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Council mulls partisan elections amid division on the issue

With the prospect of Memphis’ next mayor entering office without a mandate, Memphis City Council members Tuesday (Sept. 26) passed a pair of ballot-referenda ordinances in their first readings, aiming to produce a smaller field of candidates in the 2027 mayor’s race.

The action came during the meeting of the council’s Personnel & Governmental Affairs Committee. If both ordinances are approved after three readings, they would be on the August 2024 ballot.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is term-limited and cannot seek re-election. With no incumbent on the Oct. 5 ballot, 17 candidates are seeking to replace Strickland. 

There is no runoff, so whoever gets the most votes wins.

“With 17 members (candidates) in the race right now we could foreseeably, out of a city with 630,000 residents, have 20,000 people determine who the new mayor will be for this city,” cautioned Chairman Martavius Jones, who has been pushing for partisan city elections.

Jones wants an ordinance-referendum question to amend the City Charter’s ban on partisan elections, creating a primary process.

In 1991, the late U.S. District Judge Jerome Turner ousted runoff provisions in citywide elections, ruling the charter was rewritten in 1967 to keep a Black candidate from being elected mayor.

Turner’s ruling smoothed the path for Dr. Willie W. Herenton to upset incumbent mayor Dick Hackett by 142 votes, making Herenton, who is a candidate for mayor in this year’s election, the city’s first elected Black mayor. 

“I’m aware that back in the ’90’s – we’re talking 30-something odd years ago – there was a dissent decree that was entered by a judge, who is now deceased. That particular dissent decree prohibited us from having runoff elections in the Super Districts, as well as the mayor’s race,” said Jones.

Vice Chairman JB Smiley Jr., while not being totally on board with Jones’ ordinance, proposed an ordinance-referendum question that would require a candidate to receive 50 (percent)-plus one of the votes cast to win election.

An office seeker must receive one vote over 50 percent of the total to win outright.

Smiley added that both ordinances received support from the council’s private attorney Allan Wade.  

“He’s almost inclined to say…considering the dynamic of the city has changed, since we had that order, it’s almost certain that the people of the city of Memphis want this, the judge will be inclined to allow us to have a 50-plus one mayor race,” said Smiley.

The “dynamic,” is Memphis’ demographics. With African Americans now comprising 65 percent of Memphis’ population from 60 percent white majority 30 years ago.

That demographic flip is reflected in the 13-member City Council, which has eight Black members and five white members.

“We’ll end up in federal court, no matter what we do, if we pass legislation that speaks to a mayoral election,” said Smiley.

While the 50-plus-one ordinance question received full support on a voice vote, there were concerns. 

“I don’t think partisan elections will help our body. I think it just divides people on a local level, where we don’t have to be divided,” said Councilmember Jeff Warren.

“I personally don’t think this ordinance is the right way to do it, or this is the right time to do it. I think we need to do it at the first of the year.” 

The bitter nature of partisan politics, particularly on the state and national levels, invading local races is another worry.

“I recognize that people try and find a group to identify with that best represents what their ideology is. But, ultimately, at the state and federal level, especially in this hyper-partisan environment, it’s become incredibly toxic…,” Carlisle said.

While Carlisle and Warren voted against the ordinance, neither quarreled with its intent or logic.

 “I think there are some very valid points made about 17 people being in the (mayor’s) race,” said Carlisle. “I would tell you, there are probably four people in the race (who have a chance to win), but the point still stands. A valid point.

“I’m sure in certain neighborhoods, too, it’s caused a lot of confusion. You’ve got some people that know somebody, and they prefer a particular candidate, but they feel bad about it, so they feel like their vote is wasted. Very fair point.” 

City Councilmember Patrice Robinson urged getting citizen input.

“Our opinions here are great. They’re moving us in a different direction. That’s something we need to do,” said Robinson.

“But what is (the)… right direction… for the citizens of Memphis? … It’s going to require some input from our citizens. Let’s not forget them in this process.”

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