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Local Democrats M.I.A.?

The Shelby County Democratic Party – once a powerhouse, snorting mule – has visibly lost its kick. That is an assertion clearly audible in myriad segments of Greater Memphis. by Tony Jones
Special to the Tri-State Defender

The Shelby County Democratic Party – once a powerhouse, snorting mule – has visibly lost its kick.

That is an assertion clearly audible in myriad segments of Greater Memphis. If true, how did this once formidable power become a toothless tiger?

Is it fair to spotlight the present decline? Or is this just a valley in time reflecting the laziness of the American electorate?

To survey the landscape, the New Tri-State Defender went calling, acutely aware that Thursday (Oct. 6) is Municipal Election Day and yet another opportunity for the local Dems to sink or swim.

Here’s what we heard:

Preston Granger, ‘everyday citizen’

Interviewed while at a local computer lab studying for the Sramed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test, Granger responded to the key problem/failure of the local party in reaching grassroots black youth. Granger, who grew up and lives near Booker T. Washington High School, comes from a family of sundry store merchants and entrepreneurs. His uncle Luster Williams’ company, Automation Plus, was named MedWeek’s Technology Firm of the Year in 2010, and is known in the area as “the Microsoft in the Hood.”

“I vote every year. But I don’t take any politicians word for what they do, I look them up to see what they’ve done in the community, help small businesses and how active they really are in the community,” said Granger.

“A lot of younger guys don’t think the way I think, but I talk to them about it. Their minds are on the fast money and all that, but a lot of them want to change but they don’t know how to educate themselves to do so, and you don’t see the people with the answers down here at all,” he said.

“Instead of them trying to come to us to see what we need, they only try to help themselves and their families. They’re just greedy. Greed can turn you against your own family.”

 Thomas Long, incumbent City Court Clerk

Mentored by Harold Ford Sr. after moving to Memphis in 1974, Long is credited for his “Drive While You Pay” plan, which has helped many people regain their driving privileges.

“The (Shelby County Democratic) Party has no leadership and nothing to follow through upon. You have to have a plan, evaluate that plan, implement the plan, assess the outcomes and improve where it is needed,” Long said.

“The leadership has to build the relationships, the outlook and the focus. We will never be as financially sound as the other side, but that means we have to work harder. And reach out to the youth members and help them develop,” he said.

“But also the younger members have to understand that you don’t just come in and take over, you have to get out here passing out leaflets, learning the people. It takes work and you do not start at the top.”

Thaddeus Matthews, talk show host

Seen by some as the voice of the disgruntled grassroots, by others as the reincarnation of Joe McCarthy, Matthews could prove to be a big winner in the election. His show has been the major advertising outlet for mayoral candidate Ed Ford Sr., whom Matthews says will upset Mayor AC Wharton Jr. based on early voting results. That would make Matthews a kingmaker and justify his sales pitch of “the most dangerous radio show in Memphis.”

“The (Shelby County Democratic Party) leadership is weak. They can’t get anyone elected. They are a broken and a broke organization,” said Matthews.

“They take the black community for granted and cannot deliver. When white Democrats crossed over last year in county wide elections, they didn’t have the balls to get up and point them out.”

Javier “Jay” Bailey, attorney

Bailey’s family name has been synonymous with local Democratic politics for decades. With Matthews, and brothers Greg and Alonzo Grant, and Jennings Bernard, he formed a local Democratic club, which did not last long. He is also a member of the state Democratic Party.

“I don’t think it’s obsolete, but it’s definitely become irrelevant,” Bailey said of the Shelby County Democratic Party.

“For the last ten years, it has offered no real structural or organizational support for candidates, nor to Democratic office holders. It has failed to hold Democratic elected officials’ feet to the fire by requiring their appointees are Democrats and even in the hiring process,” he said.

“This is an old, machine-politics town. Most large Southern cities are, which means that the city is run by that party’s philosophy. If it doesn’t gain any momentum in the next five years in addressing the issues it has, it will become obsolete.

“I see the problems compounding, but not getting better.”

Van Turner, President, Shelby County Democratic Party

The man presently at the helm, Van Turner is an attorney, and a board member of the local NAACP, where he chairs the Legal Redress Committee.

“The party is not obsolete because it is legally listed in the Tennessee Code Annotated and is part of the national organization, with rules and structure,” Turner said.

“This is not a club. There are several clubs in the city that want to think of themselves as the face of Democratic Party politics, but they are not and cannot be in technical and legal terms. We are the only ones allowed to send delegates to the convention that nominates our presidential candidate and we must follow the rules of the party and hold an election to choose and establish the delegates, which are chosen to go to the convention,” he said.

“There are factions and infighting that have weakened the party, but often that stems from the leadership. Usually the party’s strength is based upon the organization of the leading Democratic elected official, which in the 9th District was Harold Ford Sr., then Mayor (Willie W. Herenton), now you have AC Wharton. I think very little has changed. It’s not like the Republican Party, where the party can hold the leadership to the fire. It’s inverted on our side,” he said.

Turner noted that the Oct. 6 election for municipal seats is non-partisan, so the Democratic Party has not been heavily involved.

“The Party has endorsed (City Council District 7 candidate) Paul Shaffer and we have donated time, talent and effort to his campaign. It’s like the judicial races, which are strictly non-partisan, you don’t want to upset either a donkey or an elephant, and it’s the same in the present election,” he said.

“When we do have partisan elections, we put out a ballot, hold rallies and fundraisers and call on the party and supporters. We will be very visible for the presidential race next year.”


Tri-State Defender: Has the party lost its focus on grassroots politics? And has the Shelby County Democratic Party given up on the youth, especially the working-class and street-level voter?

Van Turner: I probably speak at about 8 to 10 high schools a semester, as do other people in leadership roles, whether it’s at a Career Day or meeting the Honor Roll students. Another is that students are also transient, they graduate, they go to college and I have found that you have to start the process all over again.

It’s always a challenge to keep a consistent and active presence on college campuses because you encounter people that graduate and go on with their lives. We have a very dynamic young lady with the NAACP at U of M (University of Memphis) that is also starting a club at LeMoyne (-Owen College), and Steve Ross, the president of the club there.

One issue that I think will turn out to work in our favor is the new voter I.D. law. I think in an indirect way it will create a barrier for young people to vote. You are going to see another huge turnout for the 2012 election in favor of Obama.

In considering the grassroots, that’s an issue where I find that activists often already have their minds made up. It’s a question of us working together to find candidates that will work to make their communities better. And that’s where the factional bickering hurts us.

You have people that get involved, then get disillusioned because of infighting in the party. A lot of it has calmed down. I think you will see us again correlate better around organizing for the reelection of Obama.

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