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Shelby Co. Voters Guide: Senate Districts 29 and 30

October 20, 2014

This is the third in a series of articles about key races and issues in the November 4, 2014 election. Back in River City is covering the four constitutional amendments, Memphis municipal ordinance #5512, and three key races. Early voting has already begun, and continues until October 30. A sample ballot can be found here.

Of the four Tennessee Senate races on the ballot, the incumbents in Senatorial Districts 31 (Republican Brian Kelsey) and 33 (Democrat Reginald Tate) are uncontested.

The candidates for Tennessee Senate Districts 29 and 30 are starkly different in their backgrounds, experience, political ideology, stated platforms, and abilities to elevate Memphis’ standing in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Tennessee Senatorial District 29

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Ophelia Ford. Image credit: Commercial Appeal

For the first time in nearly 40 years, come January, a member of the Ford political dynasty will no longer represent Memphis in Senate District 29. In 2005, John Ford resigned from the seat he held for 31 years, facing indictment on federal bribery charges in the FBI sting Operation Tennessee Waltz. John Ford’s younger sister, Ophelia Ford, ran to fill the seat, winning by a suspect 13 votes over Republican Terry Roland. When numerous voting improprieties were found (implicating poll workers but not Ms. Ford), the Tennessee Senate voided the election. Ms. Ford filed federal suit and was awarded the seat. According to Wikipedia, her term of office was characterized by “outrageous opinions.” In 2007, she was accused of drunken assault by a Nashville cab driver.

District 29 includes portions of both North and South Memphis, including Republican-dominated Millington and Democrat-dominated Whitehaven; parts of Frayser, Uptown, Mud Island, and parts of Downtown. In the last legislative session, District 29 was one of only seven seats filled by Democrats in the 33-district Tennessee Senate.

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The candidates to replace Ms Ford are Democrat Lee Harris and Republican Jim Finney.

Lee Harris is a Memphis City Councilman and FedEx professor at the University of Memphis School of Law. Councilman Harris easily defeated Ms. Ford and two other challengers in August’s Democrat Party primary, winning 42% of the vote to Ricky Dixon’s 28% and Ms Ford’s 27%. Herman Sawyer was a non-player with two percent of the votes. (Total vote count was 24,766.)

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Councilman Lee Harris

Councilman Harris is a native Memphian and product of Memphis City Schools. After graduating from Overton High School, he attended Morehouse College on full scholarship, graduating in 2000. After earning his law degree from Yale in 2003, he became an associate at the highly respected Memphis law firm Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz. That same year, he began teaching at Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, where he was granted tenure in 2009. He currently holds the endowed FedEx Professorship of Law.

Councilman Harris was elected to the Memphis City Council in 2011. As Councilman, Lee Harris has concentrated his efforts on improving parks, neighborhoods, and public safety. According to his campaign website, Councilman Harris was a “leader in the fight” for the 2012 city ordinance protecting workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He currently chairs the Council’s budget committee.

Councilman Harris’ honors and awards include being named 2013 Public Official of the Year Award by the Association of Social Workers, West Tennessee and Man of Excellence by the Tri-State Defender. He was awarded the Victorian Village Historic Preservation Award in 2012, and was one of three Tennessee elected officials named by the NewDEAL national network as a New Deal Leader and pro-growth progressive. He is endorsed by several current and former leaders of the Shelby Co. Democratic Party, Memphis City Council colleagues Myron Lowery, Jim Strickland, and Harold Collins; Communications Workers of America; and Roby Williams, president of the Black Business Association of Memphis.

Councilman Harris has been actively engaged in community and civic organizations including the Frayser Exchange Club, Urban Arts Commission and the Goodwill Homes Community Services Agency. His wife, Alena Allen, is an associate law professor at the University of Memphis. The couple have two young children.

Unlike his opponent Jim Finney, Councilman Harris does not state his platform or key issues on his campaign website. In a rather astonishing error (or overstatement of confidence), Councilman Harris’ Wikipedia page states, “In 2014 he was elected to the Tennessee Senate replacing Ophelia Ford.”

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Jim and Virginia Finney

Longtime Memphian James R. “Jim” Finney is Councilman Harris’ Republican challenger. Mr. Finney trounced Anthony D. Herron, Jr. in the August 2014 Republican Primary with 82% of the vote (3,793 cast).

Mr. Finney is a retired Naval Chief Petty Officer, entrepreneur and small business owner. A native of Massachusetts, he spent 24 years in active service to the U.S. Navy. He was stationed in Millington when he retired from Naval duty in 1979. Mr. Finney holds business degrees from State Technical Institute (now Southwest Tennessee Community College) and the University of Memphis. Prior to founding Metro Legal Process, Inc. in 1995, Mr. Finney was an associate real estate broker and investor in Shelby County and surrounding areas.

A graduate of the Memphis Police Department’s Citizens’ Police Academy, Mr. Finney is also a Goodwill Police Ambassador with the South Precinct. He is rated 86% by the National Rifle Association Political Victory Fund. His professional memberships include the National Federation of Independent Business, Memphis Bar Association (ADR section), and both the Tennessee and National Associations of Professional Process Servers. He is President of St. Vincent DePaul IC Conference, an organization dedicated to serving the poor and suffering through one-on-one assistance; a 4th Degree Knights of Columbus; and a member of Immaculate Conception Church. His wife, Virginia Miles Finney, is a native Memphian. They have eight children, eight grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

Jim Finney’s platform is stated on his campaign website:

  • Will advocate for a retirement home for veterans of West Tennessee
  • Will hold quarterly Town Hall meetings
  • Will advocate to bring Industry to Shelby County
  • Will advocate for improved educational opportunities
  • Will be all-inclusive to the people of District 29

 Senate District 30

District 30 was held by Jim Kyle from 1983 until August 2014, when he won the race for Chancellor for Chancery Part 2 of Tennessee’s 30th Judicial District. Two years of his term remained when he decided to run for judicial office. Judge Kyle did not resign from his senatorial office until his election to Chancery Court, preventing prospective candidates from filing for the office and following standard election procedures. State law required Shelby County’s Republican and Democrat Parties to each select a nominee to be placed on the November 4th ballot.

Shelby Co. Democratics chose Judge Kyle’s popular and politically astute wife Sara Kyle to run for the remainder of his term. The Republican Party nominated familiar candidate Dr. George Flinn, who was defeated by Sen. Lamar Alexander in Tennessee’s August 2014 Republican primary race for U.S. Senate.

District 30 is a classic case of gerrymandering. It includes parts of Frayser, Raleigh, Evergreen-Vollentine, part of Cooper-Young (Cooper is dividing line between Districts 29 and 30), a bit of Downtown (along Danny Thomas), and a long finger reaching into a sliver of East Memphis past 240 to include Jim and Sara Kyle’s home in Kirby Woods. See Map

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Sara Kyle. Image source: Facebook

Attorney Sara Kyle was nominated for the Tennessee Regulatory Authority (TRA) by legendary Democratic political leader and Speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives Jimmy Naifeh in 1996. She continued to serve until March, 2013, a year before her third six-year term would expire. Mrs. Kyle resigned in protest of cost-cutting actions by Gov. Haslam and the Tennessee General Assembly that replaced TRA’s full-time, four-member board with a panel of five part-time members and an executive director. Prior to her TRA service, Mrs. Kyle was a public defender and was elected Memphis City Court Judge in 1991, serving three years before she resigned to become a candidate for the TRA (then called the Public Service Commission).

Mrs. Kyle was born in upper East Tennessee. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Austin Peay State University and was an elementary school teacher before earning a law degree from Nashville School of Law. She is a member of one of Tennessee’s most famous political families, the niece of former Governor Frank Clement and former state senator Annabelle Clement O’Brien.

In accepting the nomination of the Shelby Co. Democrat Party, Mrs. Kyle outlined a simple campaign platform. “The very first thing I want to do is beat the Republican,” she said, followed by “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

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Dr. George Flinn

Native Memphian George Flinn, M.D. is a well known radiologist and media mogul who has demonstrated persistence and  passion to serve his city and state in the political arena, often against long odds and using his own funds. Dr. Flinn ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Memphis in 2002 in a field of 25 candidates. He was elected to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners in 2004 and served until 2010, when he attempted to unseat Eighth District Congressman Steve Fincher. Two years later he ran against Rep. Steve Cohen in the Ninth Congressional District. Earlier this year, Dr. Flinn ran for U.S. Senate against Sen. Lamar Alexander, losing to Sen. Alexander in August’s Republican Primary. The following month, he was named to represent  Shelby County Republicans in the Tennessee Senate race for District 30.

Dr. Flinn was born in Memphis and attended both Central and East High Schools. He earned his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at the University of Mississippi and a medical degree in radiology at the University of Tennessee. He received a presidential appointment to serve at the U.S. Public Health Service.  In his early days as an electrical engineer, Dr. Flinn did research on x-rays emitted from the cathode ray tubes in television sets. That interest expanded to the medical application of  radio waves and radiology and his pursuit of a medical degree in radiology.  Dr. Flinn participated in the development of color ultrasound imaging, and currently holds several patents related to ultrasound technology. Upon returning to Memphis, Dr. Flinn opened several outpatient radiology clinics and pioneered the use of teleradiology in the area.  He later invested in broadcast media. Flinn Broadcasting Corporation currently holds more than 40 radio and television stations.

Dr. Flinn’s Congressional campaign in 2012 focused on jobs, controlling government spending, and “common sense” healthcare solutions. He made his “patient-centered” health care plan, an alternative to Obamacare, the focal point of his U.S. Senate race earlier this year. He also came out against Common Core.

left right blue redDr. Flinn’s values are as reliably traditional as Sara Kyle’s are progressive. The choice between the candidates would seem to be clear cut, depending on your own views. Regardless of your ideological bent or party affiliation, however, there is more to think about in this election.

Tennessee’s Senate has 33 members. At the end of the last legislative session, its makeup was 26 Republicans, six Democrats, and one vacancy. Eighteen Senate seats will be filled in this election. Of those, ten incumbents are unopposed (one Democrat and nine Republicans).  Four Democrat incumbents chose not to run for reelection. If every Democrat running for Tennessee Senate won, the 33-seat chamber would comprise no more than 10 Democrats.

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Image credit: AP photo/Eric Schelzig

The Tennessee House is similarly dominated  by Republicans. All 99 seats are up for reelection, with 44 Republicans and 15 Democrats unopposed. Ballotpedia ranks only 10 of the 59 challenged races as even mildly competitive. If all ten of those races were won by Democrats, the party would still lose two seats, for a 74-25 split.

What does this mean for Memphis? It means that, like it or not, the extended era (roughly 175 years) of Democratic rule in Tennessee politics is over for the foreseeable future. We are deeply entrenched in a cycle of conservatism, a backlash against the liberal policies that drove Tennessee to its lowest ranking for State Quality of Life (SQOL) in 2004 (40th of 50 states, according to Ballotpedia). Tennessee’s latest SQOL Ballotpedia ranking (2012, when Republicans held the governorship and the majority of both legislative chambers) was 21st among 50.

Memphis is in critical need of help from state government, and for some years has been considered by the majority of the Tennessee General Assembly as something between a wayward stepchild and a toxic waste dump. As long as Republicans hold the reins of power in Nashville, sending Democrat representatives to the TGA is arguably an exercise in futility, unless those Democrats have exceedingly strong bi-partisan ties and the ability to gain the ears of Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Politician Sara Kyle, Ms. “My-Top-Priority-Is-Beating-the-Republican-in-This-Race,” is unlikely to win influence and votes for Memphis on the Hill in Nashville.  Lee Harris is well thought of as an up-and-comer in Memphis politics, but his brand of Democrat Party progressivism will not be equally effective in Nashville.  Jim Finney and Dr. George Flinn are stalwart conservatives who have demonstrated their love for Memphis and its people. They can use the next four years to earn Memphis greater support among our state legislators, and exercise real influence in decisions affecting our city’s future.

We urge voters in Districts 29 and 30 to vote for the candidate who can do the best job for our city and the state. We believe those candidates are Jim Finney and Dr. George Flinn. Even if you are a Democrat or independent who normally leans left and votes for Democrats, consider whether that makes sense in the current environment.

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