Updated: Profiles of all three of the leading candidates for Memphis Mayor are now live online. Excellent reporting and writing by Erica R. Williams. Click to access the candidate of your choice:
Shelby County Commissioner and Memphis mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer often references history-making women when referring to her campaign. If the 37-year-old Sawyer wins her bid for mayor on October 3, she, too, would be among a list of history-makers, becoming the first woman elected mayor in Memphis’ 200-year history.
“I think the possibility of us winning this election is more than what some are giving the people of Memphis credit for,” Sawyer said. “People want to see real change and a fierce advocate in the mayor’s office.”
Many Sawyer supporters have dubbed her that “fierce” advocate. A well-known local activist, Sawyer has worked with the Memphis Black Lives Matter chapter to tackle police brutality and other issues of discrimination against people of color. Her high-profile role in #TakeEmDown901, the activist organization that protested the presence of confederate statues in city parks in 2017, thrust her into a national spotlight.
Combining a passion to alter the status quo with her notoriety, Sawyer captured the District 7 position on the Shelby County Board of Commissioners by a wide margin. In her first term, she chairs the Law Enforcement & Corrections committee and is vice-chair of the Education committee.
Critics suggest Sawyer needed to have had more experience before running for the city’s highest elected office. One of her opponents, former mayor Dr. Willie W. Herenton, has referred to her as a “minor distraction” with little experience.
“You had two headliners before I entered the race – (incumbent Mayor Jim) Strickland and Herenton. Thirty years of quote-unquote leadership between the two of them and look at where the city is after both of them helming it for 30-plus years,” said Sawyer.
After weeks of prayer, Sawyer concluded that she “couldn’t wait” and announced her candidacy on March 7.
“This campaign has changed the game to where the race is shaped up to be the past, present and future,” she said referring to Herenton (past), Strickland (present), and potentially her as the city’s future mayor. “We were going to head into the election with no woman on the ballot in 2019. And I couldn’t let that happen. I decided that I couldn’t wait.”
That decision has registered in several quarters outside of Memphis. Former Democratic Party presidential nominee, Hilary Clinton, praised the mayoral contender via a tweet posted August 26.
Sawyer is the Diversity and Cultural Competence director for Teach for America. Her equity-based platform features a progressive economic development plan, criminal justice reform, transportation funding and a citywide education fund. A University of Memphis graduate, she has been vocal about her disdain for the city’s lack of spending on education. No funds in the city’s budget are allotted to K-12 education.
“If you look at the development of the cities around us, all of their schools are funded by city funds, as well as the money they get from the county. We have a fundamental and moral duty to educate our youth,” said Sawyer.
“How do you look a child in the face as an elected official and say I contributed zero dollars into your education?”
Sawyer envisions a citywide education fund to support classrooms, organizations and programs. She stresses her concern about students being unready for higher education and careers, framing the issue as one that affects the economy. A recent Tennessee Higher Education Commission report painted a grim picture of student readiness for college or work after graduating high school.
“One-third of our students are not prepared for work or college. That’s a problem,” Sawyer said. “Who will companies hire?”
Sawyer’s mayoral aspirations include advocating for jobs that pay livable wages. She is committed to focusing less on incentivizing distribution and logistics jobs that usually pay less than $15 an hour.
Declaring that her campaign is focused on putting people first, Sawyer proposes creating a neighborhood council, allowing residents a more direct say on how the city will spend funds.
“I want to introduce a participatory budget, where everyone in the community will be able to give input and feel like they’re a part of the final budget,” she said. “The residents of Memphis should have a say in that budget.”
Pumping more city funds into Memphis Area Transit Authority (MATA), also is a priority.
“Memphians deserve to be able to get to their jobs and to schools and out of the food-apartheid neighborhoods they live in to access the things they need to on a daily basis,” said Sawyer, who would increase investments in MATA and develop public-private partnerships for a re-vamped and modernized transportation system that also reduces carbon dioxide emission levels.
New leadership has to disrupt the status quo, said Sawyer, the subject of much backlash after inviting CNN commentator Angela Rye to campaign for her in Memphis. During a fundraiser, Rye referred to Strickland as racist and a “Dixiecrat.”
Sawyer has said she doesn’t believe Strickland is racist, adding that he’s “not an anti-racist.” Strickland has chosen not to publicly respond to Sawyer’s comments, saying he is focused more on responding to issues that affect the city.
After Herenton told a group of men at one of his rallies that “men were made to lead and women to follow,” Sawyer responded with this: “You can be an 80-year-old misogynist if you want to but I’m going to keep talking about policy.”
She’s called out principal rivals Herenton and Strickland for choosing not to debate. Herenton said debating is not in his strategy, while Strickland declined to participate because Herenton would not be involved.
“If you’re a leader, why would you say that you’re not debating if another person won’t debate?” Sawyer said about Strickland. “You’re the leader. Show up!”
She’s also criticized those two opponents’ crime reduction strategies, which include adding more police officers.
“Both Strickland and Herenton are pushing for more police officers, but more police officers doesn’t work,” she said. “Research shows that it does not lead to crime reduction.”
Sawyer reckons that the tenor and specifics of her campaign platform will stir some historical non-voters to get out and vote. That includes millennials (born from 1982 to 2004), who fall within Sawyer’s age bracket. Millennials in Memphis add up to about 200,000 people and research shows only a small fraction actually makes it to the polls.
“Millennials move when they’re activated,” Sawyer said. “I was out at a local restaurant and a young girl in her 20s said she’s never voted before but told me that she would be voting the first time for me. I think in this race millennials will be activated.”
Sawyer volunteers that her campaign team is a diverse group, varying in age, race and gender.
“I am mentored and supported by people of all ages and background, some who are even in City Hall,” she said. “We are going for people of all demographics who want to make a change.”
As she wages her campaign for change, Sawyer said she wakes up every day “feeling discounted because I’m a black woman. I’m the only black woman on the Shelby County Commission. Being a target is something that I’m used to – my age, gender, race and body. I’m used to it and it makes me stronger.”
The September cover of Memphis Magazine tested Sawyer’s resolve. It featured caricatures of Herenton, Strickland and Sawyer, with many who shared the image on social media decrying the depiction of Sawyer as racist. She denounced the cover as “shocking, disappointing and disgusting.”
The chief executive officer of the magazine’s parent company issued an apology and the magazines were pulled from newsstands. An array of local officials and community figures rallied behind Sawyer, calling for the magazine and other local news outlets to include more diversity in their newsrooms.
Sawyer said she’s pushing forward and is focused on winning October 3.
“I try not to sell people a dream that I will get elected and this will magically become the land of Oz,” Sawyer said.
“But what people will see is the open process of how we build our administration or develop a budget. Memphians will finally have a say about how they feel the city should be run. We can’t wait.”