VOL. 130 | NO. 6 | Friday, January 9, 2015
Harris Goes to Nashville
By Bill Dries
At his last Memphis City Council session, Lee Harris reflected this week on his three years on the council and the group of politicians he joined.
District 7 Memphis City Council member Lee Harris left the council this week to become a state senator. Harris proved to be a quick political study as the least senior member of the council.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
“I’m not good at very much, but I am a good student and you have been the best teachers one could imagine,” Harris told his colleagues.
The professor at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law was being modest. He is leaving the council to become a state senator after challenging and upsetting incumbent state Sen. Ophelia Ford in the August Democratic Senate primary. His election to the seat in the November general election marked the first time in 40 years that a member of the Ford family has not held the seat.
Harris was a quick study on the council – a body that can move quickly with few formal introductions to the way the political process works at City Hall. In recent years, the council has picked up speed because of the group’s familiarity with each other.
When Harris won the District 7 seat in the 2011 city elections, the other 12 council members were re-elected to their seats in the largest return of incumbents in the 46-year history of the mayor-council form of government in Memphis.
Once on the council, Harris quickly developed a concise political operating philosophy and focused on proposals that were aimed primarily at neighborhoods.
The council approved Harris’ proposals establishing a city ordinance requiring auto traffic to stop at crosswalks without an accompanying traffic signal whenever pedestrians are present. He also got approved a policy for Christmas or holiday decorations along city streets that will make them available to more neighborhoods than the ones traditionally decorated by the city.
When the Memphis Fire Department moved to close a North Memphis fire station in his district, Harris rallied residents in the area and succeeded in keeping the station open, albeit with less equipment.
Harris was also a critic of the terms of economic development incentives likening them to “corporate welfare,” although he said he recognized the need for them on some terms in order for the city to compete for jobs.
Meanwhile, Harris’ two immediate predecessors in holding the District 7 seat are among the seven citizens who applied for the vacancy the council expects to fill at its Jan. 20 meeting.
Barbara Swearengen Ware reluctantly resigned the council seat in 2011 following her indictment by a Shelby County grand jury on an official misconduct charge. Before that she triggered the first suspension of a council member under terms of the city charter governing allegations of misconduct.
Ware was charged and later entered into a diversion agreement with prosecutors for using her council position to get her car tags and the car tags of others renewed without the then-mandatory auto inspection required of Memphis car owners.
In addition to Ware’s application, the council has an application from business owner Berlin Boyd, who was appointed by the council to fill the remaining months of Ware’s term of office.
Boyd did not seek a full term in the 2011 city elections. But Boyd does intend to run for the council seat on the October ballot as well as seek the council appointment.
In the 2014 county elections, Boyd challenged County Commission incumbent Walter Bailey unsuccessfully in the Democratic primaries.
The other contenders are attorney David Pool, who ran for General Sessions Court judge last year; Shelby County Democratic Party Chairman Brian Carson; Curtis Byrd, who ran in the 2014 Democratic primary in County Commission District 11 won by Commissioner Eddie Jones; Charles Leslie; and Audrey P. Jones.
Harris, in his farewell to the council, had a word or two to describe each of his council colleagues.
He described Shea Flinn and Bill Morrison as “political animals.”
“Where do you think I learned it?” Flinn replied later, referring to his experience in the “hallowed halls of Nashvegas.”
Flinn ran unsuccessfully for the state House before being elected to the council and he was appointed to the state Senate on an interim basis by the County Commission also before being elected to the council.
For council members Joe Brown and Myron Lowery, the two longest-serving members of the group, Harris used the word “mentors.”
For Kemp Conrad, Edmund Ford Jr. and Jim Strickland, Harris’ word association was “practicality and work ethic.”
“Honesty” was his description of Reid Hedgepeth and Bill Boyd. Harris used “consistency and tenacity” to describe Wanda Halbert and Harold Collins.
And he used the words “compassion and heart” to describe Janis Fullilove.
The word Collins used to describe Harris was “committed.”
“You got out of here before we could get out of here,” added Collins, who is weighing a bid for mayor this year.
Harris will be taking a financial hit with the move to the Senate. He has decided not to teach during the semester that the Legislature is in session each year.