The 2019 City Election: Though turnout statistics remained meager for the quadrennial Memphis municipal election, there was some spirited competition between a triad of candidates at the head of an 11-candidate mayoral field.
The favorite from the word go was first-term Mayor Jim Strickland, who, after serving eight years as a budget-hawk councilman, had upset then-incumbent Mayor AC Wharton in 2015 by running a model campaign on the promise of being “brilliant with the basics”: public safety, anti-blight, and official accountability.
Strickland ran on similar themes in 2019, along with boasting advances in addressing potholes and 911 calls, and a record of enhancing city contracting opportunities for women and minorities. He had also lanced a major public boil in managing to remove Confederate statues from Downtown parks through the sleight-of-hand stratagem of vending the parks to an ad hoc nonprofit that could circumvent a state law restricting the city’s right to alter the monuments’ status.
One of Strickland’s opponents, first-term County Commissioner Tami Sawyer, had risen to prominence as the leader of Take ‘Em Down 901, which had aroused public sentiment against the statues. She also had developed something of a national reputation as a progressive political figure to reckon with and based her mayoral race on the slogan “We Can’t Wait.”
Though she would finish third, behind Strickland and former Mayor Willie Herenton, Sawyer may have attracted more attention, locally and elsewhere, than either of the other candidates. Late in the campaign, she gained attention from outrage regarding a Memphis magazine caricature widely regarded as racially stereotypical, but she subsequently lost some luster via the public surfacing of some youthful tweets that offended animal-rights advocates and members of the LGBTQ community, among others.
For his part, Herenton, who in 1991 had become the city’s first elected black mayor, never quite regained the spotlight or the support that had attended that earlier heroic effort.
The “bogus ballots” controversy: For as long as any of us can remember, the atmosphere of Shelby County elections has had a certain resemblance to shopping-center openings and other acts of commercial boosterism. No election occurs without a proliferation of paid advertising displays passing themselves off as sample ballots.
Two or three entrepreneurs have for some years made a comfortable living putting the squeeze on local candidates, selling them places for their names and pictures on glossy sheets or pamphlets containing lists of “endorsees” for this or that office. So accepted has been the practice that, when Democratic Party groups and City Council candidate John Marek legally challenged the practice in 2019, no local judge could be found to hear the case. The reason? Most or all of them had previously purchased space on such ballots!
Even so, the case is going forward in 2020, with either a federal court or retired state Judge William Acree of Jackson (who on election day in October issued a temporary restraining order) hearing the issue.
The 2019 General Assembly: Ever since the overwhelming Republican electoral successes in the statewide elections of 2010 and 2014, Tennessee has not only fallen out of what for more than a century was a comfortably Democratic orbit, it has also teetered away from what had become a role as a politically balanced border state with barometric tendencies.
Even under the eight-year reign of Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican moderate, the state had begun functioning in the mode of a dyed-in-the-wool deep-South polity. During Haslam’s first term, the arch-conservative state Senate Speaker and Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey made sure that Haslam’s package of moderately conservative educational reforms included the abolition of what had been teachers’ bargaining rights, and Ramsey and other hard-right Republicans intervened to prevent Haslam from accepting federal Medicaid expansion funds.
In 2019, the new Republican governor, a businessman neophyte named Bill Lee, was equally resistant to state efforts to boost TennCare and even more zealous about adulterating public education, enhancing state authority over charter schools, and pushing a program of private-school vouchers he insisted on calling “education savings accounts.” On the progressive side, Lee did take the lead in calling for civil justice reforms and the easing of transitioning into society of ex-felons.
Meanwhile, legislators were kept busy fighting over a series of anti-abortion measures and bills regarded as curtailing the rights of the LGBTQ community or at least mitigiating the public impact of its members. Under the reigning GOP supermajority, hard caps were imposed on damage suits, and tax legislation tended to strip state revenue sources down to the core of the state sales tax, though a good business climate managed to sustain state spending levels.
Increasingly, the deportment of state officials was not beyond the reach of public opinion, as the imperious ways of GOP Speaker Glen Casada of Franklin caused him the loss of a vote of confidence in his caucus and prompted his resignation, and state Representative David Byrd was under unrelenting pressure to resign because of accusations of past sexual improprieties.
Shelby County government: With the power struggle between former Mayor Mark Luttrell and members of the county commision now a thing of the past, a newly elected commission more or less worked in harness with new Mayor Lee Harris, though there were residual points of tension, as when Harris attempted to get his budget priorities accepted whole, without change or compromise.
Democrat Harris, who is known to be anticipating a future run for Congress, would also occasionally out-run his base of support on the majority-Democrat but largely bipartisan-minded commission by getting conspicuously out in front with populist heroics — a case in point being his veto of county funding for a model natatorium at the University of Memphis, insisting that the University commit to a uniform $15-an-hour wage for its employees first. That issue would be resolved with a feel-good resolution by the commission, restoring the county’s million-dollar contribution while expressing support for the U of M wage increase at some expedited but unidentified future point.
In general, the commission followed Harris’ lead on a series of civil justice reforms, and mayor and commission alike were stoutly committed to the county’s MWBE program to enhance the level of contracting with minority- and women-owned businesses.