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Incumbent County Mayor Harris rolls to primary election win

On an Election Day that drew sparse voter turnout, incumbent Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris handily defeated his Democratic primary opponent Ken Moody on Tuesday (May 3). 

The win sets the table for the Aug. 4 county general election, when Harris squares off against Republican nominee Worth Morgan, who ran unopposed in his primary. The winner takes office or begins a new term on Sept. 1.

Complete but unofficial returns showed Harris receiving 33,753 votes (69.66 percent) to Moody’s 14,639 votes (30.2 percent) of the 44,448 tallies in the Democratic primary.

Morgan, a member of the Memphis City Council since 2016, garnered 14,259 votes in the GOP primary.

While Morgan is expected to run a similar campaign as Moody ⸺ one based on a Harris’ management of the COVID pandemic and a lack of accessibility ⸺ the playing field will be different in the general election as opposed to the primaries. 

While Moody did not have much luck with the approach, Morgan will play to a different audience.

Harris, meanwhile, is expected to continue his strategy of focusing on working-class issues.

The Democratic Party’s advantage with voters in Memphis likely will be matched by Republican voters in the suburbs and rural areas of the county. 

The fact was not lost on Harris as he spoke to supporters after the Tuesday win.

“We are going to need every single vote for the general election,” said Harris.

Turnout could be another issue for the incumbent. Often, off-year elections benefit Republicans, who typically turnout in higher numbers for the contests. This years’ primaries saw an anemic turnout of 10 percent of registered voters.

Morgan, a lifelong Memphian, is facing term limits serving on the City Council’s District 5, which includes wealthy and working-class communities in an area that sprawls from Midtown to parts of East Memphis.

Harris came into office following the Democratic victory wave in the county general election in 2018. 

In his first term, a parental leave program for Shelby County employees was passed, as well as removing questions about criminal history from the county’s employment applications. 

He also supported 20 percent raises for police and other public safety employees, which were approved unanimously be the Shelby County Commission. The raises were intended to lift the salaries to a competitive level with other communities in the state.

The mayor entered primary day with a sizable lead built up after two weeks of early voting. As polling places opened at 7 a.m., he had received over 21,000 of the 39,000 overall votes cast for the office.

“It’s a great day and very thrilling to be the Democratic nominee and carry the banner of the next three months,” said Harris, while celebrating the victory.

The early vote count was a margin that Moody could not offset. With 41 out of 142 precincts accounted for, Harris had built an insurmountable 39,249 to 12,649 lead. The race was called before 10 p.m.

Ken Moody with his family on election night. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

“We worked so hard and stayed committed to our platform. Only 10 percent of voters voted. We have to increase voter participation by being more engaged and involved,” said Moody. 

He also said crossover votes — or party switching during the primary — benefitted Harris.

Moody, meanwhile, returns to his job as special assistant to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. In that role, he acts as a liaison to various neighborhood organizations and clergy members. He has stated in the past that he has no interest in running for Strickland’s job.

“I’m going to take some time to reflect and see where I want to go from here. I’m a public servant at heart and will definitely be involved in this community in some capacity,” Moody said.


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