VOL. 129 | NO. 229 | Monday, November 24, 2014
Incumbent Council Members Weighing Choices
By Bill Dries
The only open seat on the Memphis City Council in the 2011 city elections is once again an open seat going into the 2015 city elections.
Current council member Lee Harris was elected to the state Senate in the August elections and will resign effective Jan. 12. That means the remaining 12 council members will appoint someone to fill the year remaining in Harris’s four-year council term of office.
And the choice will affect who gets on the Oct. 8 ballot in the race.
Council members have a decision to make before they start thinking about who to appoint. They have to consider whether they want to appoint someone who will be on the election ballot or whether a majority of them want to appoint someone who will only hold the office a year and not run in October.
For Thurston Smith, who held his first campaign event Thursday, Nov. 20, in Overton Square, what the council decides on that point will determine whether he goes for the appointment.
“I wasn’t planning on it. I’m running,” Smith said at the end of the event that drew a crowd of 30. “I’ve been in contact with members of the council. They’ve presented the opportunity for me to throw my name in the hat and I may do that. But irrespective to that, I am running for the office.”
Smith is interim manager of the compensated work therapy program at the Memphis Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The program is a vocational rehabilitation program that places veterans in jobs. The program also works with employers.
He’s also been an administrative and program surveyor for CARF International, a nonprofit accreditation firm that works with health and human service providers.
“Lee was progressive with his approach and pragmatic. He was present as relates to his constituents,” Smith said of Harris. “I would like to continue some of the work that he’s begun.”
“I’m here to make a difference, not to make a name for myself,” he told those at the event as he expressed opposition to the council’s approval of health insurance changes for city employees as well as proposed pension plan changes.
“People are suffering,” Smith said in assessing the state of the city.
His meet-and-greet was an early campaign event the same week that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. held his first re-election fundraiser. But it is not the earliest. That distinction probably goes to council member Edmund Ford Jr. who held a fundraiser for 2015 a year ago this month.
The world of fundraisers and other campaign events is sometimes a murky one with some events open and others closed and still others hastily organized.
Harris claimed the District 7 seat, representing parts of Downtown, Midtown, Frayser and North Memphis in the 2011 city elections. It was the only council seat on the ballot in which an incumbent council member was not seeking re-election.
The 2011 city elections marked the largest return of incumbents – a dozen -- to the 13-member body since the mayor-council form of government debuted in 1968.
Their return came four years after the largest turnover of incumbents since 1968 when voters elected nine new council members. Two of the four remaining incumbents in 2007 resigned later in the term.
Incumbent council members are still settling on their plans for the 2015 elections.
Incoming council chairman Myron Lowery has said for several years that in 2015 he might opt not to seek re-election and instead back his son, Mickell Lowery, in running for his super district seat. Lowery is the council’s longest-serving member.
Council member Harold Collins is considering an exploratory campaign for mayor next year. If he makes it official and challenges Wharton, he would not be seeking re-election to the council.
For some of the 11 council incumbents the arrival of term limits at City Hall will likely influence their decisions on 2015.
All 11 of the current council incumbents left on the council in January when Harris goes to Nashville started the clock on the city charter’s 2008 amendment limiting them to no more than two consecutive terms of office when they won re-election in 2011.
Those who run for and win another term on the council in 2015 will be serving their second consecutive term of office.
So will Wharton if he wins re-election in 2015, meaning the 2019 elections would offer an open contest for mayor with no one having the advantages of incumbency.
The term limits also apply to the mayor’s office.
The council incumbents interested in being mayor have to decide if they want to take a chance either way – challenge Wharton in 2015 or bank on Wharton’s re-election and wait for an open mayor’s race in 2019.