No organized Democratic Party here

Friday, February 17, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

There is no organized Democratic Party in Marshall County, according to a spokesman for the Tennessee Democratic Party who spoke Wednesday while referring to party records in Nashville.

"Out of 95 counties, 91 or 92 elected new county leadership. Marshall County is one of the three or four where we're looking for someone to carry the mantel," state party Communications Director Brandon Puttbrese said.

"We do have a lot of good Democrats," Puttbrese said, "but many of them are working hard to make ends meet for their families."

Every two years, political parties reorganize on the county level to select a county party chairman and other officers. Ultimately, it may not matter much.

Voters in primaries don't elect a nominee. They elect delegates to a national convention where party candidates are nominated.

Furthermore, a candidate for state office can file a petition to election commissioners asking to be named on the ballot.

And, barring some unforeseen development, there's no question who will be the Democrat running for president this year.

Local party leaders oversee the system of candidate delegate selection. It's true in both political parties. Voters casting ballots in a presidential primary are selecting delegates to their party's national convention. Delegates are pledged to support the candidates they represent. That system is revealed on ballots available now to early voters. Technically, people voting in the Republican primary aren't voting for a candidate. They're voting for a delegate who votes at the convention to nominate the party's candidate. It's why there are so many names on the GOP primary ballot March 6.

What's happened to the Marshall County Democratic Party is like what American humorist Will Rogers said, according to the state party spokesman.

"I am not a member of an organized political party," Rogers said. "I am a Democrat."

Still, the party here has people who area residents see as Democratic Party figures. Walter Bussart, senior partner in the Bussart Law Firm, headquartered on North Ellington Parkway, is one.

"It matters at any time to have organization of a party," he said in response to the fact that President Obama is the presumptive nominee for re-election. He's been among friends in Maury County "where they were talking about the same thing [and] said they'd never known Marshall County to not have a party.

"I'm sure we will get an organization going because Marshall has always maintained a Democratic presence, and it's important because of the new legislative district," he said of reapportionment that put parts of Lincoln, Franklin, and Marion counties and all of Marshall in one district.

"It's important, but we're all busy," Bussart said. "We will find somebody. It ebbs and flows. I remember years back the Republicans were in the same situation, and we're there (now).

"I'm hoping Grover (Collins, a former party chair here) and I can prod each other" to address the situation.

Chris Collins is the immediate past chairman of the Marshall County Party. He's also been a member of the Lewisburg Industrial Development Board. But, he's left his job as an assistant district attorney in the 17th Judicial District and is now working as a prosecutor in the district attorney's general office in Nashville.

"He moved to Nashville," Collins' father, Realtor Grover Collins, said Wednesday. "He's been gone."

Grover Collins was the county party chairman for 12 years, he said. Other party chairmen included Hale Hawkins, and Tommy Hawkins. Grover Collins said he's "too old" to return to the chairmanship.

Chris Collins called a reorganization meeting for the county party several months ago.

"He did it twice," Grover Collins said. "I showed up and he showed up. You can't have a meeting like that."

Cornersville Town Administrator Taylor Brandon "was chairman four or more years ago," he said Wednesday.

Brandon was asked if he knew the county Democratic Party had fallen out of existence.

"I don't doubt that at all," Brandon replied. "It probably hasn't been much of one for quite a while.

"I live in Williamson County. The last I knew, Chris was chair. But I don't know..."

Asked why there's no party organization or elected leaders here, Brandon replied, "From what I saw, you had a lot of elderly people attending the meetings and they may not have been able to attend.

As for younger membership, he said, "People's time is precious. There are other obligations and there's less participation in civic groups. People look at that Facebook page instead of going to a meeting.

"When I was in the party, I don't think there was more than $500 in the treasury, Brandon said.

Without a reorganization meeting and election, it might appear that Fred Haley is the former treasurer of the party, although when interviewed on the telephone, he spoke as if he's still the treasurer.

Haley is the proprietor of Marshall County Internet Service. He's a volunteer firefighter and a former county commissioner.

"I still am" treasurer, Haley said.

He named Chris Collins as the party chairman. Chris Collins has said that he's not the county party chairman.

"We hadn't had a meeting in a long time. I think the vice chair would be Matt Collins, or Quinn Brandon," Haley said, of former Lewisburg Councilman Quinn Brandon Stewart who decided against running for re-election as she and her husband are starting a family. Matt Collins is another son of Grover Collins, and he's been a county planning commissioner.

"We're going to have to have another meeting, but we just haven't done that," Haley said. "It takes three executive members to call that," Haley said, pointing out that he was speaking without the party's rulebook at hand.

"If there's no election going on, or nothing going on, then we don't have meetings," Haley said.

Told that Chris Collins called a second reorganization meeting, Haley replied, "I remember that meeting and it was advertised, and four of us showed up. Me, Grover, Chris and Quinn and that was not the majority of the board so you couldn't make a decision anyway. We didn't have enough to vote. As you say, we didn't have a quorum."

Why so few?

"I wish we knew," Haley replied, "but it gets a little better in election years."

This is an election year.

"Yes, well, I'm sure we will have some meetings. I don't know. I wish we had hundreds of people."

Attempts were made to obtain information, comment and/or insight from five other people who'd been mentioned as having been active in the Marshall County Democratic Party. Professional reasons, a busy business, or misinformation about their involvement in party politics appear to be why there was no greater insight before press time.

Puttbrese spoke of "a transitional issue in Marshall County... We've been looking for someone to pick up the banner and carry the flag."

The state party spokesman noted challenges like those mentioned by Brandon.

"As you know a lot of families have to work two jobs, let alone run a county party from the ground up," Puttbrese said. "In rural counties, it's particularly hard to find people with that ability."

And Marshall County, which has been seen as Democratic territory, has suffered from the recession. The unemployment rate here is just over 12 percent. It was greater than 20 percent - the highest in the state - a couple of years ago.

"It's hitting the working man's party harder than it's hitting Republicans," the state Democratic Party spokesman said.

Returning to the fact that Democrats here didn't tell the state party of new party officers, Puttbrese acknowledged Will Rogers' quip.

"There's a greater truth to Will Rogers' saying," he said of Rogers not being a member of an organized party.

"There are Democrats in Marshall County," Puttbrese said. "Democrats turn out and vote for Democrats so we know they're there... It's incumbent upon us to get in there and find someone to carry the mantel.

"I wish there were wealthy Democrats down there with the time, but the fact is that times are tough and people have too much on their plate now," he said. "In the next two, four, or six years, we're putting a much broader emphasis on building our base to find strong local candidates for local races.

"In Marshall County now, we're looking at the long game."

Two of the other counties without county Democratic Party officers are Lake County in northwest Tennessee, "where there's one man who will serve, but doesn't want to be chair," and Clay County at the Kentucky border at Cumberland Plains, Puttbrese said.