Both state Sen. Lee Harris and Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir agree that education, especially early childhood education, should be a main focus for the next mayor of Shelby County if there is going to be a brighter future here.
Harris, a Democrat, and Lenoir, a Republican, on Wednesday agreed more educational opportunity is the antidote to poverty and a lack of jobs, two other top-shelf issues for Shelby County. They just didn’t always agree on how to move forward with a plan of action to tackle these problems, which widely are seen as hampering the city’s ability to attract the kind of businesses that can bring jobs and prosperity.
The two will face off in the Aug. 2 election for Shelby County Mayor.
“I want to be mayor because Shelby County has made tremendous progress in eight years but there is more work to be done,” said Lenoir on Wednesday, in a debate with Harris at the weekly luncheon held by The Kiwanis Club of Memphis at The University Club.
“Shelby County is stronger today than it was eight years ago and I think it’s important that we have a mayor with the right mixture of experience.”
Harris said, “I can tell you that the big issues in Shelby County are poverty followed by inequality and segregation. … That is the conversation that is long overdue and that is the perspective that I will take into the top job if fortunate enough to win.”
Lenoir emphasized that he spent 20 years working in the private sector before coming to county government. He has served as county trustee for the past eight years.
“I’ve met payrolls and I’ve made tough decisions. Hiring and firing employees, growing a business and developing relationships,” he said. “We need to focus on education, we need to focus on economic development and I believe I have the background, the skills and abilities to lead this county forward.”
Harris, who served three years on the Memphis City Council and has served four years in the state senate, said he thinks what is needed is more basic. He advocates a change in mindset of how city and county residents, businesses and institutions relate to each other.
There is a need for a county leader who can campaign and communicate across the entire county, Harris said, touting his campaign as a coalition that is multiracial and that includes a variety of perspectives.
“For too long we have been too divided and there has been too much discord and so that is the perspective that I take to the top job.”
WREG television anchor Stephanie Spurlock was the moderator.
In his opening statement, Lenoir said he wants to continue the good work that term-limited Mayor Mark H. Luttrell Jr. has done to place the county on sound financial footing.
“In the last eight years, really since the recession, we’ve made tremendous progress in Shelby County,” Lenoir said. “We need to continue to make progress. I firmly believe the next Shelby County mayor needs to be someone who has proven executive leadership experience; someone who understands the finances of Shelby County. Someone who understands how to run an operation, knows how to make commitments to education and finally someone who continues to remain tough on violent crime.”
Spurlock asked the candidates questions that had been submitted before the program. One question was how the candidates planned to help create more jobs for Shelby County residents.
Harris said Memphis needs to go after companies in industries where it has a comparative advantage.
“Where we sit – right next to the Mississippi River – we have a comparative advantage in terms of logistics. We also have a comparative advantage in terms of tourism.”
Lenoir said, “We need to recruit, retain and reward more qualified businesses in our community.”
Both agreed that not enough has been invested in early childhood education.
“For the past seven years we’ve been talking about funding early childhood education,” Harris said. “That’s too long and we are not moving fast enough. We’ve been talking about more vocational technical education to learn skills like electrical work and plumbing and yet it hasn’t been done.”
“You have to have somebody with a laser focus on those issues,” Harris said, “if you want to get kids to succeed and get meaningful employment.”
Lenoir disagreed that it hasn’t been done, adding that there has not been enough “connectivity” between the schools and private-sector businesses.
He cited a situation where he helped put together an agreement between the Memphis Association of Auto Dealers and Moore Tech that has resulted in the establishment of an auto mechanics school.
Both candidates said they would push to have the Shelby County Commission fund pre-k at a higher rate.
Lenoir called it, “a worthwhile investment and it’s something we need to do. I will lean on the county commission in terms of funding pre-k.”
Harris said he would support expanded funding beyond “what we have allocated so far” because “otherwise our kids fall behind in terms of literacy.”
Lenoir plans to have an education liaison to work with the schools to see that these programs are implemented properly.
Harris said his experience with the city council showed him that not enough cooperation exists between the governing bodies and that, “We need to be working with the superintendent and the school board all year long and not just at budget time.”
Asked about school shootings, Lenoir embraced strengthening school security.
“We need more training. We need more school resource officers in our schools,” he said.
“In terms of keeping guns away from criminals, my opponent voted against a law that would have stiffened penalties for criminals with guns.”
Harris said there is a need to shrink the number of criminals that have access to guns, and added, The mayor has a role to play there.”
“We don’t need to arm school teachers,” he said.
Both candidates supported efforts to prevent sexual harassment and said their current and past conduct reflects that position.
Harris said his professional conduct has been “without incident,” pointing out that women lead his Nashville office and his campaign.
“Six of our primary candidate victors are women, so we have a chance to put in top leadership positions, women,” Harris said. “That’s important. That is a game changer. Then the policy debate is a different kind of debate and discussions about sexual harassment will actually happen. …
“I am for sexual harassment training, mandatory sexual harassment training and I certainly push those issues at the state level.”
Lenoir said the me too movement and sexual harassment “is a conversation that we need to have. In fact, in my office we brought in outside trainers to talk to our staff about how to handle harassment and sexual harassment.”
Lenoir said the top two people in his office are women.
Lenoir and Harris both said they would not support lobbying the legislature for taxing authority for local school boards.
Former state senator Beverly Marrero said she was satisfied with the debate performances of both candidates.
“I think both gentlemen did a really good job, although I came in as a Lee Harris supporter and I’m leaving a Lee Harris supporter,” said Marrero, “I think he answered all the questions that he needed to answer, and I really think he hit it out of the park as far as I’m concerned.”
Kiwanis Club member Mark Fleischer said, “I think Shelby County is lucky to have two very strong candidates. … They’re both very respectable, very likable and they’re both very strong. I think that either way Shelby County is going to be in good hands for the next few years.”
(Paige N. Williams contributed to this story. A recent graduate of the University of Mississippi, she is an MPLOY Youth Summer Experience program intern at The New Tri-State Defender.)