LeMichael Wilson, candidate for mayor, is eloquent, downright ubiquitous, and as hard-working as a candidate can be. Moreover, he is able to suggest that it's time for a change without focusing on negative talking points. Wilson has been running for mayor for two solid years and has raised enough money to satisfy the posted thresholds for all the debates that should have happened but didn't, due to the annoying maneuvers of two acknowledged contenders, Mayor Jim Strickland and former Mayor Willie Herenton.
The amiable restaurateur and civic figure believes, with some reason, that he should be considered among the leaders in the mayoral race — not as a virtual unknown or as some sort of adjunct to the presumed Big Three of Strickland, Herenton, and Tami Sawyer. For the most part, though, there is where he has lingered in the public mind for most of the mayoral race. This is despite his own claim that he has seen polling rating him no worse than third among the candidates.
Wilson has criticized the city's reliance on PILOT (payment in lieu of taxation) financing to induce new industry to relocate here and would tie the use of that and other inducements to criteria ensuring not only strict compliance by the favored industries but to measurable spinoffs in pay and housing for local residents. He promises a general house-cleaning of citizen advisory boards to make sure ordinary Memphians are fully represented on them.
The realities of electioneering in our time are such that very little evidence exists for the prospects of a Wilson victory on October 3rd. Though it is axiomatic that, through a combination of ego or insulation against the pains and rigors of running, all — or virtually all — active candidates see themselves as possible winners, successful outcomes for long-shot entries like Wilson are few and far between.
Still, it's hard not to appreciate the good will and sincerity behind Wilson's self-introduction at a recent meagerly attended forum sponsored by the NAACP: "Good evening. My name is LeMichael Wilson. I'm running for mayor of Memphis. My campaign is all about fighting for people. My push is to build a better Memphis to be the gateway of new beginnings. We all know what our issues are, but who's going to be the best one that's going to push us forward with solutions and to change the quality of life for the people who live in the city of Memphis. I would love everyone's support. And that's it."
Frank W. Johnson is one of several candidates for Memphis City Council positions who began their efforts as lesser-known personalities taking on well-known incumbents — in Johnson's case the redoubtable incumbent Cheyenne Johnson, who, during her electoral career as Shelby County Assessor, was able to win consistently as a Democrat, even during Republican-dominated election eras.
- Candidate Pearl Eva Walker (l) at her downtown town hall.
Says Frank Johnson: "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."
Johnson is passionate about 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 1980s," he continues, "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.
Several of the other impressive new faces this year adorn the ballot of the much-ballyhooed People's Convention II that met in early June under the auspices of the Rev. Earle Fisher et al: Pearl Eva Walker in Super District 8 Position 1; Mauricio Calvo in Super District 9, Position 2; Michalyn Easter-Thomas in District 7 (whose stock has risen in proportion to the piling-up mishaps of another challenger to incumbent Berlin Boyd, Thurston Smith); Erika Sugarmon in District 9, Position 1, who is a bridge to civil rights tradition and the Democratic mainstream.
There are such impressive newcomers as Jerred Price, who comes from the field of music and is yet another alternative in District 7; Cat Allen in Super District 8, Position 3; and John Emery in District 2. And there is a reprise appearance on the ballot of the reform-minded John Marek in District 5.
None of this is meant to downplay the virtues or potential of other candidates unmentioned here, many of them well-known, several of them respected incumbents. This column is meant merely to extol the fact that this year's candidate field is unusually rich and varied, and, win or lose, many of its members will continue to be heard from, one way or another.
• Steve Cohen and Jim Cooper, Democratic congressmen from Tennessee districts 9 and 5, respectively, have co-sponsored H.R. 4464, the Ranked Choice Voting Act, which would require the use of Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) for all federal Congressional elections in the United States.
RCV, which allows for majority winners in multi-candidate races by resampling and redistributing ballots of runner-up candidates, was approved by Memphis voters in a 2008 referendum and re-approved in a second referendum in 2018, and was originally scheduled by Election Administrator Linda Phillips to use in the current city election. But a combination of opposition from incumbent Council members and the state Election Coordinator's office managed to stymie the effort for now.
The law sought by Cohen and Cooper would apply only to federal elections, however, not state or local ones.