(Photo: Karanja A. Ajanaku; Illustration by Lee Eric Smith)

Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir wants a great public school system, a tightly run budget that will give voters more bang for the buck and to attract more industry to Greater Memphis. He also wants to help the poor, attack crime and protect youth from entering the prison pipeline.

The Republican candidate for Shelby County mayor recently stopped by The New Tri-State Defender to discuss his vision of how Shelby County would look under his administration. Associate Publisher/Executive Editor Dr. Karanja A. Ajanaku engaged Lenoir during a segment of the interview.

Karanja A. Ajanaku: This is a county mayor’s race, people run by political parties. This is a very tense political climate from the top all the way down, where – in an unusual way – the mayor’s race could actually be affected by what people think about the presidential race. My question to you is, What kind of a Republican are you?

David Lenoir: I describe myself as a Frederick Douglass Republican, a Lincoln Republican. I believe the Republican Party was built as a party of the people and I believe the Republican Party has shifted away from that over the years. I think if you look at my body of work…I think you’ll see that I am very people oriented the way I’ve governed and the way I’ve handled my role as the trustee for Shelby County…

The main issues of education, jobs and public safety…are the three legs of the stool in terms of my campaign.

John Semien: How does that differ from his (Democratic Party candidate and State Sen. Lee Harris’) campaign in your opinion?

Lenoir: I think it differs in several ways. One is my proven track record in terms of experience. To run a poll and hear that crime is a big issue is not unique to me or my opponent. I think the difference would be in the ability to get things done. I have a proven track record in terms of getting things done.

Semien: So you think as county mayor you’d be better at getting things done?

Lenoir: I truly believe to move our county forward we need to grow our economy… for everyone here in Shelby County. And as it relates to poverty specifically, the only way I know to address poverty on a grand scale…is in wealth creation and not in wealth transfer. I believe wealth is created through jobs plus financial education. And so in terms of the two components of that equation, education is vitally important. It’s not how much you make, it’s how much you keep…

What I want as county mayor is not only to focus on the financial education component but the economic and the jobs component and I’ll take my track record over anybody’s.

Semien: As county mayor you would be using what you have learned as trustee as a springboard?

Lenoir: It’s what I’ve learned over the course of my life. We know that the county mayor has a bigger stage and a bigger platform, so I get excited about the opportunity to get out and talk at a higher level and at a broader level in terms of the work we have done…Pre-K funding, the county committed $6 million early for Pre-K, you had to have the money to do that; so I’m proud of the work that we’ve done on that.

Semien: At a recent debate at the Kiwanis Club there was never a clear answer given on Pre-K.

Lenoir: We need Pre-K, we need universal Pre-K. I’m proud of the fact that we can provide the funding. The majority of the money came from the state. They decided to spend the money on Shelby and Davidson counties on needs-based Pre-K. The county provided additional funding in partnership with that state funding. …Mayor (Mark H.) Luttrell (Jr.) has increased the funding in this year’s budget for additional money for Pre-K. We need to continue to fund and expand Pre-K to where it’s not needs based Pre-K but universal Pre-K…

Ajanaku: Are you saying the philanthropic community needs to step up or that the county needs to step up to fund Pre-K?

Lenoir: I’m not looking at it as either or… There’s never been an education liaison in the mayor’s office; there will be under my administration. I want somebody in the mayor’s administration who is helping guide that conversation but also holding our education systems accountable. …

His or her task is working with the education community, not just the school superintendents, but the policy think tanks… to say what is it we have to do as a county to create a great education system… Whether it’s on the Pre-K end of the spectrum or the college end of the spectrum. this is something that we have to get right.

Semien: What kind of leverage will this educational liaison have to give these  other entities the incentive to work together and get these things done?

Lenoir: I think the mayor has the power of the pulpit and the platform to go out and talk about it.

Ajanaku: You are going to get involved on that level?

Lenoir: This conversation about the school system is far too important for us not to have it; $400 million is a lot of money. I’m willing to spend more money on education but let’s talk about the monies that you already have.

Ajanaku: There is a debate here about how we go forward with economic development, particularly with the E.D.G.E. (Economic Development Growth Engine) Board and PILOTS (payments in lieu of taxes). Where do you fall on that?

Lenoir: We live and operate in a very competitive environment when it comes to economic development… We have to have economic incentives here in Memphis and Shelby County when it comes to economic development. …We need more accountability on economic development and PILOTS. I think we need to be more targeted with our economic incentives. We just don’t need to be handing out incentives on the corner to anybody who wants to open up a business.

Semien: The Democrats recently attacked you for founding the Centuriun Christian Values Fund.

Ajanaku: …Why should we not be concerned that you set that up?

Lenoir: Well, number one, it was a fund that was established to help Christians align their values with their money. Number 2, they shouldn’t be concerned because I have no tolerance for discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation. My administration does not reflect that. It reflects that I have zero tolerance. So folks should not be concerned about it because they’ve seen for eight years.

Ajanaku: What was that thing? Did you set it up or was it set up for somebody else?

Lenoir: I established the fund. It was governed by a board of directors. … When I started to peal back the onion and look at the investments in the companies inside the mutual funds, I thought, “You know what? How many Christians if they knew their money was in Playboy Enterprises would want their money involved in Playboy Enterprises, a company that is involved in the publication of Playboy Magazine?”

So, I said what if we exclude companies that did not align with Christian values. Then we took all those companies and we re-filtered them and we looked at companies that we thought did demonstrate diversity in management – more women, more minorities on boards, in executive leadership.

You’re talking about a fund that was put in 10 plus years ago; it doesn’t exist anymore.

Ajanaku: Would you do it again?

Lenoir: I wouldn’t do it again but it’s not because I don’t see it as the right thing to do. I just don’t believe that’s where I am in life… Obviously I’d love to stay in public service, that’s why I’m running for county mayor. If I’m not elected on Aug. 2 as Shelby County mayor, I don’t see myself going back to the investment world. …

Ajanaku: (You’ve described yourself as a bridge builder.) Sometimes a bridge builder needs to be able to put his foot down. Are you that guy?

Lenoir: I’m a lead, follow or get out of the way kind of guy. I’m not the dumbest guy in the room. At some point in time, someone has to say we’re charging that hill and that’s the hill we’re charging. I am that guy.