It is an inspiring thought.
All of the candidates in the Shelby County mayor’s race agree that the way forward for the county is to get a better handle on crime, education and economic development in the city.
While they may approach the problem with different ideas about how to make a positive impact on these important issues, they all see the next county mayor as playing a larger role in creating a bridge to areas in the city where these problems are choking off blighted areas and destroying a generation of youth that are the future citizens of the county.
In the race to succeed term-limited Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr., state Sen. Lee Harris and former county Commissioner Sidney Chism are running in the Democratic Primary as Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos and County Commissioner Terry Roland battle it out in the Republican Primary.
Chism, who has been a county commissioner and a state senator, said he sees the major challenge of the next county mayor as two-fold: providing more jobs and getting a better handle on crime in the community. He said jobs that provide people with a living wage will go a long way toward deterring criminal activity.
“Most of our citizens are living at or below the poverty level,” Chism said, adding that a lot of people have to work two jobs to make ends meet. “We have to entice major industries to come in and pay a living wage.”
Chism said he is running to make a difference.
“I don’t need a job,” he said. “I’m accustomed to serving. I want to spend the rest of my life serving the people of Memphis.” In business he said he would like to “level the playing field” for minorities so that they can have an equal chance to compete.
“We’re not getting what we should get out of county and city government.”
Chism would like to see a closer working relationship between the county and city mayors. “It’s part of the problem and it could be part of the solution,” he said.
Harris sees poverty as the biggest problem facing Shelby County. It is a problem that is at the root of the crime problem and many other woes the community faces, he said, noting that in 2018 poverty is worse in Memphis than it was in 1968.
“How can our community have gone backwards,” Harris asked.
“We know the city of Memphis is one of the poorest metropolitan areas in the United States,” Harris said. He said segregation and inequality also remain serious concerns 50 years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The county mayor has a lot of tools to deal with these issues,” Harris said. “The county is not going to succeed unless Memphis succeeds. Now people understand we are all in this boat together.”
Harris said he has found a lot of support for this message as he has traveled around speaking at engagements across Shelby County.
Harris said he plans to “laser focus on reducing poverty” as county mayor and also on giving children better educational opportunities. This begins with a focus on making sure all children have access to pre-kindergarten education.
Harris said moving the needle on education will take hard work and many politicians are too quick to look for easy answers that don’t accomplish much.
“It’s about high time we do something about making sure every family has access to pre-k,” he said. “We have to do a better job of that.”
Touliatos lists crime, education and economic development as the three biggest problems facing Shelby County. Touliatos said there are a lot of good people and organizations working individually on these problems and she sees her role as county mayor as someone who can bring all of these forces together so that they can have a bigger impact on our problems.
“I think that is what everybody is looking for, somebody to spearhead that,” she said. “Somebody to bring everybody to the table. Everybody is doing something and doing something good.”
On the issue of crime, Touliatos said she thinks the county mayor will have to make sure the sheriff’s department and the district attorney general’s office have the resources to operate the programs necessary to protect the community.
In education, Touliatos said she would champion initiatives to help better educate children and to steer them away from crime.
“Everybody wants to help our children,” she said. “We need to find out what their passions are and push them in that direction. I think we need to provide more of that. We’ll have a better workforce.”
She also would talk to the business community and get them involved in improving the community, including lobbying those businesses that are already here and attracting new businesses that would provide more jobs and opportunities for community development.
“We need to be proactive. We don’t need to wait for them to come to us,” Touliatos said.
Lenoir says he is a “realistic optimist” who thinks Shelby County is still a great community in spite of its problems.
“We have our challenges but I think we can minimize and eliminate our negatives” in selling Shelby County as an attractive place to bring new industry, he said. Better jobs will go a long way to improving the quality of life of all county residents and in reducing crime, he said.
Lenoir said Shelby County’s two biggest drawbacks, as far as businesses looking for new investments, are that it doesn’t have a large enough skilled labor force it has high property taxes.
“We have to face the reality that we have the highest property taxes in the region,” Lenoir said.
On the other hand, Memphis has a developed transportation infrastructure that makes it an excellent distribution hub. That is why Memphis is home to FedEx and the major hub to many trucking companies.
“We have to promote the assets that we have,” Lenoir said. “But we have to see how we can leverage the assets to recruit the right industry and develop the right workforce.”
Lenoir said that as county mayor he will be an advocate for this approach and will be beating the drum to attract business and jobs to Shelby County.
“We need to sell our community for the assets that we have,” he said.
Lenoir said another priority of his will be making sure the educational system is providing the type of training that will produce the right kind of workforce to attract good jobs.
“One of my desires is to have an educational liaison,” he said. Lenoir said he’d like to raise the conversation over aligning a great educational system with the right jobs and industries.
“Pull people together and let’s talk about this,” he said.
Lenoir said he worked with Luttrell during the recession to reduce county debt and to reduce the fund balance.
“Now it’s time to sell our balance sheet,” he said.
Roland said disparity is the main problem that the next county mayor will face, as was shown by a recent disparity study he spearheaded.
“When you have a city the size of Memphis that is 63 percent minority and only (getting) five or six percent of the work, it’s criminal,” he said.
“We got to educate these people and get them some jobs,” Roland said. “Give them a hand up and not a handout.
“I’m tired of people talking about urban renewal and not doing it,” he said.
Roland said he’s not talking about gentrification, where blighted areas are refurbished and poor residents are pushed out because of the rising costs of living there.
Another issue that needs to be addressed is infrastructure, to make sure it grows along with the population, Roland said. For instance, the way the city builds roads and bridges is off of the gas tax, he said.
“I don’t think the city is doing a good job with the infrastructure,” he said.
Roland said he is in favor of using tax incremental financing and other tools to bring new business into urban areas that are turning into food deserts and suffering from the flight of other businesses that can help hold communities together.
This would attract businesses to build and maintain locations on some of the blighted and vacant properties in the poorer areas of the county. These businesses create jobs that help build stronger communities.
“If you give somebody a job, that empowers them,” Roland said. He said he looks at Memphis as “the heart” of Shelby County.
“If we don’t keep the heart beating, we all go down,” Roland said.