Shelby County Commissioners Monday (Aug. 14) set their leadership posts for the next legislative year, after commissioners Miska Clay-Bibbs and Charlie Caswell mustered enough votes to gain the leadership posts.
Their elections to commission chair and chair pro tem (vice chair), respectively, followed a previous vote that stalled out last month.
Clay-Bibbs will replace outgoing chairman Mickell Lowery. Caswell will slide into Clay-Bibbs old vice chair seat. Their leadership terms begin Sept. 1.
“The fact that you have five Black women (on the commission) that were elected at a point in time. That really represents what Shelby County looks like…as well as hearing our voices,” Clay-Bibbs said.
“This is an opportunity to take our collective power to move forward. We will not necessarily always agree, as a whole, but I think the key is making sure we try to get there together, in order to try to change the lives of the citizens of Shelby County.”
The first-term member beat out commissioner Amber Mills for the commission chair in two rounds of voting. Voting for Clay-Bibbs were members Shante Avant, Britney Thornton, Erika Sugarmon, Michael Whaley, chairman Mickell Lowery, Caswell, and Clay-Bibbs. All are Democrats. Democrat Edmund Ford Jr. abstained.
“As someone who’s chaired for two years a body that actually had a bigger budget than Shelby County at the school board and went through a bunch of different trials and tribulations around what it looked like while serving as a chair during an unprecedented time. So, I had the experience of leadership in that way,” said Clay-Bibbs.
Prior to the second round of voting, her opponent argued for a return to an era of bipartisanship. In past commissions, chairs had garnered majority votes from mainly opposition party members. Commissioners would also alternate the party of the chairmanship. Second term members also had a deference.
“I do find it insulting that a first-year commissioner — still a honeymoon period where everybody loves you … thinks so little of the second-term commissioners,” Mills said before the vote.
Republicans on the commission have routinely argued that a return to the past would help the commission work with others also, namely Republicans in the GOP-dominated Tennessee General Assembly, to achieve goals for the county.
In contrast, Shelby County Democratic Party chairwoman Lexie Carter alluded to censuring Democratic commissioners who crossed party lines.
Mills also condemned a rumor that circulated during a failed chair vote in July. Prior to that vote, activists claimed the commissioner was a member of Moms for Liberty. The conservative group advocates against school curriculums that mention LGBTQ rights, race and ethnicity, discrimination, and critical race theory.
Like in previous votes, Mills gained the votes of fellow-Republicans Mick Wright, David Bradford, Brandon Morrison, and herself.
Last month’s chairmanship vote failed after Clay-Bibbs took part in a backroom negotiated deal to save Mayor Lee Harris’ wheel tax increase.
Proposed in early June, the tax is expected to cover the first five years of construction costs – $350 million – of a $1.6 billion rebuild of the Regional One Health hospital campus. New high schools will also be built in Cordova and Frayser.
With votes going nowhere, Harris called a bi-partisan meeting on June 11 to save his second-term centerpiece. The meeting was attended by Republican commissioners Wright and Bradford, along with another Democratic counterpart, Lowery.
Although a compromise reduced the tax from $50 to $25, several Democrats on the commission claimed “misinformation” was spread during the meeting. Thornton criticized the gathering for making “decisions” for the larger Democratic majority.
Opponents also called the tax “regressive.”
Among them were fellow Black Caucus Democrats Edmund Ford, Jr., Sugarmon and Thornton. Budget amendments proposed by the group had been pulled during negotiations.
The impasse led to nine rounds of failed chair votes last month. Clay-Bibbs fell one vote short each time. Another vote was canceled last week.
During Monday’s meeting, Ford Jr. said he would seek the opinion of the Tennessee Attorney General’s office if the tax hike’s passage was legal.
Caswell, meanwhile, gains the vice chair seat after beating Wright 7-4. Also in his first term, he takes a background in community organizing into his new role.
“To be able to serve over this past year. To be able to see this body do something. For many years, as somebody who worked at the grassroots level, on the ground, not understanding why things were not done. Now, I have this capacity to help make it happen upstream,” said Caswell.
Voting for Caswell were Avant, Brooks, Clay-Bibbs, Lowery, Sugarmon, Whaley and Caswell.
Wright gained votes from Mills, Morrison, Bradford, and Wright.