Grit and grind, political edition: Who will become the next mayor of Memphis?
Eight candidates have risen to the most competitive tier of the field with something for everyone — but will anyone be happy with the results?
The downtown Memphis, Tenn. skyline. (Photo: Getty Images)
One month for some, two years for others, and everything in between describes the timeline for Memphis mayoral candidates on the campaign trail.
There have been pretty pink suits and orange-tinted shades. There’s been shade throwing and name calling. There have been call outs and no shows. There have been dropouts and pop ins. All in all, within the next 34 days Memphis will have elected its next mayor and with far less than the city’s majority behind them.
Who will Memphis choose? Which pocket of voters will prevail? What financial pipeline will reign supreme? While Memphis municipal elections are technically non-partisan, selective polling from right-leaning organizations, presidential primary votes, and C-suite donors tell a story of influence that has long loomed over this year’s array of candidates. Memphis won’t get a perfect or near-perfect mayor and voters will ultimately make their selection by eliminating candidates based on their deal-breaker qualities versus must-haves.
Each of the candidates individually possess qualities that, if rolled into one, would present the mayor that Memphis actually needs. Within the nine considered the non-competitive tier is an openly LGBTQ+ candidate, which Memphis has never had before and which represents an emerging voter base in liberal politics. There’s a candidate with logistics and staff recruiting knowledge, which if used properly, could help identify and retain good talent in Memphis.
The top tier of eight candidates consist of the sheriff, who covers the public safety angles; the TV judge, who brings national notoriety; the state legislator withconnections in Nashville; the businessman with operational and economic understanding, the repeat, who comes with familiarity; the school board member with knowledge of education; the lawyer, complete with legal knowledge and the first timer, who brings fresh ideas.
Let’s take a glance at their backgrounds, issues to keep an eye on, and big questions for each.
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner
Floyd Bonner is currently in his second term as Shelby County’s top lawman. He is the first AfricanAmerican to serve in that capacity and he frequently touts his 42 years of law enforcement experience. But those years have often been tumultuous: In 2020, during one of a series of protests after Louisville woman Breonna Taylor was killed by police there, Shelby County Sheriff’s Officers brandished electric shock shields as a means to intimidate protesters outside of the Shelby County Jail at 201 Poplar.
In 2018, during Bonner’s previous capacity as Shelby County Chief Deputy, a local media outlet obtained documents showing Bonner was directed to complete harassment training and had a formal write-up placed in his file based on sexual assault allegations.
During his tenure, the number of deaths in Shelby County jails has increased significantly. Bonner has been quoted regarding his Day One preparedness to be mayor and ability to bolster police ranks exclaiming, “We can’t wait.” If “we can’t wait” sounds familiar, it was also the tagline for 2019 Memphis mayoral candidate, Tami Sawyer’s, campaign. The history behind “We can’t wait” stems from the 1964 release of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s book of the same name that discusses the nonviolent movement against racial segregation and how nonviolent resistance was used to change the function of jails in society.
Be on the lookout for: There is a difference in experience and expertise. While Bonner consistently highlights his time in law enforcement, officer-involved incidents and deaths inside of 201 Poplar and Jail East have unfortunately established significant roots as well. If management of 201 is an indication of how Bonner will manage the 901, we could be headed down a dead end street before we know it. The beginning of Bonner’s candidacy showed him to be a resident of the county, but not the city.
Big question: Bonner has 42 years of law enforcement experience, but what does he have to show for it and how has he lowered crime in his current capacity?
Judge Joe Brown
Judge Joe Brown is a former reality courtroom television show judge and previously served as a state criminal court judge in Shelby County. Brown was the first African-American Prosecutor in Memphis. As a defendant in a 2014 contempt of court case, he was reprimanded for becoming verbally irate and combative.
Be on the lookout for: Temperament matters. Brown boasts of his ability to navigate any neighborhood and has a plan for almost every issue that arises, his presence can be often viewed as intimidating, isolating, and off-putting by marginalized groups of people, including members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The big question: Will Brown approach discussions with Memphians who identify as female and LGBTQ+ with the same respect he affords to gang members in an effort to reduce crime? Brown has also offered little in the way of concrete plans for what he hopes to accomplish as mayor.
Rep. Karen Camper
Camper, a Democrat, has served in the Tennessee General Assembly since 2008 and currently holds the role of House Minority Leader —. the first African-American to do so. She retired from the U.S. Army as a Chief Warrant Officer and is known for being able to bring factions together iwhile working to acquire votes for important legislation. Camper has been a bold advocate for “vo-zones”, or vocational zones that marry education, hobbies, and recreation.
Be on the lookout for: Her ability to remain even-tempered even in times of battle on the hill is to be applauded. If Camper were to win the Memphis mayor’s race, that would leave zero Black women and only one other woman in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Camper’s ability to have empathy and seek understanding from diverse groups is unmatched. Her peaceful presentation begs the question of whether she can put her foot down and take strong stances without being steamrolled.
Big question: Should we risk giving up necessary leadership needed in our Tennessee General Assembly for Camper to come back home and zero in more locally?
J.W. Gibson is CEO of Gibson Companies, a suite of services that includes medical equipment sales, a redevelopment corporation, and the printing of Tennessee’s lottery tickets. Previously, he served one-term on the Shelby County Commission. Many years ago, Gibson was active with the local Republican Party, which may matter to voters even though the mayor’s race is nonpartisan. He infused $300,000 of his own finances to fund his mayoral bid.
Gibson emphasizes collaboration as a key component of campaigning and his intentions to improve the city. Workforce development and economic development are two issues he leans heavily into as a means to move Memphis forward in the right direction.
Be on the lookout for: People ask who J.W. Gibson is, as many Memphians are apparently unaware of his previous service at the county level and his tangible investments to the community that have improved the quality of life for ordinary Memphians. The connection between developers, big money, and Gibson raises questions about what it means for a candidate to infuse such a significant amount of cash into his own campaign? Where is the community buy-in? Literally. Gibson’s treasurer also has significant ties to the business community. How do all of these elements attest to his relatability and connection with the residents?
Big question: Will Gibson have Memphis singing a new tune of community, collaboration, and change or will a Gibson administration breed a series of bad notes and another sad love song?
Willie W. Herenton
Willie W. Herenton, Ph.D., made history by serving as both the first African-American Superintendent of legacy Memphis City Schools and the first African-American Mayor of Memphis. During his tenure, Memphis grabbed two professional sports teams — Memphis Grizzlies franchise of the National Basketball Association and Memphis Redbirds, the AAA affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. Herenton has worked to transform public housing and charter schools and holds claim for being Memphis’ longest serving Mayor.
Be on the lookout for: During his Congressional attempt in 2010 , Herenton drew criticism for his remarks on U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s appeal to African-Americans in Memphis. His criticism of opponents didn’t stop there. In 2019, Herenton referred to mayoral candidate and then-Shelby County CommissionerTami Sawyer, as a “distraction.” He’s long had the ability to break barriers and achieve goals but his methods of doing so could be labeled extreme, for better or for worse.
Big question: Will Memphis choose Herenton to do it again with unapologetic leadership that got things moving regardless of whose toes were stepped on where respect was gauged based on proximity, or will Memphis choose not to be doomed by history repeating itself while not being updated for progress?
Background: A member of the Memphis Shelby County School Board, McKissack previously worked as an Emmy award-winning television news anchor and reporter. She comes across as the most polished and well-spoken of all the mayoral candidates and offers a plan to improve the city, which she calls “Whole City Memphis.” The message: creating a streamlined city that is “vibrant, inclusive and sustainable” for all Memphians.
Be on the lookout for: Attention to detail, efficiency, and integrity are integral to a successful administration. McKissack’s entry into the Memphis Mayor’s race raised eyebrows as did her last minute entry into her School Board race in 2018. McKissack looks the part but tangible impact has been missing in her current capacity and was further called into question during the latest school superintendent search.
Big question: With youth, youth crime, and education at the top of voters’ minds this election cycle, how much will McKissack’s track record on the Memphis Shelby County School Board influence the impact of those issues relative to her Mayoral campaign?
Turner practices law with Turner Field Law, PLLC and he serves as president of Memphis Greenspace. Previously, he was president of the Memphis NAACP Chapter and as a two-term Shelby County Commissioner. He’s planted himself as a mainstay on the legal team for the family of Tyre Nichols. Turner campaigns as an even-tempered candidate who has earned stripes as the only true progressive in the race. Hesupported Memphis City Council ordinances created to address pretextual traffic stops and police accountability. Like Bonner, Turner drew scrutiny over residency issues and was part of a lawsuit that arose when he was shown to be a resident of Shelby County, but not Memphis.
Be on the lookout for: In 2021, during one of the biggest fights to protect the Westwood and Boxtown communities from construction of the proposed Byhalia Pipeline, the Memphis chapter NAACP’s then-President Van Turner accepted $25,000 on behalf of the organization from Plains All American Pipeline. Turner has spent notable time and money outside the city for events, flights, and staff travel and while he boasts strong opinions about his opponents on the debate stage, he was missing in action the first few months of the campaign due to residency litigation. He is also remembered by voters for the acquisition of Health Sciences Park by Memphis Greenspace, where a statue of slave trader and Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest — a thorn in the side of Black Memphians for decades — was subsequently removed.
Big question: Does Turner exhibit enough boldness, connectedness, and relatability to energize voters and stakeholders? Can he be trusted to make the tough decisions when big bucks are presented and preserving a community is up for debate?
Young, currently President/CEO of the Downtown Memphis Commission, previously served as director of the Division of Housing and Community Development for the city of Memphis. Young is also credentialed with a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning from the University of Memphis and has been instrumental in the establishment of affordable housing in South City and Tillman Cove. He worked with current Mayor Jim Strickland to establish the city’s first Affordable Housing Trust Fund. He is the youngest candidate of those who are considered top contenders in this year’s mayoral race.
Be on the lookout for: Young is a newcomer to the political space as a candidate, but his connection to Memphis’ elite and powerful was substantiated some time ago — connections that are obvious in his donor pool, which showcases a laundry list of persons with six- and seven–fi-figure salaries while simultaneously displaying the most diverse array of donors. While Memphis city elections are non-partisan, a hot topic of discussion in town has been Young’s votes in Republican primaries over time for Marco Rubio, Mark Luttrell, and David Lenoir. He promises “no hires and no fires’’ in several city departments and the mayor’s office, — a bold, a potentially unwise promise to make.
Big question: Has Young developed into the glue that can bring and hold Memphis together across party lines and financial backgrounds with a fresh approach or will his connection to Memphis power brokers overshadow his community connections making him out to be Strickland 3.0?
The grab-bag of candidates means the field offers a little something for everyone, but with this many candidates carving up voter bases, the winner will start off by needing to mend political fences and forming collaborations, while still working on significant issues of concern to his or her constituents — including those of abuse of power in law enforcement agencies and crime. The job is intimidating and time will prove who is up to the task.
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