Following the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which included the Black Cabinet, opened the door for African Americans to participate widely in policy change and government. More importantly, it led to wholesale defections from the Republican Party into the Democratic Party.
Subsequent Democratic Party leaders – from the Kennedys to Lyndon Johnson – supported and signed civil rights legislation and solidified the loyalty of African Americans by and large to the Democratic Party.
Arguments have been made from time to time about the sanity of African Americans’ blind loyalty to the Democratic Party. Pundits have pondered and articles have been published debating the rightful political home for blacks in America. On Monday (August 11th) in a New York Times op-ed, Jelani Cobb posed this question: “Can the G.O.P. ever attract black voters?”
Cobb gave a solid history of political affiliation for African Americans and essentially ended with the notion that Republicans may desire to court black voters but are too heavily vested in the “reactionary politics of race.” I interpret that as a well-pointed finger to the documented strategies employed by the G.O.P. to motivate and manipulate white voters with racial fear mongering to the detriment of black and brown people.
This commentary is not about national party politics and strategies. Nor is it crafted to give a history lesson. It is about what has happened in the last two Shelby County General Elections, the success and failures of the Democratic Party in particular and what the numbers show. Men lie, women lie and numbers generally don’t, yet in Shelby County the numbers have certainly not held true.
For the record, the Shelby County Election Commission’s recent track record has given no reason to trust that error-free, fair and true elections have or will take place in Memphis and Shelby County any time soon. I also concede that there is enough proof from various sources that the Diebold voting machines now in place have many security weaknesses that create the potential for hacking and remote manipulation that could compromise the integrity of results. I have no proof that it has happened but the research shows it is possible. Still, this ain’t about that.
West Tennessee, and primarily Shelby County, is truly the only bastion of blue in a sea of red that is Tennessee. President Obama won Shelby County in 2008 and 2012, one of only four counties in Tennessee where that was the case (five counties in 2008). Democrats, of course, make up a majority of the registered voters in Shelby County, outweighing Republican voters based upon the number of voters that historically have chosen to cast ballots as Democrats in primary elections.
Evaluating early-voting numbers from the August 7th election from both the Shelby County Election Commission and those numbers synthesized and analyzed by Bennie Smith, one of Shelby County’s brightest minds and statistical analysts, interesting facts are revealed. Smith used a number of statistical factors to convert over half (13,000 plus) of those that voted as others to either black or white.
Evaluating the parties by race and looking just at early voting in the most recent election, only 620 blacks declared and voted in the Republican primary out of a total of 36,395 that voted, with 6,717 listed as others. This means that the remaining 29,058 voters were white and an indication that the Republican Party in Shelby County is primarily made up of white voters. Of the Democratic Party voters that cast ballots early for the August 7th election, 32,576 were black, 5,135 were white and 6,706 were listed as others.
So what conclusions can be drawn from the numbers?
Democrats make up a majority of voters in Memphis and Shelby County.
African Americans make up the majority of the population in Memphis and Shelby County and the vast majority of Democratic voters.
African Americans in Shelby County have put all of their proverbial eggs in the Democratic basket.
Democrats should dominate Shelby County politics.
But let’s evaluate the results.
Democrats offered a slate of predominantly black candidates versus a Republican slate of all white candidates and took – in the words of some – an old fashioned woodshed whipping, losing six of seven major county offices for the second time in as many county election cycles. Notably, an African American has never held the positions of District Attorney, Sheriff, Juvenile Court Judge or Juvenile Court Clerk, County Register or County Trustee in the searchable history of the County.
Given the dismal performance in each of the past two countywide general elections and the long-term challenges in winning countywide office, Democratic Party voters and specifically blacks in Shelby County must clearly call for a new deal, a new way and a new day.
From the numbers, many Democratic Party voters, both black and white, chose to establish a new deal for themselves this election cycle by voting for Republican candidates. Obviously, one option is that more African Americans choose to affiliate with the Republican Party. But even that must be approached with a real agenda and plan that addresses our issues and not just going along to get along.
The Shelby County Democratic Party, as it has operated recently, has failed to deliver results for its major constituent base and on many fronts has simply failed. It has not developed the strategies that leverage the one strength that has existed for some time now, the numbers.
Despite more Democratic Party voters casting ballots in this election, Republicans again won handily in most cases to the tune of 60 percent to 40 percent or better. Previously conceding the issues with the Election Commission and the machines, this beat down is deeper than that. It is about a lack of understanding for the root causes of voter apathy and a lack of strategies that restores, reinvigorates, reignites and rejuvenates the large base of African-American voters and eligible registrants to participate in the electoral process. It’s a failure to conduct a simple SWOT analysis, (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) to determine a way forward.
The one primary strength is simply the numbers. As I mentioned earlier, the numbers show that the parties in Shelby County are clearly segregated by race and resources. The Democratic Party is heavily African American and resource poor except for one of its candidates. The Republican Party is virtually all white and resource rich. The primary advantage to Democrats is the numbers. A massive turnout can beat money with the right effort and strategy, but it takes consistent effort, particularly when there are no elections. Championships and elections are won in the off-season.
The weaknesses include a lack of resources, lack of cohesion, candidates that fail to inspire and in many instances deflate or turn off voters, failure to connect with the issues of would-be voters and a failure to understand the sources of voter apathy.
The opportunities are wide and vast. One can only go up from this point, which is arguably as low as you can go. Even the best positioned and qualified candidates, such as Judge Tarik Sugarmon, suffered defeat due to the lack of cohesive strategy and execution in the other areas and willingness to identify weaknesses and cut them off.
Lastly, the threats are as they’ve always been: an opponent with more resources, better strategies and better execution. Add in a constituent base struggling with life issues and a damaged psyche from the vestiges of Tennessee Waltz, the public shenanigans of a hand full of elected officials, Election Commission issues and the false notion that after all their vote simply won’t make a difference.
It is time to overhaul the Democratic Party in Shelby County. Time to usher in a new day of relevance and reach. New leadership must rise and be embraced. There must surface a new brand of candidate to inspire and serve with clear competency as well as passion. The people must be heard and embraced not just prior to and during an election, but year round. A process for listening to and regaining the trust of the people has to be put in motion.
The party has reached a crossroads and can no longer keep doing the same things the same way, running the same candidates, raising the same money and engaging the community in the same lackluster ways.
As FDR’s New Deal created a paradigm shift for African-American voters, there must be a paradigm shift with the Shelby County Democratic Party that brings about balance and equity, establishing a new deal for this community.