VOL. 133 | NO. 119 | Thursday, June 14, 2018
Harris and Lenoir Clash in First General Election Mayoral Debate
By Bill Dries
The two contenders for Shelby County mayor on the Aug. 2 ballot differed Wednesday, June 13, on leadership experience and whether county government has been breaking ground on important issues or has taken too long to act on those issues.
Republican nominee David Lenoir and Democratic nominee Lee Harris met in the first general election debate at the Memphis Kiwanis Club luncheon at the University Club.
The debate was broadcast on social media by News Channel 3.
It began with Lenoir touting county government’s improved financial condition and his role in that as Shelby County trustee starting in late 2010.
“We need to continue to make progress,” he said. “I fervently believe the next Shelby County mayor needs to be someone that has proven executive leadership experience, someone that understands the finances of Shelby County, understands how to run an operation, knows how to make committed investments to education and … someone who is willing to be tough on violent crime.”
Harris touted his leadership as a former Memphis City Council member and current Democratic state senator.
“The big issue in our community is poverty, followed by inequality and segregation,” Harris told the luncheon crowd of 100. “That is the conversation that is long overdue.”
Lenoir drew a distinction between his leadership as an administrator and Harris’ role as an elected member of legislative bodies.
“I have led on many of the tough challenges,” Harris countered.
Harris said as mayor he would seek to align the county’s budget process so the mayor and commission aren’t waiting on the Shelby County Schools budget proposal after the county mayor delivers the administration’s budget proposal to the commission.
He also touted his experience in the Legislature, saying the county’s wish list of legislation it wants to see passed and legislation it opposes “fall flat” in Nashville.
The two also clashed on the issue of poverty in a city and county that has a historically high poverty rate.
“If we are going to address poverty on a large scale, and this is something that keeps me up at night – we have to create wealth in our community,” Lenoir said. “Wealth creation is the only way to address poverty on large scale. That is jobs plus financial education. It’s not how much you make. It’s how much you keep.”
He also touted his work as trustee on financial education initiatives.
Harris said county government needs to invest more in education as a solution to poverty.
“Investments in education are really tough things to do because if you are really going to move the needle on education you’ve got to have the school board in the boat with you, the superintendent, the county commissioners and the county mayor,” he added. “For the most part politicians, at least in my experience, are looking for an easy headline and lay-ups. And so there has not been enough of a focus on the really tough issues that would remediate poverty, like investing in education.”
Lenoir said he would appoint an “education liaison” in the mayor’s office to work with the county’s seven public school systems on a daily basis.
Harris suggested county funding of public transportation as “low-hanging fruit” toward reducing poverty, citing 7.5 million riders a year on Memphis Area Transit Authority buses.
“It is the most broadly impactful organization in town besides the schools,” Harris said. “We’ve got to change our mindset.”
Lenoir suggested Harris was running for the wrong office.
“Everything that Mr. Harris has mentioned really all resides inside the city of Memphis,” he said. “If we’re going to talk about transit, maybe we need to talk to the city mayor and maybe Mr. Harris needs to run for city mayor and address the transit issue.”
Lenoir also faulted Harris for voting against a bill in the Tennessee Legislature to increase sentences for convicted felons who are convicted later of having guns, which the law forbids felons to possess once they have served prison time.
“In terms of addressing gun violence, we first of all have to think about who is committing those crimes in our community,” he said. “And do we need tougher sentences for violent criminals? I believe that we do. My world view says that there is evil that exists in the world and we need to address the evil that exists in the world.”
“I am for locking up violent offenders for as long as we possibly can,” Harris responded. “The reality is … the county mayor probably wouldn’t play a role in how long violent offenders get locked up.”
But Harris said as mayor he would push for re-entry programs for offenders who are released from prison and programs for teenagers “to make sure they don’t have a reason to commit violent crimes in the first place.”
“Right now we’ve got aging facilities. We’ve got 201 Poplar that’s aging. We’ve got the detention facility for juveniles that’s aging,” he said. “And the question becomes the next mayor or maybe the mayor after that will have to build a new facility. The question is will they build a facility with more jail cells so that we can incarcerate more people, or do they think about this thing in a different way altogether?”