Mayor's race

In bid for mayor, Paul Young is out to change the city’s reality

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 03, 2023 12:51 PM CT | Published: September 03, 2023 4:00 AM CT
In a series of stories, The Daily Memphian is featuring the candidates for Memphis mayor, including full profiles of the major candidates. The full profiles are running in alphabetical order by the candidate’s last name. We’re making these stories free for all readers.

Paul Young’s political and public career began because his mother had a dream when he was in college.

Dianne Young, a longtime pastor in Oakhaven, had a dream that her quiet son, then studying electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, would be in politics. 

At first, she thought it was fulfilled when Young began his career in government, first working for Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell. Then, she said, he started telling her late husband that he wanted to run for Memphis mayor. 

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It is with that dream in the background that Young has tread his slow, steady rise through local governments. After he left Shelby County, he led the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development and then became Downtown Memphis Commission CEO. Along the way, he accumulated the experience that he says makes him unique among the mayoral candidates. 

No new mayor in Memphis history, he said, would be as prepared for the mayor’s office as he is now. 

That assertion shows Young’s considerable confidence and ambition. He believes he is going to win the first political race he’s ever run. The early returns — polling and fundraising — reveal that his audacity is not misplaced hope. He’s near the top of recent polls and leads the field in fundraising. 

Throughout the past year, Young has worked to make his statement more than the bold proclamation of an inexperienced politician. He’s tried to speak, fund-raise and handshake it into existence.

Along the way, Young has faced questions about his past votes for Republican candidates in a heavily Democratic city, and notable incidents of crime Downtown have forced the Downtown Memphis Commission chief executive to answer questions about the business district’s safety. 

The drive to succeed and serve

On July 15, Young drove south down Highland Street from his campaign headquarters in the heart of East Memphis. The drive illustrated the dichotomy of the city. First, it wound through East Memphis, then the university district, then where Highland Street becomes Radford and then Prescott roads as it approaches the well-worn race track that is Interstate 240. 

The yards grow a little more ragged. The sidewalks are a little more cracked. Young took in all of it with one hand on the steering wheel. He saw a city he ached to fix, to aid. 

“I want to make sure we are making investments in our community that (are) going to change it forever,” Young said in an earlier interview. 

At present, as DMC CEO, he is tasked with catalyzing investment in Downtown and providing incentives to developers to spark that investment. A frequent criticism of those projects is the developers receive incentives and then do nothing with the property. 

When asked about that on Aug. 31, Young said people misunderstand tax incentives and said if developers do nothing with a project, they aren’t receiving the incentive, which is tied to completion. 

Young’s desire to help comes from his parents, the late Bishop William Young, and his mother, Dianne. They raised their three children to serve. Young’s sister, Dorcas Young-Griffin, is Shelby County government’s head of community services.

He recounted how his parents would often head to the hospital to comfort an ailing parishioner and how his childhood home in Oakhaven often included someone who needed a place to stay. 

The kids were, he said, just raised with the understanding of service. It was that desire to serve that drove him to public service after he graduated from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, with a degree in electrical engineering. What pulled him to his path was not his mother’s dream that he would be a politician but a sermon she delivered about leading a purpose-driven life. 

“She said, ‘God’s purpose for your life will never be about you. It will always be about someone else,’” Young said. “And so ever since that sermon in 2002, I’ve tried to make that the calling card for my life.” 

About 15 minutes later, Young walked through Twinkletown, the well-manicured neighborhood in Whitehaven with a different set of calling cards. He was looking for votes. He dutifully studied the literature handout in front of him. He had written one set of flyers. His team had written another. He preferred his. 

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In the July sun, Young and a campaign volunteer went door to door, trying to reach as many likely voters as possible. In this middle-class neighborhood, he had a list of likely voters in an app. They skewed older and appeared skeptical when they opened the door for a stranger on a Saturday afternoon. 

Young had a few seconds to convince one woman that talking to him was worth her time. Quickly, he told her about his campaign, and what he planned to do as mayor. Instead of asking anything else, she pointed to the picture on the flyer and asked about his kids and wife. She then nodded approvingly and closed the door. 

The interaction was illustrative of what Young, someone who knows the ins and outs of government and can cite the nuances of how federal housing money is doled out to cities, is learning about politics — it’s about connection. Retail politics matter in this city. His campaign started from near zero in name identification. Every voter interaction is crucial. 

His mother, a few weeks ago, noted how dutifully he had worked at retail politics and how he was competing with the same ferocity that he and Dorcas brought to their school year duels over who had the better grade-point averages. 

“He loves it,” she said. 

“I say it over and over ‘I am not going to let anyone in this race outwork me,’ ” Young said.

‘Change the reality’

While Young talks about changing Memphis, his current job as Downtown Memphis Commission CEO runs squarely into the city’s reality every day. 

This summer, there have been several high-profile shootings Downtown. It has led people to question the safety of the city’s core. 

A mid-August shooting on Peabody Place near Downtown put Young and the overall safety plan in the spotlight. In an interview Aug. 31, he told “Behind the Headlines” it is why the DMC, MPD and others instituted a plan to keep from congregating near Beale Street. 

When it comes to the broader crime facing the city and what he would face as mayor, Young supports tough prison sentences and more police, but he does not feel just those two aspects of criminal justice will drive the crime rate down. 

“We gotta stop what’s happening right now, and that means supporting our officers so that they can do the things that they need to do to get the people that are terrorizing our communities off the streets and then supporting the criminal justice system to make sure that those violent offenders stay in jail,” Young said.

“But at the same time, we have to recognize, as a community, that if somebody picks up a gun and says they want to rob somebody, doesn’t matter how many police we have, somebody’s gonna get robbed.”

About six weeks earlier, as Young drove north from Twinkletown, as the streets of Whitehaven became a little more rugged, and worn apartment complexes appeared next to logistics warehouses, his thoughts turned to the violence facing Memphis. 

He spoke of how among many Black Memphians, violence is not just something they see on television; how teenagers growing up have already lost several friends to gun violence by the time they’ve turned 18. 

“There’s so much trauma because of the unnatural level of death,” he said. On the other side of the tracks, he said, such levels of violence and loss are “unfathomable.” 

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“Hurt people hurt people. … We’ve got traumatized people running around traumatizing more people,” he said. 

As he drove, hip-hop on K97 played low on the speakers. Young is a self-described big hip-hop head. Moneybagg Yo gives way to the late Young Dolph and Key Glock. Young Dolph, aka Adolph Thornton Jr., died in a gangland shooting not far off the stretch of I-240 Young drove along in mid-July. 

The lyrics in many of the songs are chauvinistic, profane and condone violence. But the lyrics, and the messages contained in them, reflect the reality of the city he wants to fix, the violence that he had referenced moments before. 

In a sense, Young’s love of hip-hop and his campaign reflects the tightrope he walks in Memphis. 

His job and his long tenure in government have put him in a position to win white voters in the Poplar Avenue corridor — his fundraising indicates he has reached that group. 

However, he is nowhere without a good showing in Memphis neighborhoods such as Whitehaven and South Memphis, places such as the Twinkletown neighborhood he just walked, where voters are looking at the literature he hands out and seeing if he is one of them. 

Young mulled over the question before him. It’s one he thinks about a lot — about the negative messaging in rap and about the reality it reflects: tough neighborhoods, lack of opportunity and hopelessness that plague the city. 

“The way you change hip-hop is you change the reality,” Young said.

If Memphis elects him, he believes he can do just that. 


Paul Young 2023 Memphis Mayor's race
Samuel Hardiman

Samuel Hardiman

Samuel Hardiman is an enterprise and investigative reporter who focuses on local government and politics. A native Rhode Islander who lives in Midtown, there’s a good chance he is Midtown Donuts' top customer.


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