Except for the most hidebound partisans, it’s hard to deny that all the dire predictions about the impact of partisan elections in Shelby County mayor and commissioners’ races have come to pass.

For more than two weeks, the work of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners was shut down because one Republican commissioner, Steve Basar, had committed the unpardonable sin of voting with the Democratic commissioners to contravene the committee appointments by new Chairman Justin Ford, a Democrat who committed the unpardonable sin of getting elected with Republican votes.

Media focus of course focused on the personality conflicts, the he-said, she-said aspects of the debate; and the partisan attacks that rained down on him, including those on Mr. Basar at a meeting of the Shelby County Republican Party, and similar outcry against Mr. Ford for the audacity of walking across the line that has been produced from the deep party divide that is now county government.

All in all, it was a sad – if not merely ridiculous – situation.

Progressive Reform

The partisan elections that were ushered in about 15 years ago by Republican Party activists have now taken their ultimate toll on Shelby County Government.  Compromise has traditionally been the grease that oils the machinery of government at all levels, but sadly, these days, it seems that every decision or action is viewed through the lens of partisan political benefit, and as a result, compromise is treated as the Ebola virus of legislative decision-making.

As a result, the Shelby County Board of Commissioners most simulates the overall behavior and effectiveness of the U.S. Congress.  Its meetings are regularly disrupted by the taunts and off-the-wall, personal rants of Commissioner Terry Roland, ugly comments on all things Republican by Commissioner Henri Brooks, and regular outbursts by others of Democratic and Republican Party vitriol on almost any item on the agenda.

Rather than pull our community together behind an actionable plan toward a better future, commissioners divide into political packs to fight over the political carrion from too many arguments.  Rather than serve as models of civility in a community where we yell at each other too much already, they exacerbate the spitefulness and pettiness that obscures serious, mature dialogue.  Rather than see their roles as eliminating the ugly divides that exist in our community, they put their own political points first and the good of the entire community a distant second.

It is a tragic state of affairs for a once proud government and its legislative body.  The days when commissioners could set aside the most thorny issues – think race and class – to come together for projects and plans to move the community ahead seem like distant memories.

Institutionalizing the Racial Divide

The decision to inject partisanship into a process that was succeeding from all appearances was the most gratuitous and purely political decision of modern Shelby County political history.  It is ironic but true that before there were partisan elections, everyone knew which commissioners were Democrats and which were Republicans, but because they did not have to declare their party allegiance and adhere to it on every vote, it was secondary to forming coalitions to pass their agendas.

As a result, the debate and discussion were free from political attacks or orthodoxy, and majority votes were assembled by all sorts of unexpected alliances.  This is not to say that members were not passionate about specific issues.  Vasco Smith could deliver a stemwinder about the need for safety net programs, Jesse Turner would never lose sight of his insistence on budgetary discipline, Charlie Perkins would never lose sight of the gulf he tried to transcend between suburban and urban issues, John Maxwell never refused to support good ideas because of ideological concerns, and overall, there was a steady, conscientious focus on the importance of their roles in shaping the future of the community.

Faced with the growing Democratic base, the Republican Party made the calculated decision to institute a primary.  Democrats at first refused to follow, but its leaders inevitably decided they had to choice but to follow.  At the time, the head of the Republican Party was a plastic surgeon, and we believe we have been proven right from our comment at the time that “even a plastic surgeon can’t put a pretty face on partisan local elections.”

At the time, others warned that partisan elections would institutionalize the divisions, particularly the racial ones, that existed in this community and complicate the job of good governance.  The evidence is conclusive in the extreme that they were right.

Blame To Go Around

Today, most of the time, the color of their skin determines who commissioners will stand with on an issue rather than the merits of the question.  That’s because now every issue is treated as a partisan litmus test and an exercise in party purity, and a Democrat voting with Republicans, or vice versa, is denounced in the starkest of terms as traitors to their party and turncoats in the battle for party supremacy.

Those who would see the virtues of the argument by the other side are treated as lepers and subjected to inquisitions about their fitness for office, their character, and their principles.  We think of former Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, an elected official known for his thoughtfulness and for his willingness to listen to all sides of an argument, and yet, he was ostracized and threatened with petitions to remove him from office.  The grievance: he voted with Democrats on some important decisions.

Then again, Democratic Party leaders are hardly blameless.  They proposed a censure for Commissioner Sidney Chism, perhaps the most to the bone Democrat in Memphis, and Commissioner James Harvey, who was elected chairman similarly to Commissioner Ford this year, with Republican Party backing and like Ford appointed Commissioner Heidi Shafer as chair of the budget committee (and got his own censure motion from the Democratic Party).

Nonpartisan ballots were one of the products of the Progressive reforms introduced around the turn of the century by good government advocates in cities across the U.S.  In Memphis elections, it remains the process of choice as it does for two-thirds of the largest 30 cities in the U.S., including City of Memphis.   For that matter, most county elections are nonpartisan as well.

No Risk Strategy

The intent of the movement for nonpartisan elections was to encourage voters to examine the facts and to gather information about a candidate rather than casting a vote based only on party cues.  Such was the reaction to the party bosses that sprang up in cities across the U.S., including Memphis.  Interestingly, while it is is the Republican Party campaigning for nonpartisan elections in many places today, and while the party seems intent to push more partisanship into local government with programs like its “Red To The Roots” campaign to turn local governments into bastion of conservative elected officials, here, they are the creators of our current partisan system, and as long as they believe it serves their narrow interests, we presume they will continue to support it.

However, there’s little question that in the county elections today, the Republican Party is boxing above its weight.  It continues to win almost all the major county offices, but even a political idiot can see that it is not sustainable because of current Democratic Party numbers and demographic trend lines in its favor.

While we fear that Pandora is out of the box, and even if we returned to the days of nonpartisan county elections, there would be an overlay of political partisanship that did not exist before, here’s the thing: There is no risk factor at all now because the risk for partisanship is 100%.

The culture will not change without changes in the election process.  Until then, we will continue to have the shameful spectacles of a commissioner like Mr. Basar being treated like a misbehaving child rather than someone with philosophical differences from his colleagues and a commissioner like Mr. Ford being accused of skullduggery for putting seven votes together for the chairman’s job.

A change can only improve things and provide county voters with the hope for the brand of leadership they deserve.  And while we’re at it, we could show real leadership in creating a process under which a nonpartisan, nonpolitical committee develops the boundaries for the commissioners’ districts rather than politicians carving up the county for their own benefits.

Now, that would truly be the beginning of a new day.