Aug 10 2014

Apologies and firing squads

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Friendly fire isn't that friendly

Friendly fire isn’t that friendly

I was all wrapped up in pre-wedding festivities yesterday, so there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t get to react to.

Since my last post, Chairman Carson has apologized for his off the cuff remarks.

It takes strength to admit when you’ve made a mistake.

I applaud him for that.

Ready, shoot, aim

The circular firing squad that has been the hallmark of Democrats this election started long before the voting even really got kicked off.

A slew of Facebook posts from folks in and around the Democratic Party establishment, took aim at other Democrats for things that were, quite honestly, petty.

We put each other in the crosshairs in a primary election, instead of banding together to put Republicans in the crosshairs in the general. We suffered for that.

We fought internally instead of working together to get the most electable members of our slate elected (which is what the party should always do…its called campaign triage). We dragged friends into debates about minutiae. We lodged full frontal assaults on each other.

It was stupid.

But those distractions are part of why we got our asses kicked. Those distractions didn’t pop up overnight. They have been percolating for months…only to be brewed into a sour pot of failure in the only real election the Party is supposed to be preparing for…the County general election.

Watching the Vote

Over the course of early voting, I was watching who was turning out, and where. I’ve been working on a predictive model based on past performance, and I wanted to gauge how it was working. It still needs work, but there’s one thing I saw that alarmed me from the very beginning.

See, there’s this group of voters called “other”. Its a racial classification the Election Commission uses when someone doesn’t fill out that part (its optional) of the voter registration form.

“Others” make up about 42% of the total voting population. There are services out there you can subscribe to that will help you figure out this mystery one way or the other. I used an unnecessarily complicated formula based on census data, age, and turnout statistics from previous elections to figure out an estimate of the true racial breakdown of the voting population.

Here’s what I found. There were over 37,000 African-American early voters that pulled a Democratic ballot. Looking at the early voting numbers from the Commercial Appeal, that’s around 8000 more voters than our top two candidates on the ticket received from early voting. I calculate that there were about 6000 (+/- 5%) White Democratic voters (classified as other) in early voting. Those two combined are still less than the total our top two candidates lost by in early voting.

The long and the short of it is, crossover was rampant, and crossed just about every demographic line imaginable.

These numbers are preliminary. Once the all detail report is available, I’ll be able to better measure this against lists provided by private companies.

What it should tell us is, our candidates didn’t connect with voters well enough to be successful. Actually, that’s what every election loss should tell you.

Reflections on 2012

When you make the decision to run for office, you have given yourself the opportunity for the kind of self-discovery that few other things can provide.

It doesn’t take long to figure out what you’re good at, and what you’re really bad at.

Delegation is not my strong point. I found that out in spades. But I am willing to literally work myself to death (I’m not sure what that says about me, but its true).

I made field the cornerstone of my campaign…to the detriment of fundraising and just about everything else (I believe in field and will still do it, but I sacrificed money, and ran out of time). Its a mistake I won’t make again if I ever decide to offer myself up.

I knocked on thousands of doors myself, and talked to so many people. I loved it.

By election day in August, I knew I wasn’t likely to win. I had expected to be running against Marilyn Loeffel…a perennial candidate in that district. I had ample reason to believe that if Loeffel was the GOP nominee, I would get some GOP crossover (even though she didn’t win, I did still get some support from Republicans…even though I’m about as liberal as they come).

But after I had time to look at the results, I found something. Lots of people in the old District 1 didn’t vote in that election. In fact, 1460 people who pulled Democratic primary ballots didn’t vote for me, or anyone. That’s 13.6% of all the Democrats in the old District 1 who participated in that election.

The cross-section of voters based on race isn’t particularly instructive. Lots of white and black people didn’t vote for me.

Why is that?

Is it because they made a decision about me based on my race/class/other arbitrary determination? Possibly. But that’s not the lesson I chose to learn from that experience. The lesson I took away from that was that I didn’t communicate effectively enough with those voters to earn their vote.

Its that simple.

I was angry for months after that election.

I was angry at other Democratic elected officials who I’ve supported for years, who didn’t see fit to endorse me (I was and still am very grateful to the ones who did). I vowed to never support them or even give them so much as a courtesy vote.

I was angry at the thousands of voters whose houses I canvassed, who didn’t even bother to show up and vote.

I was angry at myself, for spending so much time on a stupid campaign and putting my family’s finances in jeopardy.

I eventually got over myself…for the most part.

But I learned something about campaigning and about voters:

1. No one is paying as much attention to the issues as you want them to. Its your job to make your platform resonate.
2. No one will do it for you. You have to be smart and work your ass off if you want to get elected to anything.
3. Communicating your priorities means doing more than sending mailers, setting up websites, and yes, even canvassing. You have to make opportunities to make your case on the substantive issues of the day.
4. Its not the voters fault if they can’t find a reason to hit the button with your name on it…its your fault. You didn’t connect. You didn’t get your message out there effectively enough.

There was no way I was going to win that race under the circumstances. I didn’t effectively campaign enough (even though I’m still proud of my efforts) and the cards were stacked against me (in terms of ideological participation).

And while I didn’t get the outcome I wanted, I did get a valuable lesson in running for office…striking a balance between the resources you need to get elected (people, time and money) and the things you must do (communicate, contact, and capitalize on the issues) is critical.

This is a lesson the Shelby County Democratic Party need to try to take from this cycle, instead of continuing the circular firing squad that has been the hallmark of the organization since 2010.

Critical Analysis

Its natural for people to get angry after a loss. Its natural to assess blame, and seek out scapegoats. Its easy to do that based on demography. But the hard thing to do is step away from that anger and honestly critically analyze what just happened.

The truth of the matter is, blaming a demographic group for a loss is the best way to alienate that group…and eventually lose them forever. People don’t take kindly t voting their conscience than then being blamed for not doing what someone else wanted them to do.

That’s not a path we should travel.

White Democrats have taken the brunt of the abuse over the past two cycles for the party’s losses.

One could just as easily blame African-American voters for not showing up in August (in terms of turnout, White voters far exceed their countywide demographic balance based on population in August elections).

Here’s the truth. In early voting “white” voters out-voted their percentage of the total voting populace by 10 points. That’s huge.

“Black” voters, out-voted their overall percentage by just under 2%.

“Other” voters (I’m one of those), under-voted their percentage of the total voting population by 13 points.

Why not just blame the “others”? They didn’t turn out. Its their fault, right?

Others are typically younger (under 45), have diverse racial and class backgrounds, and, apparently, don’t vote in August.

How many “others” did Democrats target?

Or maybe you could look at it like this.

Of the 7 solidly Democratic County Commission districts, 5 had turnout that severely underperformed their percentage of the electorate. In all, that means 8.62% of the total vote in safe Democratic districts didn’t show up.

Why not blame the Democratic County Commission candidates in those districts for not working hard enough to turn out the vote? (6 Republican districts over-performed by nearly 7 points, making a +15 point advantage…or 65 to 35…which miraculously is about the margin of victory for Luttrell and Weirich).

There are a million ways to slice and dice blame.

But that doesn’t help us as we try to figure out how to win in August of 2018 any more than blaming one demographic group for not voting the way we think they should.

The truth is, they got their vote out better than we did, and we lost because of it. Plain and simple.

They connected with voters where we didn’t.

I don’t know what else can be said about that.

But the smart thing to do, is hold fire…especially on your allies. Then work on a plan to turnout enough voters…especially those who don’t normally turn out in August. That’s what I told members of the SCDP executive committee in February, and I stand by it today.

We didn’t match GOP voters on a 1:1 basis by Commission districts, and we (predictably) lost because of it.


Politics is a passionate business for those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time practicing it.

That passion can manifest itself in both productive and unproductive ways.

Its our job, as folks who pay attention to this stuff, to try and find productive, actionable solutions to losing.

Blame-storming isn’t productive.

How do we get more people to participate, to balance against GOP strongholds who have a culture of participation? That’s the question we need to be asking.

How do we find the voters, who push (D) every time in November, but don’t show up in August to show up? That’s the pathway to success.

Blaming one group or another isn’t productive. It’s a diversion that brings division and more losses in the future.

We can choose to ask ourselves these questions, and learn from the past two cycles (2010 and 2014) or we can keep doing what we’ve been doing…at our own peril.

We have an opportunity to learn and grow from this, if we will only accept it.

I hope we’ll choose to grow, instead of turning on each other and continuing to decline.

Aug 09 2014

Groundhog Day for Shelby County Democrats

Posted by Steve Ross in elections
Bryan Carson talks to Fox13 about the night's losses

Bryan Carson talks to Fox13 about the night’s losses

Thursday night’s election results are disappointing in a lot of ways. But they should also serve as a wakeup call…much like they did in 2010.

We had some candidates that were a drag on the ticket. Many candidates didn’t run effective (or any campaigns). Most didn’t raise enough money to be effective (or in some cases, relevant).

I tend to agree with the following statement Congressman Cohen made to Fox13:

“Some of our candidates made mistakes,” the congressman said,. “Our attorney general candidate Joe Brown had no business bringing up any personal issues with Amy Weirich and that turned a lot of people off. The Democrats in general and Ms. (Henri) Brooks’ problems turned people off too. Those two things I think cost Tarik Sugarmon, Ms. Banks, Mr. Chism and Ms. Halbert their jobs.”

But one group that’s not responsible for the losses are voters…contrary to what SCDP Chairman Bryan Carson said to WREG:

Bryan Carson is drawing a line in the sand. He’s got a message for those who call themselves Democrats and voted for Republican candidates running for Shelby County offices.

“I wish those Democrats would go ahead and just sign up and be Republicans. Go ahead and join the party because we don’t need you. You don’t support us,” said Carson.

Carson says he’s hurt by the outcome of this election. About 20 percent of the Democrats who voted cast ballots for Republicans running for county office.

Crisis of Competence and Confidence

As I said in this Facebook post, this is one of the dumbest statements after an election that a Chair could make.

If voters don’t like your candidates, you should examine why instead of blaming the voters.

Let’s see:

Two candidates arrested for being stupid.
Those same two candidates said enough stupid to fill a set of encyclopedias of stupid.
The one candidate at the top of the ticket who projected competence (Deidre Malone) got tagged with the incompetence of the other two.
News cycle after news cycle was lost to these two doing stupid stuff…news cycles that could have been about issues absent their indiscretions.

Much of the bottom of the ticket did nothing, raised nothing, ran no campaign.

There was one bright spot. Look at Cheyenne…we need more Cheyenne’s.

She’s competent. She keeps her nose down. She doesn’t say dumb things. She does her job well and happily, without grandstanding.

We need a truckload of folks like Cheyenne.

Party Failures

The Shelby County Democratic Party didn’t do itself any favors.

According to state disclosures (I didn’t see the most recent pre-eletion disclosure listed), the party never had more than $16,000 on hand throughout the election cycle, despite having several large events that combined should have brought in tens of thousands of dollars.

In addition, the party spent more time with intra-party struggles than with building a volunteer base, or getting its message out to voters.

This has been a consistent problem with the party structure.

The Executive Committee isn’t the party…they’re representatives of folks who call themselves Democrats.

The Chair isn’t the party…the chair is the representative of the Executive Committee to the public.

People who pull Democratic primary ballots are the party. Both of the above groups are accountable to people who call themselves Democrats…and should be held accountable by them.

That’s been forgotten.

What’s being built?

This is the question local Democrats need to be asking themselves. You need look no further than our partisan opponents to see what building looks like. The TNGOP has embarked on a massive training campaign, we have nothing equivalent.

Not all of this falls on the local party. Both the local and state party shoulder some of the blame for not developing candidates.

But damn. The biggest damn Democratic party organization in the state can’t get their shit together enough to put on some training? We can’t get it together enough to train up volunteers, operatives, and candidates to help propel us to victory?

That’s the problem, not crossover voters. Voters react to the choices before them. If those choices are bad, or look crazy, they won’t vote for them…period.

Even before the data is out, I’m willing to wager that Cheyenne got some GOP crossover. Why? Because she exudes competence.

Ed Stanton Jr. did the same in 2012.

That’s the lesson, not purity tests.


Its easy to blame storm…and I’m not trying to do that in this post. But Chairman Carson’s statement is out of line.

Confidence of competence wins elections…not the “consonant” behind the person’s name.

Building a bench of competent, consistent campaigners, operatives and candidates is the task of the party.

There’s four years to do this, and we already know which seats we need to be targeting.

Hopefully, the party will choose to stop his own blame storm and start working on building something positive.

Election Coverage

A Déjà Vu Election: Cohen Breezes, GOP Repeats Countywide Romp of Four Years Ago, and Appellate Judges Hang On

Democratic Divide Widens in Election Results

Kyle Veazey On Politics: A day after, going deeper into Thursday’s results

Shelby County Democratic Party Looks To Rebuild Following Losses

Aug 07 2014

Go Vote!

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Just Do It!

Just Do It!

I know I’m a little late. Had some blog related issues to deal with.

Go vote in the Shelby County elections!

Polls are open from 7am to 7pm today, Thursday, August 7th.

Don’t forget to take a photo ID!

Here’s a list of approved ID’s.

Not sure who’s on the ballot? Here’s a sample ballot.

Not sure where to vote? Click here to find out.

Seriously people. No excuses. If you don’t vote, you can still complain…but no one will take you seriously.

Take some time and be a part of shaping tomorrow’s County leadership.

(And vote in the state/federal primary while you’re there)

Jul 09 2014

Playing to his base

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County

The suburbs get a tax break this big...the city? Well, about that...

The suburbs get a tax break this big…the city? Well, about that…

Every once in a while someone does something that makes you wonder if they think you’re stupid.

You’ve probably felt what I’m talking about a time or two.

They give you that look.

They slight you in some way.

Or they sell you on a tax cut in an election year, to hide the fact that they gave someone else an even BIGGER, and unjustified tax cut.

If you left Monday’s Shelby County Commission meeting with that taste in your mouth, there’s a good reason…that’s exactly what happened.

Bad Taste in your mouth

In setting the County’s tax rate Monday, the Shelby County Commission gave a 5-cent tax cut to everyone outside of Memphis, and a 1-cent tax cut to people inside Memphis.

How’d they do that? They got rid of a 4-cent rural school bond passed years ago for the construction of Arlington High school.

The bond was only paid by residents in the former Shelby County School District because they got a school out of the deal. Tennessee’s ‘rural school bond’ law, allows a County to issue bonds, set to be paid by a specific group of people for a school, without matching funds for the other schools in that county. So for years, folks outside Memphis have been paying this additional 4-cents for the bond that paid for the construction of Arlington High.

Well, now that the old Shelby County Schools are no more, and only Arlington and Lakeland are using the Arlington High School, folks out in the ‘burbs don’t wanna pay that extra 4-cents for a school that’s not part of their district. And for Arlington and Lakeland to raise enough money to pay the four something million bucks of debt service would have meant raising their County tax rate something ridiculous, and that just doesn’t play in an election year.

So instead Mayor Luttrell,led by Harvey Kennedy talked some hapless County Commissioners into turning their backs on their constituents, to vote for a bigger tax cut for folks they don’t represent.

Fun times huh?


Do they really represent Memphians?

Do they really represent Memphians?

In all, four of the seven votes for this tax ordinance came from folks whose districts primarily represent the City of Memphis.

They are: Heidi Shafer, Steve Basar, James Harvey, and Justin Ford…who you may remember also has a residency question, that apparently no one is interested in pursuing at this point (maybe I’ll file a complaint with the District Attorney General).

These four think its just fine for Memphis to carry the load for the ‘burbs…which is what voting for this tax rate did…while getting nothing in return but more tax incentives for sprawl and the continued hollowing out of the city core.

Apparently, in Memphis, that’s the way we ‘represent’ Memphis. Way to be, folks.

But to add insult to injury, these four didn’t vote for adding in the matching funds that would have come with new construction to the newly constituted Shelby County Schools. Nope. They just ignored that completely, even as the School district has tens of millions of dollars of deferred maintenance for their buildings.

Way to put education first guys.

Playing the Game

Dance with those who brung ya

Dance with those who brung ya

But as bad as these four are, Mayor Luttrell’s assertion that they just want to “normalize” the tax rate is a slap in the face to Memphis.

Of course, Luttrell’s electoral base isn’t really in Memphis, as the map to the right shows. In fact, its out east and north…the burbs.

So what Mayor Luttrell has done is he’s bought Millington, Bartlett, Arlington, Lakeland, Germantown and Collierville a tax cut at the expense of Memphis.

That’s what I call taking care of your own.

What’s more, this goes against some of Mayor Luttrell’s own policies. His website talks about smart growth, but in fact, “normalizing” the tax rate…which really means taking people off the hook who were happy to pay a little bit more before, does nothing to encourage ‘smart growth’. If anything, it encourages sprawl.

But Mayor Luttrell isn’t really interested in the kind of redevelopment and revitalization of the inner core of the city that most ‘smart growth’ advocates long for. His administration hemmed and hawed at a plan to make tax dead properties productive again.

This was something that passed unanimously on the Memphis City Council, but on the County side, anything that benefits Memphis, even if it also benefits the County coffers, is looked upon with scorn.

That’s really ‘smart’ if you ask me. /sarcasm


Its a month before an election, and it would be silly not to expect election year politics to enter into issues like the budget and the tax rate. But I don’t think anyone expected that Mayor Luttrell, a guy who went out of his way to court Memphis moderates in 2010, would do something so brazenly against their interests.

Sure, most of his administration he’s been able to rest on his ‘nice guy’ persona…and there’s no doubt, every time I’ve had the opportunity to meet the guy, he seems genuinely nice. But ‘nice guy’ doesn’t equal ‘working in your best interest’.

That’s the primary problem I have with this policy, it helps one group literally at the expense of another.

That hardly seems like something a ‘nice guy’ would do, but it’s definitely something a guy who’s well versed in hard nosed pandering to your base would do.

Jul 06 2014

Defining the Residency Process

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Shelby County, shenanigans
County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk - via her Facebook Page

County Commissioner Henri Brooks filing her petition for Juvenile Court Clerk – via her Facebook Page

On Monday, the effort to determine if County Commissioner Henri Brooks does indeed live in her district will come before the County Commission again.

This time will be different, as the Commission will have to begin the process anew in the wake of a completely expected and predictable ruling by Chancellor Kenny Armstrong.

Reports of the ruling (which can be found here, here, here, and here) say Chancellor Armstrong gave Brooks the injunctive relief she was looking for (effectively stopping the current effort to declare her seat vacant), and call for the Commission to set up some kind of trier of fact (either the Commission itself, a designee, or a court) to: 1. Determine where Brooks actually lives, and then 2. Determine if the seat is, in fact, vacant…before going on to seek to fill the vacancy.

One of the problems of this whole affair is that the Commission relied on Administration policy to determine residency, believing that Commissioners should be treated as normal employees hired through the HR process.

But this is not the case. HR only handles paperwork for the purposes of payroll and other basic employee issues, not the hiring process. That duty falls to the voters, which is one reason this administrative investigation didn’t pass muster.

The other, of course is that the investigation didn’t actually determine where Brooks lived, which is problematic.

A third problem is that the investigation was treated as fait accompli instead of something that should be seen as the plaintiffs evidence, up for cross examination, and contestable by countering defense evidence…which would also be crossable by the County Attorney, some other plaintiff attorney, or even the Commission. Then, with the Commission acting as a tribunal…as set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-48-106, they could rule one way or another based on the facts presented.

Making the Rules Stick

One thing that we’ve learned from this affair, is the Commission (and likely all other elected officers) cannot fall under common employee standards or rules as set forth in County HR policy. The Commission has the power to set its own rules for dealing with issues relating to qualifications of its members…not the administration or any other administrative function.

This is a simple separation of powers issue.

So, the Commission must adopt a process by which these issues are to be dealt with, and pass it by a majority to avoid these complications in the future.

This could be done by amending the Permanent Rules of Order (which I could not find online by the way), or ordinance (either three readings or by vote of the electorate).

Regardless of how its done, standards must be put in place detailing due process (evidentiary rules, burden of proof, and the appropriate venue (who will be the trier of fact…either the Commission, or some external body designated by the Commission)).

Ultimately, the Commission itself would have to act on the recommendation of any external organ, which the Commission regularly does anyway.

The long and the short of it is, this isn’t complicated. This is the way legislative branches of local governments work anyway. It should be the way they work for the purposes of residency or even other membership qualifications as well.

And even though this process may be set up by ordinance or an amendment to the Permanent rules, it would still be up for Judicial Review, because that’s how things work in the good ole U.S. of A.

Starting Over

So the Commission will have to start this whole thing over on Monday. By the time they actually act on it, the issue will likely be moot.

The last Commission meeting before the next term is August 18th. Any action after that point would have no tangible effect other than making a show of it, and any action before that point will probably end up back in court unless the aforementioned rules are in place.

Also, Commissioner Brooks will be able to vote any rules going forward, because regardless of how you feel about her, people are still innocent until proven guilty in this country (though you’d be hard pressed to know that’s the case far too often), meaning Brooks could seek to gum up the works or amend the standards in such a way that is beneficial to her if she wanted to.

In any case, the incoming Commission, which will take office in early September, should seek to quickly address this issue and make rules for itself that would establish an internal administrative and final judgement process to clarify the boundaries of the issue. This would hamper frivolous charges from being brought based on personal or political vendetta, and make it simple for people to understand what was kosher and what wasn’t.

This process may already be set forth in the Permanent Rules, but if it is, and the Commission followed it up to this point, it doesn’t pass muster in the eyes of the Court.


Residency may seem like a simple issue, but as with so many things that revolve around the legislative branch of any division of government, it can get complicated quickly.

This is because legislators are loathe to make rules for themselves, and often set up easy outs in the rules, which makes them about as rock solid as swiss cheese.

Of course, we all expect people to be honest and forthright…especially if they are serving in public office. We’re not surprised when it doesn’t happen, or we perceive that it hasn’t happened.

Ultimately, until the rules for dealing with residency questions are defined for elective office the issue will continue to end up in court. Hopefully, the proposal Commissioner Ritz presents on Monday will set up a process that both meets the needs of the Commission for dealing with questions of residency qualifications for elective office, and addresses the due process concerns already ruled on by the court.

That’s the only way to get to an end game in this controversy…and even still, it may be that the Commission has enough bigger fish to fry that the issue rolls over to the next term.