The people, as in the People’s Convention, say Tami Sawyer is the people’s choice to drive a progressive agenda as mayor of Memphis.
In the run-up to the Oct. 3 nonpartisan Municipal Election, there were rumblings the event would be a glorified pep rally for a predetermined slate of candidates. Twenty candidates signed on to compete for the endorsement of progessive-minded Memphians in an election that will seat a mayor, city council members, a City Court Clerk and judges. In an electronic vote, conventioneers chose Sawyer by 107 votes to Wilson’s 31.
“We saw a great representation of what Memphis looks like — and what it can look like in the future,” co-organizer Sijuwola Crawford said of the diverse collection of about 650 Memphians who steadily streamed into Paradise Entertainment Center on Georgia Avenue on Saturday. “This was a great step in that direction.”
Endorsements for other offices include: Judge: Jayne Chandler; City Council #4: Britney Thornton; City Council #6: Theryn C. Bond; City Council #7: Michalyn C. S. Easter-Thomas; City Council #8.1: Pearl Eva Walker; City Council #8.2: Frank W. Johnson; and City Council #9.1: Erika Sugarmon.
Notably absent was incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland who declined to attend. Willie Herenton, the first elected black mayor who served 17 years and is seeking another term, also was absent.
“The truth is, this is probably as diverse an event as we’ve seen in Memphis but still representative of the demographic,” Crawford said. “There were people who are black or African-American, white or Caucasian, people of Hispanic or Latinx descent. There were people we know who identify as gay and trans. Christians. Nation of Islam. People who identify as not religious. Business owners, and the working poor and unemployed.
At stake, said Crawford, is more than just an endorsement or even votes. The idea is to mobilize money, resources and volunteers around The People’s Candidates, as organizers called endorsed office seekers.
“Our work is going to be [about] how do we build this base for the agenda first, and then for candidates who align with that agenda,” Crawford said. “That’s just the hard work of getting out and having difficult conversations with people.
“People are disengaged and disenchanted because they don’t feel a part of this political process,” he continued. “But what we want to show people is that there is power in our numbers. And we want to link candidates with these issues and from there, with a wider base, we want to move these people to the polls . . . and beyond.”
While candidates pressed their case, there wasn’t so much a slate of candidates as a slate of issues — an agenda focused on city finances, education, crime, employment and housing.
A handout titled Memphis People’s Convention Agenda said more than 2,200 Memphians were surveyed to identify the most important issues ahead of fall election.
“Anybody who cannot support and endorse this is not capable of providing the political service that we need,” Fisher said.
The People’s Agenda was broken into five major categories, with multiple policy points. Among the key policies on the agenda:
- City budget: Include community members in the city’s budgeting process.
- Education: Untether standardized testing to measures of student and teacher success. The agenda also calls for free access to art and music instruction.
- Crime and safety: Seek more support services, including those for mental health and homelessness. Decriminalize marijuana use.
- Labor and wages: Require the City of Memphis, companies that receive PILOTS (payment in lieu of taxes) and temporary staffing agencies to pay employees a living wage. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, such a wage would be $11.06 an hour for a single adult with no children in Shelby County.
- Affordable housing: Create a public agency to end homelessness, as well as build more homeless shelters. The agenda also calls for increased regulations on landlords to ensure property maintenance and fair eviction processes.
And that was just the “official” people’s agenda. Partner organizations to #UpTheVote901 were given time to advocate for a variety of other issues, including reproductive rights, a new green deal and the restoration of voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.
“At no point in recent history have we had 20 candidates for elected office gathered to be vetted by a group like this,” Fisher said. “And be very clear: We are not here because of them. They are here because of us.”
Organizers said more than 900 people registered online for the convention, though only about 500 of those attended. Another 150 people registered on site to push attendance above 650. Those numbers, combined with more than 2,200 online surveys, made organizers feel they’d achieved a solid but accurate sampling of residents and the issues they care about. The crowd gradually thinned out over the afternoon, but well over 100 attendees stayed long enough for mayoral candidates Sawyer and Wilson to present their case.
To create a slate of candidates, convention applied a version “ranked choice voting,” where voters rank multiple candidates on a ballot in order of highest preference to lowest preference. Participants voted using Menti.com, an online app that collects and presents audience feedback in real time.
Even that method of voting was its own political statement. Memphis voters have already approved a form of ranked voting for municipal elections that can prevent vote splitting along racial lines and maximize voter turnout, but implementation has stalled. The convention’s election process provided a learn-by-doing example of how such a ballot would work.
It’s been said that the democratic process is neither quick nor neat, and the People’s Convention was no different. Even as the event started nearly an hour after its listed time, people were still filing in. And as a political event, there were impassioned political speeches that stretched late into Saturday afternoon.
Among those giving brief remarks was Shep Wilbun, one of the organizers of the 1991 Peoples Convention. That year, Herenton defeated Wilbun to win the People’s Convention — and eventually the mayor’s office itself.
“The times are different. The process is different. The needs are different in some degrees, but your People’s Agenda today is the same as ours,” said Wilbun, a former city councilman. “That’s damning in one sense, and inspiring in another. I told them then that 25 years from now, we would need to have another People’s Convention because what was done then will have been forgotten.”
But far from berating the current convention, Wilbun echoed calls for voters to hold elected officials accountable.
“People try to say it’s a generational thing. It’s always young people who want to change lives,” said Wilbun, who said he was 38 during the earlier convention. “And no mistake, the people who are favored, the people who are incumbents, they are not people who want change.”
In remarks after the convention, Fisher said Strickland, Herenton and other candidates had not seen the People’s Agenda, as it hadn’t been released early.
“Now, we fully expect for every candidate to have to respond to The People’s Agenda, and say where they stand,” Fisher said. “What they won’t be able to do is say that they are The People’s Candidate. They won’t be able to say that they were confident enough in the people, compassionate enough toward the people and interested enough in the people’s vision to come out and be vetted by the people.”
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.