VOL. 133 | NO. 138 | Thursday, July 12, 2018
Lenoir-Harris Debate At NAACP-Sponsored Forum Illustrates Political Divide
By Bill Dries
David Lenoir and Lee Harris brought the Shelby County mayor’s race to the National Civil Rights Museum Tuesday, July 10, after all. In his opening statement, Lenoir, the Republican nominee, talked about his request for a different moderator at the forum sponsored by the Memphis Branch NAACP.
The forum was to be moderated originally by journalist Wendi C. Thomas, and initially Lenoir agreed to the event with Thomas as moderator.
“However, when I became aware of biased public statements after her selection as a moderator, I went to the NAACP and asked that they change the moderator,” Lenoir told the standing-room-only crowd of more than 200. “I don’t mind having a debate and a difficult conversation, but I want to do it where it’s objective and that’s all my request was.”
Shelby County mayoral candidate David Lenoir reacts to Lee Harris’ response to a question during the Shelby County mayoral debate Tuesday, July 11, 2018, at the National Civil Rights Museum. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)
Thomas offered to withdraw without any call by NAACP leaders for her to do so. Lenoir then agreed to participate. New Tri-State Defender associate publisher-executive editor Karanja Ajanaku moderated the debate.
Harris, the Democratic nominee, meanwhile, moved quickly to what he considers to be the primary difference in the general election race after Lenoir talked about considering some county funding of the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
At an earlier forum, Lenoir was critical of such a move saying it was the responsibility of city government. He said Harris should perhaps be running for Memphis mayor.
Since then, Lenoir said he has met with MATA CEO Gary Rosenfeld. Lenoir termed MATA “a city of Memphis issue” at the NCRM gathering.
“We need to make sure that we can get people where they need to go in the most efficient and practical way possible. And if it means that the county needs to kick in some money for MATA, I’d be willing to have that conversation on that investment,” Lenoir said. He cited other county funding needs, including public education across seven school systems.
“Now we need more money for MATA. I’m sure at some point in time we are going to talk about Regional One and the $300 million need that’s over there,” he added. “And we have the highest tax rate in the state. Before we have that conversation I believe in stewardship.”
Harris said that approach is the most fundamental difference of the campaign.
“We also have the highest poverty in the state. And at some point we’re going to have to address that,” he said. “Republicans will argue time and time again that tax cuts are the way to get people to move into the city of Memphis versus Shelby County. That has not happened. We have seen what that has led to. It has led to cuts in local government and our services. It has led to an increase in crime. It has led to a shrinking of our county.”
The divide between Lenoir and Harris was different on the need to grow the local economy and minority-owned businesses in particular in a city that is majority African-American.
“Growth is important,” Harris began. “But the problem is that growth is sometimes at the expense of the folks at the bottom. In other words, sometimes that growth still means we will continue inequality. So those at the top get wealthier and those at the bottom get a little bit of wealth. … That is not what I am after.”
“I’ve seen this process inside and out time and time again,” said Harris, who is a state senator and former Memphis City Council member. “What happens all too often is the usual players eat at the trough time and time and time again. The reason why they eat at the trough is because they are donors. They are the people who decide who is going to run for these offices and they are in charge once these people win these offices.”
Lenoir pointed to his decision as county trustee to deposit the office’s funds with the black-owned Tri-State Bank of Memphis, and using his position on the county pension board to move toward minority-owned money-management firms to manage county pension funds.
“I did not need a group of folks or individual to tell me it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I think what you are going to find is proven executive leadership experience versus ideas. I have that experience. I’ve done it.”
Lenoir said he was the only candidate in the two-person race who has completed every term of office he’s been elected to. He’s currently serving his second term as trustee. Harris’ reply drew the biggest applause of the evening.
Harris won his state Senate seat three years into his four-year term on the council, upsetting Democratic incumbent Ophelia Ford in the primary. He is in the last year of his four-year term in the Senate.
“Nobody else would run against her. … It needed to be done,” Harris said. “In my view, in our community the problem is not that our politicians don’t stay long enough. It is that they stay too long.”
Lenoir touted his “executive experience” in being an administrator of a government organization. He accused Harris of being “soft on crime” for Harris’ vote in the Legislature against a bill to increase prison time for illegal gun possession, including felons with guns.
Harris said his vote was against “a bill that says you should get 10 years in prison for possession of a firearm.
“That targets nonviolent offenders,” he said. “I would rather use those resources to put in prison the rapists, the murderers and let’s stop giving these domestic abusers slaps on the wrist.”