The shellacking that local Democrats absorbed from Republicans in the August 2010 general election – a loss of every countywide seat – is still a fresh memory for attorney and former state legislator Carol Chumney.
Now, Chumney has watchful eyes on May's Shelby County primary and the August state and federal primaries and county elections. She contends that Democrats have come up short in recent elections in part because of the troubling practice of elected Democrats who have endorsed Republicans or cozied up to them for photo-ops.
Although the Republican 2010 sweep was marked in controversy over an election-day glitch followed by a Chancery Court lawsuit, it jumpstarted Chumney's quest to end the support of elected Democrats for Republicans.
"If everybody sticks together ... we'll win more elections locally and on the state level," said Chumney, basing her argument in part on her 2012 loss to District Attorney General Amy Weirich, a Republican.
Democrats who crossed over in that race included city councilmen Jim Strickland, a former chair of the Shelby County Democratic Party; Shea Flinn, a former Democratic state senator; former party chairman Mike Cody; and Harold Collins, the council chairman in 2010.
Flinn said he chose experience over party loyalty.
"Amy has more experience than Carol," said Flinn, pointing to Weirich's 21 years prosecuting criminals. "Party loyalty and political philosophy are important ingredients, but it comes down to the person. It's more important than the letter by a person's name."
In campaign literature supporting Weirich in the race, Strickland held the same belief as Flinn that Weirich was more qualified for the job than Chumney.
"Because you won your party's nomination doesn't make you qualified to be the district attorney," he said. "Protecting Memphis from crime is much more important than party loyalty."
A private citizen or ex-official can endorse whomever they want, said Chumney, stressing, however, that the practice of Democratic leaders not supporting the ticket is an ethical breach.
"If you're elected on the Democratic ticket, you shouldn't use your Democratic credentials to elect a Republican," she said. "It's disrespectful, goes contrary to our core Democratic principles and costs us elections."
She pointed a finger at Congressman Steve Cohen, saying he indirectly supported Weirich at a news conference when he reportedly said, "Amy is more qualified than Carol." Chumney said voters might have interpreted that statement to be an endorsement.
Cohen rejects that assertion.
"I did not support or endorse Ms. Weirich and am baffled by Carol's implication," Cohen said. "I have supported Democrats when it was not politically advantageous to me but when it was the right thing to do."
Cohen was 21 years old when he won the Democratic nomination for state representative in deeply Republican East Memphis in 1970. He emphatically said he has consistently supported Democrats and has never endorsed a Republican.
"As the senior Democratic elected official in the state, I'll put my Democratic credentials up against anyone in Tennessee," said Cohen, noting that he was the first elected official in Memphis to support two African-American candidates – Myron Lowery and Kenneth T. Whalum Sr. – for city council against white incumbents.
If elected Democrats continue to support Republicans, Chumney said there should be consequences. Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Bryan Carson agrees.
"It's disheartening. If you are a staunch Democrat you should support Democrats," he said. "They cannot continue to support the Republican nominee over the Democratic nominee."
Carson said Democrats who continue this practice could be censured by the local party and face additional censure at the state level. He also said the defector may not be able to run as a bona fide Democrat in future elections.
He cited as an example the censure of Shelby County Commission Chairman James Harvey, who named Republican commissioner Heidi Shafer as chair of the Commission's budget committee in September. The decision drew the ire of Javier Bailey, a member of both the local Democratic committee and state Democratic committee. Bailey filed the local censure motion and another one in Nashville.
Republicans have crossed party lines. In the sheriff's race in 2010, for example, Randy Wade, the Democratic nominee, lost to Bill Oldham but gained the support of conservative Republicans such as John Harvey, an information technology expert with the Memphis Police Department and former deputy sheriff.
Shelby County Republican Party Chairman Justin Joy, however, said he is not aware of elected Republicans supporting Democrats. Asked why would Democrats support Republicans, he said, "Republicans have a proven track record of being good stewards of limited resources that are available in Shelby County. Those things transcend party labels."
O.C. Pleasant Jr., who served as chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission from 1979 to 2003, said local Democrats and Republicans have always supported each other to some degree, including politicians from both parties.
"It happens in both parties. It depends on the situation," said Pleasant. Recalling data from the 2010 election, he said Democrats in the August general election voted for Republicans and Republicans voted for Democrats."
Chumney said elected Democrats who support Republicans make the party look weak.
"The voters are really hurt by this practice. It also is a shot in the back when you're fighting somebody on your own team. It makes it difficult for our team to win in those highly contested races."
Pleasant cited two examples where Democrats won election to countywide seats with the help of Republicans: Cheyenne Johnson, the current Shelby County Assessor of Property, and the late Minerva Johnican, who was elected criminal court clerk in 1990.
In 1982, Johnican supported Republican gubernatorial candidate Lamar Alexander and Karen Williams, a Republican candidate for state representative. When Johnican ran for city council, Republicans returned the favor. The Democratic Executive Committee, however, did not take action.
"Do you think Cheyenne got elected with only Democratic votes?" asked Pleasant, though not certain if Johnson had received support from Republican leadership. "Some people feel like Republicans don't support blacks, but it's enough to get them elected."
Chumney acknowledges that what she views as an effort to address an impediment to the unity of the local Democratic party is likely viewed by some as her veiled attempt to return to office.
"I'm here as a servant," said Chumney, who served 13 years as a state representative and one term on the city council.
"When there's time for me to do something, God will open up the doors."