Editor’s note: This is the third and final article in a series about the April 5 debate between four of the five Shelby County mayoral candidates. They spoke on key issues at a Ducks Unlimited gathering in Memphis. Local chambers of commerce provided the questions.
Shelby County’s mayoral candidates include Sen. Lee Harris and former Commissioner Sidney Chism, both of Memphis, in the Democratic primary and Trustee David Lenoir of Collierville, County Commissioner Terry Roland of Millington and Juvenile Court Clerk Joy Touliatos of Arlington in the Republican primary. All but Chism participated in the April 5 debate produced by the Shelby County Chamber Alliance, which represents all six suburban communities.
The candidates were introduced by Harold W. Byrd, a founder, vice chairman and president for the Bank of Bartlett. The debate moderator was Richard Ransom, news anchor for WREG-TV Channel 3.
See the April 12 issue for the candidates’ comments on fair representation for taxation and on job training and opportunities. See the April 19 issue for their comments on how the county’s various entities can work together to attract businesses, how to address recently announced sewage capacity issues and whether PILOTs are useful funding mechanisms.
QUESTION 6: “Three of the four of you are running in the Republican primary, and Lee Harris too, but you all want to unseat – or replace, I should say – the current county mayor, Mayor Luttrell. I want to know first of all – a very easy answer – what grade would you give him for his years in office overall and the job he’s done? And follow that up with ‘How would you set yourself apart?’ How would these voters notice the biggest, what would be the biggest distinction between a Mayor Harris, Mayor Touliatos, Mayor Lenoir, Mayor Roland, compared to the one who’s in the office now?”
Harris: “I would give Luttrell an A for most of his years of service, certainly seven out of eight, I’d give him an A. How do I compare? I think one of the major differences between Luttrell and I is that I served in the role as a city council member, which is pretty close to service as a county commissioner, and so I think that I have a better sense, a better perspective of how to get along with a county commission. And so I think in this last year of service that Mark Luttrell had, it was a rough year.
“There was a lot of bitter hostility between Mark Luttrell and the county commission, and I think a lot of that is driven by the fact that Mark Luttrell has never served in that capacity. And so it’s hard for him to navigate that terrain. I think it’ll be a little bit easier for me.
“The same thing is true with A.C. Wharton. I would give A.C. Wharton a lower grade. I know you didn’t ask about him; I would give a lower grade, and I think a lot of that is driven by his ability to get along with the city council. It was tough for him. And it is tough for Mark Luttrell now. So I would give him an A. But where he needs to, where he needs some improvement, is being able to get along with the county commission and I think I’m the voice to do that.”
Touliatos: “I would give him an A, as well. I think what distinguishes me is I’ve been around county government for over 25 years. I started out in the temporary position, so I’ve worked my way up, and I’ve worked with everybody in county government. And I think it’s important to build those relationships and to build those bridges. And you’ve gotta give people respect if you’re gonna expect that back, and you’ve gotta be respectful with each other. We may not always agree, but we need to sit down and be able to talk about it. And I think that’s been lacking for a very long time, and you can see that with the county commission. But that’s about building those relationships as soon as you get into office. And that should never change. You should never air out your differences in public.
“You know, it shouldn’t matter who gets the credit as long as you get the job done. And I’m not one who cares whose idea it was as long as we get it done. And you’ve also got to be willing to get out there and be one of those people to do the job. If you’re expecting somebody to do something or you’re asking somebody to volunteer, you should be out there as well, doing the job and volunteering, and getting people excited and motivated.”
Lenoir: “In all fairness and in total transparency, Mayor Luttrell has endorsed me and my candidacy for county mayor. But having said that, I would give Mayor Luttrell an A+. If we reflect back to 2010, we were emerging, we now know now, from a recession, from a deep recession in 2008, 2009, that occurred. We needed someone with Mayor Luttrell’s steady hand, his administrative ability.
“The first budget meeting that I sat in with Mayor Luttrell and other elected officials, we were in a $20 million deficit as a county. And in the seven and a half years that I served with Mayor Luttrell, we reduced our county debt from $1.6 billion to under a billion. You and I as taxpayers, the government doesn’t make money; we take money. So you and I just because wealthier because of the fact that we’ve been able to reduce our debt nearly $700 million in the last eight years. Our county savings fund, what we call fund balance, it’s up. It’s at one of the highest levels that we’ve had in our eight years.
“So Shelby County’s balance sheet is financially stronger. And many of your balance sheets are financially stronger. It’s time for us to now go sell Shelby County and to grow our economy here in Shelby County. And so while I’m proud of the work –” [The moderator interrupted at this point because Lenoir had reached his time limit.]
Roland: “I’m doing good to give him a B. And that’s a stretch. A lot of people don’t understand how county government works. We have a weak mayor/strong legislative form of government. That means nothing gets done unless you get seven votes. That means NOTHING gets done. I mean none of these fellow elected officials – nothing gets done unless you get seven votes. This mayor has refused to come down and set with us. And the only time he comes down is when he wants to fuss at us about something.
“And let’s get this other thing straight about cutting the debt, okay? Nobody in county government can say they cut debt except for the 13 commissioners, folks. They’re the only ones that can vote on cutting your debt. They’re the only ones that can vote on the policies and issues that cut your debt, and I’ve done that for the last seven and a half years; hopefully, I’ll make it to the eighth year.
“But where I would have a different road as mayor, coming from the county commission I know what it takes to get along with those folks. And I served as chairman and chairman pro tem, and I actually sit on one of the best county commissions that I’ve ever seen right now.”
QUESTION 7: “The next question has to do with removal of the Confederate statues. That was another decision that your predecessor made and supported, that it was time to have those statues taken down. But it was one that was uncomfortable for him, and it was controversial. Do you think he made the right decisions, and why or why not?”
Touliatos: “No, I don’t think he made the right decision. I don’t agree with the way it was handled. I think there wasn’t transparency. That should have not been handled in the middle of the night. People should’ve been given an opportunity to know that was about to happen. Waiting in the middle of the night, you don’t have an opportunity to go file a lawsuit or to stop it. And so, no, I didn’t agree with that.”
Lenoir: “I believe, if I’m correct, I think there’s pending litigation, so I’m gonna defer my answer.”
Roland: “I’m not gonna defer mine. First of all, folks, let me tell y’all, this was actually one of the worst political stunts that I’ve ever seen in my life.
“What it was brought on, was because of the de-annexation issue that we’ve got in three areas – Southwind, Windyke, and south Cordova – this is a political, political backroom deal. He knows he’s gonna lose those three areas if they de-annex. So what’s he trying to do? He’s trying to play to the other side. So he goes in the middle of the night on holiday weekend when he knows – and I’m gonna tell you, there’s enough blame to go around with the government and the state attorney general – and if you want to know the facts, get with me after this and I can tell you; it was wrong.
“Walter Bailey and myself were working with the family, and Mr. Ransom knows this for a fact, because I talked to him about it. We were trying to work with the family, because the family was scared that these graves were gonna be desecrated. And this problem’s not gonna go away. But we can work together to make it happen, not do it under the dark of night. Anything you do in the dark will come to light.”
Harris: “So I’m working this issue some, and I even represent the Millington area. As it turns out, I end up representing the core of the City of Memphis, plus I do represent the Millington area and north Shelby. And so for that reason I’ve interacted with the descendants of the Nathan Bedford Forrest family; I’ve heard their perspective. Their perspective has certainly been fair. At times I’ve talked to them, they’ve even been persuasive to me.
“And so my position was that the monuments should come down but that we should make sure to take care of them and preserve them and put them somewhere else. That’s what I’ve given voice to in the Legislature. I’m in the Legislature now, serve as the top Democrat there, been there for four years, and what I’ve always said in the Legislature is that we really need to work on a deal – a deal to get those monuments out of Memphis and into a place where folks want to see them and enjoy them and appreciate that history. And so that’s what I’ve talked about in Nashville.
“But yes, I was for taking down the Confederate monuments. But at the same time, I have to give a nod to the family and be respectful of them because they’re constituents of mine. And like I say, I’ve been around them and I’ve heard them, and from what they say has made sense to me.”
Closing remarks segment: Each candidate had up to two minutes to address the audience.
Lenoir: “Richard, thank you for hosting us and having us this evening, or moderating for us. And Ducks Unlimited, thanks for having us out today. Know this decision we are making for county mayor is an important decision. It has been an honor to serve the last eight years as your county’s banker. Shelby County is financially stronger today than it was eight years ago. It’s so important in terms of this election that we have a focus on three priorities: Great schools, great jobs, and more efficient government, as well as safer communities in our neighborhoods.
“Great jobs are my background. I spent 20 years in the private sector. I helped build three businesses. I mean, I’m so thankful that the Chamber has hosted us today and is having this event. Small business is my background. I spent 20 years. My wife, Shannon, is a small business owner in Germantown, and it’s so important that we grow small businesses and have great jobs in our community.
“We also need great schools in our community. We have to have a great education system in our community in order to have great jobs.
“So again, I appreciate the opportunity to be with you today. I think it’s important in terms of this election that we elect somebody with the right background and the right experience: 20 years in the private sector, eight years as the banker for Shelby County. Shelby County is financially stronger today than it was eight years ago. So I appreciate the opportunity to serve. I’m going to close and ask for the order: I would love to have your vote. Early voting starts April 11, so we’re less than a week away. It’s important that you go out and you vote for the candidate that you best believe can move Shelby County forward. So thank you again.”
Roland: “Thank you, Mr. Ransom. Folks, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the last seven or eight years – excuse me, seven and a half years – that I’ve been able to serve you. You’ve gotten a full-time commissioner at part-time pay. I’m blessed that our business, we’ve been in business in Millington for 54 years, be 55 if we can make it to June the 15th. I make a payroll every week. I have been making one for the last 35 years.
“I didn’t just, I didn’t just come on the scene. I’ve actually worked and got in the trenches. I’m the guy that they call in the middle of the night when your bridge goes out. I’m the guy that they call in the middle of the night when your sewer goes out. I’m the guy – these folks over here know what I’m talking about – I’m the guy that goes to work every day that takes 95 percent of the calls because I care so much about this community.
“If you’ve ever loved something – your wife or your family – to where it just hurts you, that’s exactly the feeling I got. I feel like somebody’s got their hand up in my chest, grabbing my heart, every day. My wife gets onto me. She says, ‘You put too much into this.’ I said, ‘Well, folks, at the end of the day I don’t want anybody to say anything about him other than he was a good man.’
“And that’s how I get my blessings folks, by just getting out there and working hard for each and every one of y’all on a daily basis. Thank y’all from the bottom of my heart. I want your prayers, I need your vote, starting April the 11th, and I want you to know I love each and every one of y’all. And the reason why I tell folks that is because tomorrow’s not promised. So if we leave here tonight and something happens to me, you know how I felt about you. Thank you.”
Harris: “Thanks very much, thanks, Richard, for moderating. Thanks to Harold Byrd, thanks to everybody else who played a role in organizing this. Thanks to all of you for showing up and engaging in politics and government. My name again is Lee Harris. I’m running for county mayor. And I’m running for county mayor because I think I’ve shown over the course of my seven years in elected office that I’ve worked really hard and that I can work with almost anyone. In 2017, I passed four bills in the Tennessee Legislature … and I did so most of the time on a bipartisan basis. In other words, many, many, many of my bills that I passed in the Legislature had a Republican co-sponsor. And that takes a lot of work for a Democrat like me, who sits and holds as the Senate Minority Leader. It takes a lot of work for me to make that happen. But I’ve always taken that perspective and that style, that leadership style.
“Even the guy sitting next to me (Terry Roland). You saw us talking from time to time. That’s because I try very hard to work with every leader across our county, including this guy. I’ve said before I represent a small part of Millington and Terry’s just no doubt a leader in the Millington area, and every year we raise money and put on a, put on a program for the veterans in Millington. And that program has been going on for three years strong, and that’s the kind of perspective, I hope, if I’m lucky enough to run for office, that I will take.
“I think you’re looking for a candidate that can campaign all across the county, I may be the only candidate who lives in Memphis here, I don’t know. But if you’re looking for a candidate who can campaign all across the county, I can campaign in Memphis, in the suburbs, and take the same message. If you’re looking for a candidate that’s informed on the issues, I served on the city council, I serve at the state level, and by golly, you’re looking for a leader. And if you’re looking for a leader to go into this office, someone who has been on the front lines of major issues while they have been in service, that’s what you’re looking for. Thank you very much for having us. I appreciate your attention, thanks.”
Touliatos: “Thank you all for being here. Thank you for moderating, Richard. Thank you for hosting this. You know, we’ve got to remember that the county mayor is subject to a seven-member majority vote on the county commission, so that county mayor has a little bit of power but you’ve got to be able to work with the county commission. You’ve got to be able to work with the municipal mayors; you’ve gotta work with the city mayor.
“You’ve got to have somebody in office who’s willing to build those bridges, who’s willing to sit down not only with the elected officials but our community leaders, our faith leaders, and those who are the experts around the county. And that’s what’s going to make our county prosper. And I’m a person that, through my experience – whether it was in the private sector, working in our family business in a family restaurant, or with county government – I’m the one that can build bridges, bring people to the table and move Shelby County forward. I’ve gone all around Shelby County and talked to so many people. And we have so many good and dedicated people here in Shelby County that want to do something. And they all are doing something. But they are looking for somebody to be that leader to bring everybody together and move Shelby County forward in the right direction. So I ask for your vote and your support and your prayers today. Thank you all for being here.”