Shelby County Mayor-Elect Lee Harris ran on a platform of shaking things up in Shelby County government as a way of solving age-old problems such as segregation, poverty and lagging educational opportunities for children.
With his inauguration pending, we thought this July 13 Q & A with The New Tri-State Defender was worth a second look, as a way of previewing what Harris will do when he assumes office:
John Semien: How is your campaign different from your opponent’s?
Lee Harris: I think my campaign is different from some of the previous campaigns in a lot of ways. I’m not from one of the traditional political families. I don’t have a bank account to fund my own campaign. I don’t have any contracts, no clients, no customers, no special interest. The only thing that I am out here doing is trying to advocate on behalf of public interest. For me, I think that means a new era … for our community.
Semien: Recently, you said integration is one of the biggest problems in Shelby County. What as County Mayor can you do solve this problem and get the black and white communities to work closer together?
Harris: Memphis is horribly divided. I think that’s pretty obvious to most of us. And certainly (it) is obvious to anybody that moves to Memphis – that there’s a lot of divisions, and a lot of inequality and a lot of segregation. … The biggest challenges in my view, honestly, are poverty followed by inequality and segregation. … And we’ve had those challenges for at least the last 50 years and there’s no one laser focused on trying to remediate those challenges.
What I mean by segregation? We got black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods and not a lot of intermingling. We got black folks who have low income and folks who are not minority have higher incomes and that’s been going on for the last 50 years. … Somebody has got to talk about that and I think that somebody has gotta see if we can improve that a little bit. I think we can, so on my campaign website we talk about the fact that there are 200,000 people that live in Shelby County that live in poverty and we talk about that over the next few years, we should be able to get 50,000 of those folks out of poverty. That’s a realistic goal, that’s a reasonable goal and that’s what we should be working toward. …
Semien: Do you have a plan in mind in terms of that, a specific plan?
Harris: A lot of that is going to be driven by the style of leadership of the people in the top jobs and far too often we’ve had folks that play into that.
Semien: Those people are part of the problem?
Harris: Yeah, those people are the ones causing the problem and you can earn a lot of votes that way…I have never done that. I’ve always confronted every constituent of mine that brings that up and say that I am not running for office or in service so that we can keep talking about us versus them. I’m in office so we can talk about bringing folks together and accomplishing our agenda. You tell me what you want accomplished in this neighborhood and I will set out to do my part to make sure that it’s accomplished. …
Semien: What do you think you can accomplish in four to eight years in these key areas – poverty, inequality, segregation – or if you want to name another area?
Harris: I think there’s a whole lot of things that can be done in terms of investments in education to give kids more meaningful opportunities to succeed. In this community for example, we talk a lot about early childhood education and making sure that we expose more families to the opportunity to get their kids into Pre-K. But that still hasn’t quite been solved. I can solve that fast.
Semien: How would you solve it?
Harris: At the county level, the budget is $1.2 billion. At the school board level, the budget is $1.1 billion; and at the City of Memphis level, its $650 million. That’s … about $3 billion dollars. For at least the last seven years, we’ve talked about how do you find seven or eight million dollars to fund Pre-K; find seven or eight million dollars out of a collective … $3 billion. …
When I was on the City Council, I was the Budget Committee Chairman. And I gotta tell you, sometimes it’s hard to find certain sums of money… but finding $ 7 million, if you got that much at play, is not that difficult. … What we’ve had previous (in leadership) is just status quo; just reactionary type leadership.
Semien: You’re saying that you intend to actively be involved in what happens in the schools?
Harris: I am going to be so actively involved in what happens in the schools. That’s exactly right. And the reason that nobody is actively involved in what is happening in the schools right now is because it’s so hard to do.
Semien: And why is it so hard right now?
Harris: It’s so hard to move the needle because there are so many decision makers and nobody in politics, as far as I can tell, wants to do the really hard stuff. There’s a school board, there’s a superintendent, there’s a county commission, there’s a county mayor. Getting all those folks on the same page and then acting in the same direction is very difficult. And so …instead you see a lot of people passing the buck.
Semien: If you’re elected mayor, how are you going to get everybody on the same page?
Harris: There’s some process things, maybe even some structural changes that might have to be made. Process wise, you gotta be able to negotiate with the school board and the superintendent of the schools, but there are plenty of things that they want that the county mayor can deliver. The county mayor basically puts together the consolidated budget that applies to all these different parts of county government, including the school system. You’ve got a powerful kind of tool that you can use as leverage to do some negotiating between the county mayor’s office, the school board and the superintendent. …
Semien: Is there anything a county mayor can do to help people who have legal problems like those related to getting their driver’s license back after an offense?
Harris: … There’s a couple of things that could be done. The first one… is make sure you have a legislative agenda that includes addressing this issue at the state level and that you put some muscle behind your legislative agenda. That has not happened in our county or city. …I sit at the state level. I see the legislative agenda. They are weak and they put no muscle behind them at all. And they don’t know how Nashville works.
Having served there for four years and having great relationships with everybody who works there, I know how that system works and we could get a lot done legislatively on this issue… The second thing is just the nature of county government. County government is just responding to law enforcement the way you’re talking about, which is basically the court system… If you’ve got somebody that knows the system a little bit and has a fresh perspective, then they’ll innovate around how to make sure people don’t miss their court date.
… You can’t have somebody in the county mayor’s office that doesn’t interact with the criminal court clerk, that doesn’t interact with the court clerk and doesn’t understand how these things are tied together and doesn’t know how to set a vision; take a risk.
Semien: If there’s an initiative that comes out of one of these issues that you’re championing, and another public official is standing in the way, or maybe their office is standing in the way, maybe they need an elbow in their back. Are you willing to do that?
Harris: No doubt about it. I am not saying I’m gonna win all these battles but I am going to go toward it. People have to decide who’s right and who’s wrong on some of these issues and I am prepared to lose on some. But I am going to take up the fight.