JB Smiley Jr. moves with the ease and assuredness of a veteran politician, even though he is 34 with less than two years as an elected official. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

When Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. sees a problem, he’s often prompted to solve it.  

It’s the reason the Memphis native said he’s now running for governor of Tennessee, and it’s in part the motivation behind his political career.

At 34 years old, with less than two years as an elected official, Smiley moves with the ease and assuredness of a veteran politician. 

This confidence has helped him garner a growing list of local supporters as he seeks to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary Aug. 4, 2022. The general election is Nov. 8, 2022.

Others have criticized the freshman councilman for seeking a gubernatorial run without a “seasoned” political resume. 

Smiley has ignored the naysayers, announcing his candidacy for governor on his 34th birthday, Sept 8. He noted that he’s running because “we have too many gun shots, not enough COVID shots given and too few shots for our young people to reach their potential.”

Currently, Tennessee is considered one of the states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and the death rate has recently increased, making the state No. 11 in the nation in deaths caused by the virus.

Smiley, who is pro-vaccination and pro-mask mandates, said the role of government is to do what’s best for the general welfare of all Tennesseans, even if some disagree. 

“These things should not be political,” Smiley asserted. “We should listen to the experts and do what’s best for the greater good; and be sure we give the municipalities all of the resources they need to be productive.”

COVID-19 isn’t the only issue high on the state’s list of problems.

Tennessee has the third-highest violent crime rate and the ninth-highest property crime rate in the nation. Many of the communities in Memphis, where Smiley serves, have seen increasingly high numbers of crime. 

These are all matters Smiley said he’s ready to tackle – because in the words of his father, JB Smiley Sr. who he often credits – “if you have a problem, put on your working boots and do something about it.” 

Smiley said he’s accepted his father’s charge since being elected to the City Council, putting on his “boots” to address the concerns of his constituents. 

“I remember one of my colleagues telling me when I was elected that the wheels of government move slowly,” he recalled.

Despite the well-intended counsel, Smiley said he knew he had to work on implementing change swiftly.

So, he got to work.

During his first month in office, he assisted in the passing of an ordinance, adding an amendment that allowed a slight increase to customers’ monthly Memphis, Light, Gas and Water Division bill. 

His reasoning was that a small surge would allow MLGW to update its infrastructure, providing better service for residents, especially those in marginalized communities. 

A stark champion for racial equity, Smiley also fought for transparency in the Memphis Police Department, calling for a portal that highlighted complaints against police, including excessive force and the misuse or lack of dash cams. 

Subsequently, the city launched “Reimagining Policing in Memphis” Inspections Services Bureau portal, where the public easily can now access the findings. 

Smiley’s work in a succinct period of time has caught the attention of local and national leaders. Less than two months since announcing his candidacy for the state’s highest office, he has an endorsement from one of Tennessee’s most reputable politicians, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis).

“Councilman Smiley is smart, energetic and in touch with the needs of working people. Having a governor who understands the needs and importance of the cities as well as the towns is of importance for benefits to be extended equitably,” Cohen wrote in an official endorsement statement.

Smiley and his team plan to announce more endorsements in coming days. 

“We’re getting a lot of support,” he said. “I’m feeling really good about it.”

His optimism is not clouded with naivete. He acknowledged that the odds will be stacked against him if he receives the Democratic nomination and faces incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Lee.

Smiley has other competitors in the Democratic primary, including Nashville physician Dr. Jason Martin, North Memphis activist Carnita Atwater and Casey Nicholson, a Presbyterian minister from Greeneville.

Tennessee has been a solid Republican stronghold in statewide federal elections. Lee won the Tennessee gubernatorial seat in 2018 and Republicans have held the office since 2012. 

Not easily deterred, Smiley is hopeful that Tennesseans are ready for a change.

“Tennessee has the opportunity to do something it’s never done,” Smiley said. “This state has never had someone who looks like me be nominated as a major party nominee for governor.”

In U.S. history, there have only been two Blacks elected as governors – Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts.  

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reflection Park in Downtown Memphis was the setting as first-term Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. helped paint a picture of his run for governor of Tennessee. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises)

Smiley noted that he’s keenly aware that he’s a Black man and understands the issues affecting Black Tennesseans, but he pointed out that the issues aren’t limited to race, and are often mirrored in other marginalized communities.

“If we figure out how to raise the bar for marginalized communities, we are speaking to not only Black people but also to a lot of rural Tennesseans,” he said. “The issues in Black communities will be the issues in other marginalized communities or rural communities that have been forgotten about.”

Smiley sees the same level of disinvestment in rural communities that is pervasive in some of the poorest ZIP codes he currently represents in his super district that includes the areas of Frayser and North Memphis.

“We have an agenda to put Tennesseans in a better position and it’s for folks that have often been overlooked.”

Smiley considers himself more of a public servant than a politician. He said his connection to the issues of Tennesseans is what makes him stand apart from other candidates vying for the governor’s seat. 

The son of a father born on a Mississippi plantation and a mother who grew up in a violent Memphis housing project, Smiley said he’s experienced his fair share of struggle.

“I know what it’s like to go without or have to go to the store and use food stamps, but my parents sacrificed so that I would be in a better position than they were.”

A former semi-professional athlete, Smiley received his J.D. from the University of Arkansas-Little Rock Will H. Bowen School of Law. He returned to Memphis and opened his law practice, Smiley and Associates, that he still manages.

“My folks were really poor and they sacrificed for me, so the least I can do to uphold their legacy is give it all I got and do the same for other people.”

Smiley hopes his story resonates with the diverse residents he meets during the “A Better Tennessee” tour that he kicked off this month.

“I want people to see that not only am I competent, but I’m also compassionate,” Smiley said.