The Shelby County Democratic Party's Inaugural Roast presented Saturday (Sept. 28th) at the Colonial Country Club proved to be a bang up success, featuring a surprise turn at the mike by former Republican City Councilman Brent Taylor that "turned the joint out."
Honoring Dr. Willie W. Herenton, Taylor stole the show as one of more than a dozen Herenton colleagues and friends assembled for the night.
Or, as toastmaster Judge Joe Brown put it, "An elephant came up in here and kicked some donkey butt!"
Now being edited for public viewing soon on cable television, the Dems may need to consider putting Taylor's section out as a DVD single. As current party chairman Bryan Carson explains, they definitely need the money.
"We came up with the idea for the roast because we're going to remain in continuous fundraising mode in 2014," Carson said.
"We have to be able to provide resources to help our candidates engage the community for the 2014 primary and general elections. The primary is in May, the general election is in August, and there will be elections for state representatives and judges. The judges do not have a primary process, so the party may be supporting some of them after going through some kind of vetting process."
The roast also was designed to bring the Democratic Party leaders of the community together to express unity, said Carson.
"I believe that if we can bring the leaders together everyone else will follow. If the people see us arguing and in disagreement, they aren't going to want to support the process and that disenfranchises so much of what we could accomplish. If we can show that we are working together, we can influence the people of Shelby County to come out and vote."
A conversation outside the room perfectly illustrated what the local Democrats are facing. Grabbing a bit of fresh air out front as the toast moved into its second half, independent political strategist Liz Rincon and Democratic Party members London Lamar and Jonathan Donald, both 22, were discussing politics with seasoned politico Shep Wilbun.
"Look at (voting) numbers right now," Rincon said, "our city is 78 percent African American. Of that population, 47 percent are registered to vote. But in local primaries African-American turnout is between 9 to 21 percent. That's too low. What is the connection local leaders need to find?"
Lamar said it was about reaching a target audience.
"You have to motivate them. There's a disconnect in saying you want to get young people involved and actually getting them involved. If you can get them excited and connected, young people will go out and support anything they believe in."
Double ditto Donald added. "People feel like they aren't being heard. They need to feel that there is real attention being paid to what younger people care about."
And that, Lamar said, is jobs.
"I've graduated from St. Mary's College in Indiana and it seems like the jobs aren't being publicized and that's part of the problem why people look elsewhere for careers," she said. "Memphis will become more attractive to young people after post graduate education if we feel like we can find a job here."
Donald was asked what can be done to draw his peer group, young black males, to the polls?
"You have to make us feel like we're part of the process. What we really need is to come together in our own communities," he said. "We need unity in the community like it used to be in the old days."
Inside, as the roast continued, Herenton's former campaign strategist, Charles Carpenter, told some war stories. Sara Lewis entertained with a great story about putting a general from Sierra Leone to work sweeping an airplane hanger when working with Herenton. And then, like a scene straight out of blues singer Lattimore's hit song "Redneck In A Soul Band," Taylor's star turn took the night.
The backdrop was that Taylor and Herenton once had a very public policy disagreement, with Herenton objecting to Taylor's manner and saying that it seemed they should "step outside" to settle their differences. That earlier moment was shocking to the general public, but as the historic political figure recounts, it became a pivotal moment carrying a lesson Memphis could grow with.
Having truly enjoyed the night's roast, Herenton later said he was very happy to do it.
"It was an event for a good cause. The party needs support and I was glad to do it. And Brent (Taylor) really tore into me good! But there was a great lesson it (the earlier incident) illustrated as well. Brent and I started out crossways, but now we're real friends and he's one of my board members.
"It shows the possibilities if this city can ever get past the old feelings of the old south. Memphis is a tough city to bring about racial cohesiveness because many people still want to hold on to the animosities of the past."
State Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-86) had to take her glasses off she was laughing so hard when Taylor spoke.
"If we could just get people half this excited about the election," she sighed.