — something that will be a consistent feature at this year’s political events, regardless of sponsoring party — a healthy turnout of judges, on the ballot for the first time in eight years.
One of those judges was Camille McMullen, a Memphian whose chance of remaining on the state Court of Appeals had just been enhanced by a decision of the state Judicial Evaluation Commission to reverse what had been a prior negative recommendation on her retention. Somewhat cautiously, in answering a question about “challenges” from panel moderator Deidre Malone, McMullen made a cryptic reference to an unnamed challenge, no doubt the matter of her retention election, as a “pending” one.
Other members of the panel, each offering practical advice about the political sphere, were: former Tennessee Regulatory Authority member Sara Kyle, who after a longish period of weighing the option of running for governor had just decided against it; Beverly Marrero and Sara Lewis, former members of the School Board and state Senate, respectively; and state Representative Johnnie Turner, who is still serving.
In her speech to the attendees, Lee offered the example of her own life — that of a single mother on public assistance in California, toting her two small boys with her to college classes (they were the “best-educated “ children around, she said.), then becoming engaged in the 1972 presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm, who talked her out of her cynicism and convinced her to get inside the system “and shake things up.”
Energized by Chisholm, Lee would run for Congress, keeping in mind some additional advice by her mentor: “When you get elected, you better act like a woman. Don’t play by the rules... Change the rules!”
Lee said Democrats should resolve in this year’s elections to “hold on to the Senate and retake the House.” About the latter body, currently dominated by Republicans, she said, “Steve [Cohen] and I deal with the Tea Party quite a bit.” She called for action on the minimum wage and campaign finance reform, scorning the “Citizens United" decision by the Supreme Court. “Corporations are not people!” she insisted.
At intervals during the evening, when there was no formal program going on, there was a good deal of shmoozing, Candidates abounded, and incumbents and challengers alike worked the floor.
Keeping a quieter profile than Cohen, who was an active participant, was the congressman’s declared Democratic primary opponent, lawyer Ricky Wilkins. State Senator Jim Kyle, newly announced as a candidate for Chancellor, made his presence felt. Making the rounds were Patrice Robinson and Keith Williams, challengers to County Commissioner Justin Ford in the new single district 9.
Among the first-time candidates were Terry Adams, the Knoxville attorney who wants to challenge Republican incumbent Lamar Alexander this year (but must first overcome millionaire Gordon Ball in the Democratic primary), and Mike McCusker, candidate for Criminal Court clerk.
The evening ended with something of a jolt in the form of the aforementioned remarks by Carol Chumney. Contending that Republicans “beat us to the punch” in elevating women to office locally, the former legislator and Council member called on Democrats to “stick together.”
She said that, besides the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, there was something locally called “the Republi-Democratic” party, by which, as she elaborated, she meant Democrats capable of supporting Republicans for office or of looking the other way in contests between Republicans and Democrats.
“If you’re the Democratic nominee, then the Democrats should support the Democratic nominee,” she said. A few sentences later, referring to a race she lost two years ago, she made what can only be called an accusation. .”Very few people would say I was not qualified to be District Attorney, but somehow one of our congressmen seemed to think that. He said he ‘birthed’ me....I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room.”
The reference was clearly to Rep. Cohen, who, in endorsing several candidates in 2012, passed on the District Attorney General's race, which pitted Chumney against the ultimately victorious Republican incumbent, Amy Weirich. In deciding to make no endorsement in that race, Cohen recalled that he had been a vigorous supporter of Chumney in her victorious maiden race for the legislature, quipping that she was someone that "I gave birth to in 1990."
OK, a little discord mixed in with that unity feeling. Still, overall, the Democrats had themselves a party Saturday night.
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