Wednesday, August 19, 2009

8. Youngest Elected Official in the History of the State of Tennessee

Pictured at right is me, with a lot more hair, exactly 35 years ago, running as a candidate for Shelby County Constable in Memphis, Tennessee. I was 18 years, 6 months old when I won that election in August of 1974, and in so doing, became the youngest elected official in the history of the state of Tennessee. How I got there is itself mildly interesting. And yes, I designed and painted the sign myself. Click on the image to enlarge.

Back in the 1960's and early 1970's attorneys were not allowed to advertise at all. There were no lawyer ads on TV or the radio. There were no ads in magazines or the newspapers. There were no signs or billboards featuring attorneys. You could list yourself in the phone book, but Bar Association restrictions even regulated the size of the lettering you could use to put your name on your office door. The only way new attorneys could get themselves known was to be active civic leaders and often, to participate in politics. My father, himself an attorney, did these things and even wrote a newspaper column for a while in an effort to get his name out to the public. More than once he was a candidate for city council, county commissioner and for congress (and as you can guess, I spent a lot of time designing campaign materials, painting signs and campaigning). As a high school senior in 1974, I was considering being an attorney or going into politics. I was in my father's law office one day and discovered in his law books that the only public office I was old enough to hold was that of constable.

The constable's office was a law enforcement position which the voters of each county elected. Shelby County was large enough to have three constables. The term was for two years. A few years earlier, several constables (who at that time were not required to have any police training) had created a controversy by setting up "speed traps" that harassed various celebrities. The state legislature responded by virtually eliminating the duties of the constables in the four largest counties in the state. The only real job they had was to serve suit papers on the local sheriff (a job usually done by sheriff deputies, except there would be a conflict of interest).

I already had two semesters at Memphis State University behind me that summer when I was elected. Here is a copy of the newspaper article when I was sworn into office (complete with unflattering photo). For the next two years I was available, and often was called upon, to serve Sheriff Roy Nixon whenever somebody sued the Sheriff's Department. I served my term and performed my duties well without incident. It was an interesting experience both during the election process and while holding office. I considered the opportunity to serve Shelby County an honor and privilege.

In the summer of 1976 I ran for re-election. I also ran for a seat on the Shelby County Democratic Executive Committee, as did my brother, William, and my father (who had been on the Democratic Executive Committee back in the 1960's). The Bickers name appeared on the ballot 4 times that election. My brother and father won their races. I lost my committee race to an individual with the same last name as a former mayor, and I lost the constable race by 22 votes!

Meanwhile, I had concentrated on my studies at MSU and served in the student government as Chief-of-Staff, Senator and Associate Justice on the Student Court. I re-activated and re-organized the Campus Democrats and was editor and publisher of the Campus Democrat Newspaper. In 1977 I worked as my father's campaign manager and helped get him elected as a delegate to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention which was convened to reform and update the state constitution. As a result of the Constitutional Convention, the office of constable was eliminated from the state constitution. In the few small counties where they were later reinstated by legislation, new laws required them to be 21 years of age and undergo police training. This secured my place in history, for whatever that is worth, as the age requirement for constable had only recently been lowered to 18 (after the passing of the 26th Amendment in 1971) and all other political offices in the state also had a minimum age requirement of at least 21. That may have since changed somewhat for certain offices, but to my knowledge, I still hold the record for the youngest office holder in Tennessee and I think I will probably keep that record for some time to come.

Now, to be perfectly honest, my father, Robert V. Bickers, Sr., had served as constable the previous three terms before I was elected. I did, however, make a concerted effort to get myself known by advertising and newspaper articles and tried as hard as I could to distinguish myself from my father. And as much as I dislike being a "Junior" (more on that another time), this was probably one instance where having my father's name was an advantage. This was a race, after all, where one of the main reasons for running was to prevent some relatively unknown and possibly unstable individual from assuming office and becoming an embarrassment to themselves and Shelby County. Being elected constable was a useful and educational experience for me, and nobody had to worry that I would let it go to my head; nevertheless, I was glad to have been a part of the efforts to modernize the government. Partly as a result of my father's efforts, the office of constable was removed from the state constitution and my successor quietly served out the last term of the office of constable in Shelby County, Tennessee.

Oh yes, it turned out that one other office holder had the authority to serve suit papers on the Sheriff when the constable was no longer available --the County Coroner.

NOTE:  See my post 84. Youngest elected Official - No More!  as a younger individual was elected to public office in Tennessee in August, 2016.

No comments :

Post a Comment