Does activism forge better leaders?

Yes, says progressive mayoral candidate Tami Sawyer, who seeks a momentum that reaches all Memphis ZIP codes

By J. Dylan Sandifer

Seven men named “John” have held the city’s highest office but never a woman, although three have run. Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer wants to change that.

She’s challenging Mayor Jim Strickland in the October election. Other contenders include Mike Williams, Lemichael Wilson and Memphis’ first black mayor, Willie Herenton. The filing deadline is July 18.

In an exclusive interview with MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the activist and Teach for America executive talked about her candidacy following her announcement to run via YouTube video March 7.

Sawyer, 36, talked about what she’d do first, what her election would mean for black girls, and the path between activism and politics.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer pauses at her first mayoral campaign rally Saturday, March 9 at Clayborn Temple. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Day 1: Equity agenda

First, Sawyer would create an “equity budget” for fiscal year 2019–20, which would evaluate the distribution of money for infrastructure and social programs across city ZIP codes.

For example, when looking to fill potholes, Sawyer said she would focus on every neighborhood rather than primarily the most traveled.

Next, she would re-establish a connection between the City of Memphis and public education systems K-12 and beyond, expanding past the Strickland administration’s focus on prekindergarten.

“Right now we’re talking about pre-K and partially investing in that in two years, but what about K-12? What about adult literacy rates?” Sawyer said.

The City of Memphis stopped funding public education after Memphis City Schools surrendered its charter in 2010. Then, the responsibility for local funding for grades K-12 fell solely to the county, per state law.

“We often talk about losing people to Mississippi and Arkansas, where they invest in their education more than we do,” Sawyer said.

At $9,648, Arkansas spends more than Tennessee ($8,100) in per pupil. Mississippi spends $8,702, according to a 2016 U.S. Census survey of school system finances.

“I consider myself a progressive,” Sawyer said. “I think people use titles…to silence what people are really asking for. …What I believe in is progress.”

Sawyer would figure out “ways to support our youth who are in our schools so they can graduate with a high reading level, so they can get jobs that pay a living wage and have good benefits, so they can continue to live in and thrive in our city.”

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer takes a selfie with LaQuita Hayes, a longtime friend, and her family after Sawyer’s mayoral campaign rally. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Focus on good jobs, smart tax incentives

The New York Times took notice of what it called the transformation of blighted areas to “buzzy social hotspots” in Memphis. And Larry Jensen, president of Cushman Wakefield Commercial Advisors, has hailed $19 billion in projects “planned, underway or completed” here since 2014.

For her part, Sawyer is clear that being pro-equity is not anti-business.

She is “excited just like everyone else” about the development boom but wants to be sure businesses create living wage jobs that come with good benefits, especially for blue-collar workers vulnerable to automation that would make them redundant. She seeks to make sure employers who receive tax incentives are “keeping their commitments to our workforce.”

Tax incentives, such as payment in lieu of taxes (PILOTS) and tax increment financing (TIF), have been celebrated as a way to lure job-creating corporations and criticized for giving away millions in tax revenue to profitable companies at the expense of social programs.

A key example is Electrolux, the appliance maker: In January, Electrolux announced it would be closing in 2020, after receiving more than $137 million in tax incentives. The company’s PILOT has since been terminated, leaving 530 people facing joblessness.

Left largely behind are small businesses, Sawyer said, “which drive creation and growth in our communities.”

“With PILOTs and TIFs, I think we need to look at how we are giving those out, who we’re giving them to, and making sure we’re matching that with support for small businesses.”

History-making potential

Sawyer said being the first woman mayor of Memphis would be “a bittersweet occasion” because it’s taken so long.

“It’s our bicentennial, and we have yet to have a woman mayor,” she said. “There are these glass ceilings in place and still these barriers to equity that exist. I would be honored to be the first, and I would hope that it would usher in a new wave of me not being the last.”

Sawyer’s childhood hero was Illinois’ Carol Moseley Braun, the first black female U.S. senator. She also has looked up to Shirley Chisholm, the nation’s first black congresswoman; voting rights and community advocate Fannie Lou Hamer; Michelle Obama, the first African-American First Lady; U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters; and Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost her bid for Georgia governor in 2018 amid allegations of voter suppression by her opponent, Brian Kemp.

On Abrams, Sawyer said her “fearlessness and her fortitude — that’s what I want to be for black girls and brown girls, and just girls period, so they can see that there is no limit on what they can do that Memphis welcomes you just like anywhere else.”

Supporters cheer during Tami Sawyer’s mayoral campaign rally. Photo by Andrea Morales.

Labels don’t really matter

Feminist, leftist, socialist — labels placed on, and in some cases, proudly accepted by newly elected congresswomen of color, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota — aren’t always useful, Sawyer said.

“I consider myself a progressive,” Sawyer said. “We are here to bring equity, bring opportunity. I think people use titles…to silence what people are really asking for. I believe in women’s rights. I believe in LGBTQ rights… . What I believe in is progress.

“We’re going to open the doors of City Hall so that people feel like that is a center of our city where they can come collaborate and innovate, and not be silenced or kicked out or denied entry,” she said. “As a black woman, I’ve been silenced. I’ve been told I’m too loud, I’ve been told I’m too angry, or I’ve been told I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“As a black woman, I’ve been silenced. I’ve been told I’m too loud, I’ve been told I’m too angry, or I’ve been told I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

The Strickland administration has maintained a tense relationship with Memphis’ activist class. A federal court found the City of Memphis had illegally surveilled activists in violation of a four-decade-old consent decree when circulating intelligence briefings of citizens participating in lawful demonstrations, and used plainclothes officers to surveil and photograph protesters.

Strickland conspicuously left Sawyer out of his list of those deserving credit for 2017 removal of the Confederate statues in public parks in wake of the #TakeEmDown901 campaign she created. Notably, black male leaders had previously tried to get the monuments removed, but Sawyer was successful in pulling together a multiracial coalition of residents to apply unrelenting pressure through messaging, marches and showing up at official city and state meetings.

“The mayor of Memphis has had 12 years of service to our city, and while I respect that service and leadership, the time is now to make a change,” Sawyer said.“There is a push for momentum…but that momentum is not reaching all ZIP codes.”

Although politics and activism can be at odds with each other in Memphis, Sawyer insisted the city “should have leaders who believe in activism.” After all, President Barack Obama was a community organizer before taking elected office.

Activism “makes a better leader because it keeps them committed to the communities they grew up serving and want to continue to serve,” Sawyer said.

Strickland has already raised more than $750,000 for his re-election bid, though Memphis demographics suggest a Sawyer win could be within reach. Apart from a policy agenda geared to resonate with progressive voters, as a black woman, she is part of the city’s largest potential voting bloc. Memphis is 63 percent black and 70 percent people of color; Strickland is the city’s first white mayor since 1991.

Less than an hour after Sawyer announced her campaign, “Friends of Jim Strickland” posted old photos of Strickland posing with Shelby County Commissioners as if to signify their continued endorsement.

“Proud that 8 of the 10 County Commissioners who represent Memphis have endorsed me! #MemphisHasMomentum #LeadershipMatters,” it read.

Sawyer, however, appeared unbothered and even amused.

“Yesterday was a crazy day,” she said. “I don’t think I got a chance to see that post.”

Where do we go from here?


This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation and Community Change.