Harris goes on the offense in first face-to-face clash with Morgan in county mayor’s race

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 24, 2022 12:35 AM CT | Published: July 21, 2022 4:15 PM CT

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, CEO of The Daily Memphian, airs on WKNO Fridays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. Watch the show now via the video link in this story or listen to the podcast version of the show, which includes extended conversation between the two candidates not in the television version.

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Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris went on the offense against Republican challenger and Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan in the first television clash between the two contenders for Shelby County mayor on the Aug. 4 ballot.

On the WKNO Channel 10 show “Behind The Headlines,” Harris, the Democratic incumbent, faulted Morgan for opposing a minimum wage standard of some kind for businesses that get economic development incentives.

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It’s a requirement the council has debated several times over the years and voted down last October.

“He refused to support a livable wage for those businesses,” Harris said of Morgan’s vote with the majority of the council. “It’s a shocking state of affairs that we are in. And you need someone like me in office that understands these challenges, understands gas prices and understands what families need.”

Morgan said Harris “misconstrued” his stand on the issue and that Harris doesn’t understand how to build economic growth.

“I heard ‘leading’ on the discussion but not really ‘action,’” he said of Harris.

Harris called Morgan’s justifications for incentives “gobbledygook.”

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The clash comes as early voting is underway and runs to July 30. The two have shared the same stage at two forums but the Thursday, July 21, recording of the show was the first direct dialogue between the two candidates.

In their separate campaigns, Morgan and Harris have offered vastly different visions of what the county mayor should prioritize. Each has criticized the vision of the other.

“The number one way in order for the Shelby County mayor to get things done is to be a relationship builder — to be able to work across those different systems,” Morgan said of county government’s diffuse structure, including other elected officials outside the mayor’s administration and seven separate city governments.

“Those relationships over the last four years have not been fostered,” he said of Harris. “And that’s why you can’t point to a lot of action that has happened over the last four years.”

Harris defended his emphasis on “working class families” and county policies like paid family leave and a minimum wage for county employees he hopes will drive private companies to follow.

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“We can drive a debate that has an impact on other organizations,” he said. “Every issue that I have brought to the fore has been a major discussion among all entities around town — from transit to livable wages to child care to paid parental leave. … And it can go the opposite way if you don’t have someone like me in office.”

Morgan said he supports “a competitive marketplace in Shelby County where there are jobs available for people.” Those jobs pay different scales and are different options in an economy where employers are competing for workers.

“That drives salaries up for that work,” he said. “And in order to do that, you have jobs available all up and down the economic ladder.”

If there aren’t incentives, Morgan argues the county as a whole loses the economic growth those companies and projects would bring.

“That is doubling down on poverty wages,” Harris replied. “I think that is completely disconnected from where the vast majority of working families in Memphis and Shelby County sit.”

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Morgan said a minimum wage standard on the front end is a “barrier” that “makes it harder to say yes to Memphis.”

“We get nothing,” he told Harris. “The best way to end poverty is to provide a job. One of the best ways to lower crime is to provide a job for that kid, so they don’t pick up a gun.”

“We’ve got to do something about this argument that we will take anything — we will take poverty wages,” Harris replied. “And that we have to give away money to these big companies and we can’t do anything about it.

“If you are fighting for working families, that means you are fighting for jobs in this community — good-paying jobs.” Morgan countered as he accused Harris of “trying to pit one group against another for the sake of politics.

“It is a very divisive way to look at politics in our communities when you are saying, ‘I am fighting for this group of people who are different from this group of people who are different than this group of people,” he said.

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Harris faulted Morgan for investments in private prison companies that showed up on Morgan’s state-required financial disclosure.

The disclosure is posted on the council’s website for each council member under a requirement Morgan sponsored.

“That’s something the public is going to have to consider when they go to the polls,” Harris said. “Here we have an individual that makes a decision, according to what he’s disclosed, and invest in private prison operations that exposed the possibility of making a profit off our residents going to prison.”

Morgan said the investment was through a managed fund that he didn’t know about until someone saw it on the disclosure and asked him about it.

“I called them that day,” Morgan said of managers of the fund. “And said, ‘That’s not something I want to be invested in.’ It’s just such a nonissue.”

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Harris also questioned Morgan’s recent vote to abstain on a resolution approved by the council this month that calls on local law enforcement and prosecutors not to cooperate with providing information for criminal investigations of abortion providers.

Morgan said his vote to abstain is a reflection of his opposition to any resolution that expresses the sentiments of the council on national issues.



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Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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