The "Freshman Class" of City Candidates: a Second Look


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Among the factors that go into a successful political
Frank Johnson
  • Frank Johnson
campaign are significant financial backing, existence of a well-established network of support, and name recognition. Candidates who can boast those advantages generally do well. Candidates who do not have a much rougher time getting noticed.

There is an occasional new-face candidate who, by dint of hard work, luck, good helpers, and most importantly, a coherent and compelling platform, can transcend the lack of the advantages mentioned above.

Frank W. Johnson is one of several candidates in the current city election who began their efforts as lesser-known personalities taking on well-known incumbents for Memphis City Council positions. Not to put too fine a point on it, Johnson has quarreled with what he saw as an insignificant amount of attention paid his effort in my recently published pre-election review.

I have hashed the matter out on FaceBook with Mr.Johnson and other candidates with like complaints, who see themselves as representing a new broom of overdue reform — or, as one of them suggested, a “freshman class” of new energy and new ideas. And, having turned the matter around in my mind, I am somewhat convinced — enough so that I have begun to see some of these candidates as in fact deserving of a second look.

Candidate rosters in big elections are normally loaded up, as I put it in an earlier preview, with “hopeful dreamers — perennial candidates, unready first-timers, and a fair share of the outright deluded.” I think it is fair to say that, here and there, the “freshman class” of relatively unknown candidates this year represents yet another category, signifies in fact a legitimate insurgency.

To begin with the aforesaid Frank Johnson, who says: “I have taught school, worked on the primary board with the Shelby County Democrats [and have been] a grassroots committee representative for District 10. Also, I continue to work around the issue of environmental justice and the problems with lead in our drinking water.”

In several appearances, Johnson has made much of his upbringing in southeast Memphis, “next to the Defense Depot, one of the most contaminated areas in the city. He speaks convincingly of a history of contamination” and of serious, life-threatening illness experienced by his own mother and sister from the effect of “living next to mustard-gas canisters in the ground. As a teacher at Larose Elementary, he was aware that his students had lead in their drinking water. And in general Johnson has first-hand experience of ‘decades of trauma,” and his candidacy is in large part witness to this grim reality.

Johnson is also articulate on the subject of “gentrification,” which he defines as a way “they get us [the city’s underserved] out of our properties ... in both black and white areas.” He characterizes gentrification as “Reaganomics revisited,” a mode of development whereby “we give rich people money and hope they come back and give us some of that money.” He maintains, “Our Mayor’s offices, our Councils, our Commissions have all been compromised by this corporate money.

“There was a time in the ‘80s when there were grocery stores on every corner. There was equity in our communities, but we’ve been starved of money. They bait us with bags of money, wanting us to decorate our communities before they take them from us. We need to re-invest in our communities, renovate our homes, rehabilitate our schools, and pay a living wage."

Much of that indictment is rhetorical, of course, and needs to be documented with incontrovertible fact, but it speaks to a growing perception among many that developers now have a stranglehold on city government.

Johnson is no “moderate.” At the site of a recent AFL-CIO action, he unleashed some strong words. “Labor’s strong. Labor’s strong. ... I like to play shut-down every now and then. I was out there on that bridge a few years ago. Sometimes you not only got to shut things down, you got to cut things off, because they don’t get it. These rich and powerful people don’t understand that labor makes this country go. We didn’t get a 40-hour work week being nice to people. ... They shut down Henry Ford. They shut down Rockefeller. Labor shut down everybody. And guess what, we got to shut it down again.”

Johnson is running in a multi-candidate race for Position 2 of Super-District 8. His opponents include the redoubtable Cheyenne Johnson, the incumbent, who is generally regarded as a credit to the council and, during her electoral career as Shelby County Assessor, was able to win consistently as a Democrat, even during Republican-dominated election eras.

Others in the race are; Marinda Alexandria-Williams, Craig Littles, and Brian L. Saulsberry. Each of them, too, has a story to tell.

To Be Continued...

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