Tami Sawyer during a moment of reflection while on the campaign trail last month. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

Tami Sawyer has experienced her share of criticism and controversy since announcing her bid to run for mayor of Memphis, but this time, she told The New Tri-State Defender on Tuesday, the backlash is different.

After several old tweets resurfaced from her personal Twitter account, the District 7 Shelby County Board of Commissioners representative has been ridiculed for what some have considered offensive and divisive rhetoric. For now, Sawyer said it’s less about her campaign and more about regaining the trust of those who have been impacted by her words.

“Overall, the hardest thing for me is the pain people are feeling behind anything that I said at any point in my life. I have worked hard and strived hard over the four years or longer, to fight for intersectionality, to fight for equality or equity. So it’s hard to see that person who didn’t know or think differently.”

The tweets began to resurface at the onset of early voting, which began Sept. 13. The most recent criticism came from Sawyer’s use of the word “retarded.”

“I like that @SpikeLee goes back at retarded tweeters,” Sawyer tweeted in July 2012.

In response to another Twitter user in March 2013, she posted, “I love that fool but he is retarded.”

Sawyer has also been criticized for a 2014 Twitter chat, where she shared a story about outing a teacher in prep school.

“We had a teacher that was a closeted lesbian. Decided it was our duty to out her. She quit after a semester,” she wrote.

Sawyer said the tweet was taken out of context.

“I wasn’t celebrating the fact that we did this. I was stating that we were mean 15-year-old-girls.”

Sawyer has also apologized for her other tweets, noting her growth since those words were written years ago.

“Unfortunately, that person was me,” she admitted. “But it’s the story of someone who changed and grew up. It’s a story of someone who was motivated by working alongside LGBTQ people, and working aside people fighting against ableism. This allowed me to have a broader vision and grow up to be a better person.”

In another apologetic effort, Sawyer explained in a blog post that at the time of most of the tweets she was a living in DC as a twenty-something-year old, who was admittedly selfish and focused on her career and having fun.

“I was also preoccupied with myself, my own story, and having fun with friends. It was a time of exploration, a time of growth, some real trauma, and like I’ve said – it was a time in some ways I am embarrassed by, but I’m also proud of because it was a time of evolution and it helped make me into the woman I am right now,” she wrote.

Regarding owning up to past rhetoric, it’s Sawyer’s observation that high-profile mayoral candidates Jim Strickland, the incumbent, and former Mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton aren’t held to the same standards.

“My opponents haven’t accounted for anything they’ve done professionally let alone personally,” she said. “But nonetheless my dad always said, ‘you’re only responsible for yourself,’ and I hurt people, so that’s what I have to focus on.”

Since the tweets surfaced, Sawyer said she’s had several private conversations with friends, colleagues and other allies that may have been impacted by them. For some, her apology initially wasn’t enough. The Tennessee Equality Project-Shelby County Committee called for her to apologize to the teacher in question and expound on how she’s changed.

“She says that her views have changed, and she has engaged the community in many conversations since those 2009 and 2014 tweets, “the advocacy group wrote in a Facebook post. “…what changed between 2014 when commissioner Sawyer was bragging about outing lesbians in the workplace and the last couple of years? The Memphis LGBTQ community deserves to know how and why her views changed if, indeed they did.”

Sawyer hosted Facebook Live, Tuesday. During the roundtable chat, she was surrounded by LGBTQ advocates, including Ginger Leonard, board member for Tennessee Equality Project, who has publicly noted that she’s accepted Sawyer’s apology.

 

Sawyer’s platform is heavily focused on equity for marginalized groups, including immigrants, individuals living in poverty, minorities and the LGBTQ community. As a result, it’s gained her a diverse group of supporters who she said have typically been left out of conversations.

Asked about the recent controversy’s effect on her mayoral bid, Sawyer said right now she’s focused on reaching out to those who have been affected by her words.

“I still believe that my campaign is the best for the city. It’s the most inclusive campaign. The LGBTQ community has the most representation in our campaign. We are the only campaign really focused on equity and equality in the depths that we are focused on it.”

Sawyer said she wants to continue to be an advocate for the LGBTQ community and will work hard to regain the trust of all affected.

“I know that this has affected a lot of different people from a lot of different communities and I’m working to restore that trust every day,” Sawyer said. “I want to continue to be an ally for underserved populations in this city, and no matter the outcome of the race, I’ll work to raise the issues and be an advocate and ally for those who face those challenges.”

The election is October 3. The Early Voting period is underway and extends through Sept. 28.