Given the choice between the incumbent, the past with a former Memphis mayor, and the future with a progressive, millenial black woman, voters chose the status quo.
“The people of Memphis said, ‘Let’s keep moving forward,’” Mayor Jim Strickland said in his victory speech at the Botanic Gardens Thursday night
“Together now, Memphis has…” he said as the crowd finished his campaign slogan: “Momentum!”
Since 2010, the median household income in Memphis has grown by just $150, the lowest increase among the nation’s 50 largest cities, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by The Seattle Times. When adjusted for inflation, that means incomes have actually declined.
Census data released in September show that 34% of black Memphians and 45% of children live below the poverty line, compared to 12% of white Memphians.
Although the city staggers under the weight of poverty, poor public transportation, a stark racial wealth gap and low wages, Sawyer’s urgent call for change didn’t resonate with enough voters. She received around 7% of the vote, compared to nearly 63% for Strickland and just over 28% for Herenton.
“I am still the county commissioner. I might just be one of 13, but that is a powerful voice because all of your are behind me,” Sawyer told supporters and campaign workers at The Cmplx in Orange Mound.
According to unofficial totals posted by the Shelby County Election Commission, Strickland had 53,374 votes to former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton’s 24,046. Sawyer was in third place with 5,278 votes. The rest of the mayoral candidates had less than a thousand votes.
On the trail, Sawyer held her own against the incumbent, who has all but refused to acknowledge her leadership in the movement to remove Confederate monuments from taxpayer-funded parks in 2017, and against the city’s first elected black mayor, Herenton. Herenton was bent on a comeback after resigning months into his fifth term in 2009 during a federal investigation.
Strickland and Herenton refused to debate Sawyer and Strickland canceled appearances before groups he claimed were biased against him. Strickland bragged that he’s added 450 police officers to address crime, but the Commercial Appeal reported a net gain of less than 30 officers, due to a high attrition rate. Sawyer’s campaign suffered a setback after 10-year-old insensitive tweets surfaced. And she was subjected to intense scrutiny after Memphis Magazine ran a racist caricature of her on its September cover.
Early in the night, Sawyer’s supporters were still jazzed about the effort to make history by electing the city’s first woman mayor, a black one at that. After all, this is the city where voters have elected seven men named “John” but never a woman.
Sawyer’s volunteer coordinator, Rebekah Gorbea, said the loss hadn’t hit her yet, but she was grateful for the challenge: “It’s hard to talk to voters about what’s going in Memphis because what’s going on in Memphis is not OK. It was hard to get buy-in, but I feel grateful for people’s time.”
Sawyer, elected to the commission in 2018, insisted Memphis couldn’t wait for her candidacy and the issues she addressed. Now, Sawyer told supporters, she won’t wait to hold city officials accountable to residents, especially as Memphis is on the cusp of a development boom that could leave many people behind.
“So we’re going to keep making sure that we matter in the conversation … that when the ribbons are cut on the project, there are rents that people are able to afford,” she said. “When the ribbons are cut on the projects, there are stores we are able to shop in that are quality.
She’ll make sure that “when the ribbons are cut on the projects, the demographics of the people who are going to make money off of it look just like us,” she said. “We are not going to stop fighting.”
To clinch a single-member city council seat, candidates must win more than 50% of the votes, according to Suzanne Thompson, an election commission spokeswoman. There will be runoffs in District 1 between Rhonda Logan and Sherman Greer and in District 7 between Berlin Boyd and Michalyn C.S. Easter-Thomas.
With 100% of precincts reporting Thursday night, other Municipal Election winners are:
- City Council District 2: Frank Colvett, Jr.
- City Council District 3: Patrice Jordan Robinson
- City Council District 4: Jamita E. Swearengen
- City Council District 5: Worth Morgan
- City Council District 6: Edmund H. Ford
- City Council District 8, Position 1: J.B. Smiley Jr.
- City Council District 8, Position 2: Cheyenne Johnson
- City Council District 8, Position 3: Martavius Jones
- City Council District 9, Position 1: Chase Carlisle
- City Council District 9, Position 2: Ford Canale
- City Council District 9, Position 3: Jeff Warren
- Memphis Municipal Judge, Division 1: Teresa D. Jones
- Memphis Municipal Judge, Division 2: Tarik B. Sugarmon
- Memphis Municipal Judge, Division 3: Jayne Chandler
- Memphis Court Clerk: Myron Lowery
To see the latest vote totals, visit the Shelby County Election Commission election results page.
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, the Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and Community Change.