Last spring, well before their relationship was tainted by a police report and a nasty behind-the-scenes power play, Eddie Bryan and Michael McDonald had a friendly chat. Bryan, an old-school labor leader and Democratic functionary, had just been appointed to a second stint as a member of the Metro Election Commission. The charge for him and his four colleagues was to help restore faith in the beleaguered agency, which had been plagued by minor, if nagging, scandals. As the man in charge of local elections for a decade, McDonald bore the blame for the controversies that came with the jobsometimes fairly, sometimes not. Early into what was then his second time around as a commissioner, Bryan says he walked into McDonald’s office at the Howard School office building and pledged his support.
“Michael was on his way out when we came in last spring,” says Bryan, indicating that the irregularities could have led to McDonald’s dismissal. “But I said, 'Mike, just do your job and we’ll be there for you.’ I’ve always been supportive of him.”
McDonald would certainly disagree. In what has become one of the nastiest Metro skirmishes in recent memory, McDonald and Bryan, both Democrats, are barely speaking to each other after Bryan allegedly told McDonald that the election administrator would be “taken care of” if he didn’t fire an employee Bryan felt was a Republican Party stooge. That comment prompted McDonald to file a police report, although he has declined to press charges. Their rift has polarized past and present commission members. Meanwhile, a fired employee has been reinstated, for now, after filing a federal lawsuit under the whistleblower statute. And while all of this controversy is swirling, election commission employees are trying to prepare for an important Feb. 10 presidential primary.
The truth is that drama at the local election commission is nothing new. It’s always been a hotbed of meddling, petty politics and, from time to time, incompetence. Election administrators have been fired, commission members have sneered at one another and peace has been elusive over the years. Part of it has to do with the makeup of the commission, which includes three Democrats and two Republicans. Its members tend to be, or have been, political operatives at one time or another, and it hasn’t proved to be a very successful formula for oversight.
The latest ugliness began last month after commission member Eddie Bryan decided to target the electronic files of Sharon Wood, a commission employee in charge of recruiting Republican poll workers for local elections. Bryan explains that a Republican friend of his jokingly suggested that Wood was engaging in partisan activity, and that he took it seriously. Bryan called McDonald twice that day to have Wood’s electronic files checked, but he was away from the office. So Bryan instead called Kathy Deshotels, who works as a system administrator for the commission. He told her that he believed Wood was using her office computer for various partisan activities, and asked her to retrieve any documents and databases that might corroborate his hunch. Aided by a technical employee, Deshotels discovered various political documents on the election commission’s server, downloaded them and turned them over to McDonald. The documents were overtly partisan, including one about a Republican Party function. Another document was a saved e-mail that, among other things, cites Bill Clinton for taking a harder stance against Bill Gates than Osama bin Laden. It also blames him for 9-11.
McDonald reviewed the documents, showed them to Wood’s supervisor, Joan Nixon, and passed them on to Bryan. While Bryan saw them as a smoking gun, McDonald and Nixon concluded that Wood had done nothing wrong. That’s in part because it’s Wood’s job to congregate in GOP circles and recruit Republicans to staff the polls. Wood, along with her Democratic counterpart at the commission, has one of the few overtly partisan jobs in Metro. State law dictates that poll workers from both parties monitor precincts on election day.
“My job is to identify, recruit, hire and train Republicans,” Wood tells the Scene. “The only way I know how to do that is to participate in Republican functions. That’s where I have been the most successful in finding Republicans.”
Later, McDonald placed Deshotels, the employee who searched Wood’s electronic files, on administrative leave before firing her last week. She has since been reinstated after her attorneys were granted an injunction that, for the time being, suspends her dismissal. She is suing for wrongful termination.
“She was doing what Commissioner Bryan asked of her,” says attorney Ted Carey, who represents Deshotels. “She knew what she was looking for, and when she found it she recognized it was improper and probably illegal. And in those circumstances, it was whistleblowing.”
Of course, Wood’s two bosses disagree. In any case, Carey emphasizes that Deshotels, with the aid of tech support, copied documents that were found on the election commission’s server, not Wood’s hard drive. Carey says that’s a key distinction. “They didn’t go into her office, they didn’t look at a piece of paper on her desk, they didn’t go on her computer,” he says. “All of those documents were on the election commission server, having been placed there by Miss Wood.”
Carey says that a letter from McDonald to his client indicates that she was fired solely for targeting Wood’s computer. But Republican commissioner Lynn Greer says that’s not the case. “I was told she was not dismissed for downloading these documents,” he says. “Michael told me she had a long history of...not [being] compatible with how this office needs to be run.”
In fact, Deshotels had been terminated in 1986 from the election commission for being “unavailable when needed during the busiest election season.” Carey says that she was actually on medical leave at the time. In any case, he says, since she was rehired in 1990, there hasn’t been a blemish on her record.
Citing pending litigation, McDonald declines to comment on why he terminated Deshotels.
The foundation of Deshotel’s lawsuit is that Wood’s documents point to violations of both state code and of a recent executive order from Mayor Bill Purcell. Both orders restrict partisan activity in a public setting.
Wood had used the election commission computer system to prepare nametags and invitations for a local Republican membership drive. Again, Wood says that such partisan activity simply goes with her job. In fact, she serves as the first president of the Davidson County Republican Assembly, a relatively small group that had only 20 members at its last gathering. “Michael is aware that I do that kind of work,” she says. “He knows that my job is to recruit Republicans, and the only way to do that is to work with Republican groups.”
Wood’s two supervisors, neither of whom share her political affiliation, offer their unqualified support. “Her job description as a Republican poll recruiter lends an explanation as to why those documents were on her computer,” McDonald tells the Scene.
Wood’s immediate boss, Joan Nixon, agrees. “There was no impropriety on Sharon’s part. That was Sharon’s way of getting Republican workers to the polls. Her counterpart does it a different way, but I applaud Sharon for doing it her way. She just used an innovative way to get the workers she needed.”
Nixon brushes off Wood’s anti-Clinton e-mail. “Metro Government’s Internet policy includes incidental items. We all get personal e-mails and stuff like that,” Nixon says.
Overall, Nixon says Wood has been a model employee for the commission. Nixon’s most recent performance evaluation gave Wood perfect marks across the board, covering nearly 40 categories. McDonald’s wasn’t as glowing, but he characterized her overall as an “excellent employee” who is “dependable, reliable, dedicated and conscientious.”
The outcome isn’t what Bryan had planned. Unlike Deshotels, Wood doesn’t have to worry about losing her job. But Bryan isn’t backing down. The man whom both sides of the political aisle blame for the festering imbroglio still maintains that Wood should have been fired. “If that’s what they want to allow, then I think both sides ought to be running campaigns out of that office,” he says.
Commission chairman Betty Nixon, a Democrat, declines to criticize Bryan, saying that her fellow commissioners are ready to settle down. But they haven’t yet. At this week’s commission meeting, where Bryan was conspicuously absent, the labor boss was castigated for going behind McDonald’s back and ordering one commission employee to snoop on another. He’s not likely to be forgiven anytime soon. “My beef with Eddie is that he had no right to order her to download anything from Sharon’s computer,” says Lynn Greer, one of two Republican commissioners. “He clearly overstepped his bounds from that standpoint.”
In fact, Greer says that Bryan should vacate his position on the commission. “The Tennessean had called for his resignation, and I suggest that they are right.”
But Bryan says he’s not going anywhere anytime soon. “For their information,” he says, “I’m not resigning.”
Meanwhile, an opinion from Metro law director Karl Dean suggests that Bryan didn’t have the authority to act on his own and order Deshotels to pull the documents. But that’s hardly the extent of Bryan’s image problems. McDonald’s decision to file a police report against Bryan has formalized the adversarial relationship. But McDonald says that he was simply scared. “I filed it because I was concerned about my safety,” he says. “I filed it so that it would be on record. I didn’t do it on a whim. I thought about it and prayed about it.”
Bryan denies that he threatened McDonald. “I guess my voice sounds bad and rough,” he says.
Fellow commissioner A.J. Starling, a Democrat who works as the political director of the AFL-CIO, was in Bryan’s office when Bryan called McDonald, and Starling says that he didn’t hear any intimidation. “He didn’t sound like he was threatening Mr. McDonald to me. It didn’t seem like it was intimidating to the point for Mike to take the actions that he took.”
But there is at least one other person who says that Bryan is capable of what McDonald claims. In 1990 and again in 1992, Tim Skow, an active Republican, ran against Dick Clark, an entrenched Democrat in the state House with close labor ties. Skow says that when Bryan found out Skow planned to run against Clark, Bryan told him, “You run against Mr. Clark, and I’ll bash your head in.”
Bryan dismisses the accusation. “I couldn’t even tell you what he looks like. I don’t remember threatening him or anyone else.”
While Bryan’s image has taken a beating, so has McDonald’s. Last year, McDonald angered Republicans countywide when write-in Republican House candidate Karen Bennett had to sue the commission over irregularities that wrongly kept her off the general election ballot. Now McDonald has irritated his fellow Democrats with his handling of this latest controversy. Even Betty Nixon, a Democrat who measures her words carefully, says McDonald should have had rules in place to handle this lingering controversy. She also says the commission needs to devise a set of standards so that they can evaluate McDonald’s job performance. “We need to have a clear way to gauge his work,” she says.
Clearly, the latest unpleasantry has taken its toll on McDonald. While he is one of the city’s highest-ranking black officials, McDonald has his detractors, many of whom assail his leadership skills. But nobody ever doubts his honesty, which may be the most important trait for someone presiding over the electoral process.
“My tenure with the commission hasn’t been without personal sacrifice,” he says. “It has cost me time with my family, it has cost me my marriage, it has put my health into question, but that’s not unique to this job,” he says. Still, why would anyone want a job in which it’s almost impossible to make everyone happy? “I feel like I make a difference in the process, just by making it easier for people to register and vote.”
Oh, gentrification! How doubly sharp are your two faces. The charm of the vertically reserved…
I remember when I started kindergarten I knew my ABCs, though I don't remember learning…
I voted for Dean and Pinkston....because they are goal orienated and not particular good Politicans…
Having a grandchild who attends Pre-K, and being the one who picks her up everyday…
He is so Cute......Thanks for the reading material....