A day after he officially rolled out word that he is seeking a second term, Mayor Jim Strickland fielded questions from The New Tri-State Defender, blending into his answers the basic tenet of his re-election pitch – to “keep the momentum going.”
The first question directed to him was this: “What significant policy have you advanced in your term that you believe best impacts the African-American community in Memphis?”
Strickland’s answer packaged “a real focus on violent crime,” “economic development and jobs” and “African-American entrepreneurship.”
Public safety is still the number one concern for all Memphians and his administration has made some important strides forward in addressing the issue, he said.
“Putting people into jobs, 18,000 more Memphians working, intervening in the lives of more young people, increasing programming for young people and giving people real second chances,” Strickland said. “We’ve had successes on all of those points as part of the crime plan and last year we got a little dip in the overall violent crime rate.
“I think over the long term if we stay the course…, we will get a significant reduction in violent crime,” Strickland said in a telephone interview Wednesday morning.
“I think the economic boom that’s going on in this city is a second issue that helps the African-American community,” he said. “…$15 billion in development and we can continue this momentum because the state has given us free workforce development in the form of free community college and tech schools.”
Strickland said he plans to continue to support African-American entrepreneurship, first in city government with focus on contracting with women and minority-owned businesses.
“When I took office six percent of contracts,” went to African-American-owned businesses, now it is 18 percent, he said.
Creating the 800 Initiative, which is looking to grow African-American-owned businesses into larger ones, also helps on the employment side, he said.
“All of these programs (are) trying to build wealth in the African-American community.”
Strickland said four of the six members of his leadership team are African Americans: Memphis Police Department Director Michael Rallings, Chief of Communications Ursula Madden, Chief Legal Officer Bruce McMullen and Chief of Human Resources Alex Smith.
Asked about assertions that his administration does not break down MWBE numbers regarding city contracts because such an accounting would make it more apparent that African American contractors – in a majority African-American city – do not get 30 percent of city contracts, Strickland said, “most of that statement is a lie.
“The prior administration didn’t break it down to African-American-owned business, versus Asian-American businesses, verses Hispanic American,” he said.
Strickland said his administration does, noting that he didn’t have all of the information in front of him.
“The best cities in the country on MWBE businesses is at 30 percent; that’s in Atlanta and Chicago,” he said. “…We’re at 24. We’ve made dramatic improvements, but we’re not done. We’ve done the best in the history of Memphis on MWBE spending.”
Strickland said his administration’s goal is to get to that 30 percent benchmark, and added, “We’re well on our way.”
Asked if he would actively oppose a Memphis Police Association / Memphis Fire Fighters Association proposal to raise sales taxes by half a percent (2.25 to 2.75 percent), if it made it onto an election ballot, Strickland said, no. The associations are pursuing such a course to restore benefits and pension plans for public safety as well as to fund road-paving and pre-kindergarten.
Such a proposal should be placed on the October ballot if it is going to be put to a vote, said Strickland, emphasizing that a special election would cost the city $500,000 to $1 million.
Strickland’s oft-used phrase is Memphis has momentum. And he declares that, “we can continue to attract more businesses and jobs by providing a reliable, responsible government.”
Citing accomplishments, Strickland points to launching city funding for pre-Kindergarten and allowing the community to provide universal needs-based pre-K for the first time without a tax increase.
Strickland said he has created more opportunity for our youth with “an increase in summer jobs, making summer camps free for the first time, and expanded programs in parks; libraries and community centers.”
He touted a reduction in 911 wait call times from 60 seconds to fewer than 10 seconds.
His administration has also doubled street paving, improved trash collection to parts of the city serviced by a private contractor, and created a new city division to focus on improving collection citywide, he said.
“When I took office, our police force was depleted and demoralized,” Strickland said in an e-mail distributed this week. “Since then, we hired more police officers and we are continuing the long-term work of rebuilding the Memphis Police Department with our first net annual gain of officers in seven years.
“You elected me with a mandate for change and that’s what I have done,” Strickland said. “Under my leadership, city government is more efficient, and we passed three balanced budgets with no tax increase.
“ Memphis no longer will grow our population through annexation,” he said. “Instead, we are building a thriving city where families and young adults will want to live and enjoy a promising future. For the first time in decades, we implemented a long-term plan to invest in our core neighborhoods – building up and not out.
“I believe the challenges and roadblocks that have held us back in the past, including crime and poverty, though monumental, are not insurmountable,” Strickland said in the e-mail.
“We can seize the future ahead because today, for the first time in a generation, we can see that future with clear eyes.”