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Attack ads blanket the airwaves in the home stretch of Memphis mayor’s race

By , Daily Memphian Published: October 04, 2023 4:00 AM CT

Editor’s Note: In the interest of the public good, The Daily Memphian is making its 2023 Memphis election coverage free to registered readers.

The battle for the Memphis mayor’s office played out its final weeks in mailboxes and on the airwaves. The campaigns spent tens of thousands of dollars attacking each other and pitching voters on their vision for the city. 

The ads – whether seen online, at the kitchen table or on the air – illustrated the strategy each campaign employed in the 2023 election’s waning days. With the lack of recent public polling, who was attacking whom gave an indication of where each campaign thought the competition stood. 

Two polls made public – one in August and one in early September – showed essentially a four-way race for mayor among Floyd Bonner, Willie Herenton, Van Turner and Paul Young.

Early voting total highest since 2007 Memphis elections

Young and Bonner were essentially tied for the lead in both polls. And, as the two frontrunners, they appeared to receive the most attacks from opponents down the stretch. 

A key facet of running ads is being able to afford it. Campaign-finance filings made public last week showed three candidates who had six figures in cash on hand for the final week or so of the election — Turner, Bonner and Young.

Businessman J.W. Gibson, who spent heavily on advertising throughout the summer, had only about $2,300 remaining on-hand last week. 

Here’s a look at what the candidates spent and how they used their money:

Turner and PACs take aim at Bonner and Young

Turner, one of the leading candidates, with the help of three political action committees, cast Young and Bonner as connected to the Jan. 6 United States Capitol attack because one of their donors allegedly flew to the U.S. Capitol, Vanity Fair reported. 

Turner ran a television ad that connected Young’s past votes in Republican primaries to different national efforts to change access to voting and restrict health care access. The ad also said crime had exploded under Bonner’s watch as sheriff.

Four mayoral candidates spent $1.76M combined over summer

It also resurfaced a decade-old sexual harassment claims against Bonner. Lawsuits about retaliation claims, brought by former sheriff’s office employee Erica Bills after the allegations surfaced, were dismissed by both federal and Shelby County courts. Bonner’s personnel file, obtained through an open records request, does not mention the allegations. 

Much of Turner’s advertising didn’t focus on his opponents. It instead described him as the Democratic choice for mayor, even though the race is nonpartisan.

Three PACS sent direct mail supporting Turner: Tennessee state Rep. Justin J. Pearson’s PAC, Movement for Justice; People for Fairness and Justice and Tennesseans for Clean Energy. 

The People for Fairness and Justice PAC also sent a mailer attacking Young and Bonner along the same lines.

“Follow the money: Bonner and Young are the top choices for Trump’s Republicans,” the mailer said.

The People for Fairness and Justice PAC and the Movement for Justice PAC have not made any financial disclosures since mid-July, so it’s unclear how much money they have spent in the Memphis mayor’s race. Those details will likely come early next year. 

Bonner calls Young soft on crime

In a radio ad that played throughout mid-September, Bonner’s campaign said Young did not think juvenile crime was a problem, jail did not work as a deterrent for violent crime and asked how Young could he solve the city’s problems if he didn’t think something was a problem.

Young, Turner, Michelle McKissack and Gibson all said they did not believe tougher prison sentences were a deterrent.

Bonner, like Turner, limited the amount of negative advertising on TV. Much of his paid messaging has focused on crime and his track record as a crime fighter, including an ad that featured the shooting Downtown near Beale Street and images of cars doing doughnuts in Downtown intersections. 

Young stays positive, uses two ads to combat attacks

Young responded to the attack ads with two ads of his own. In one that has played prominently on TV throughout the past week, he stands on a playground and describes his opponents as career politicians. 

The second ad, one on the radio, featured his mother, Bishop Dianne Young, saying something similar. 

Herenton does little fund-raising, uses free media

Herenton, a former mayor, has largely eschewed traditional campaigning and has not bought a television ad, according to a review of Federal Communication Commission filings. He’s raised about $36,000, according to campaign-finance filings. 

However, he did use free media – the press – during election week. He appeared on conservative radio station KWAM and ESPN 92.9 (WMFS-FM) sports-talk radio. 


Willie Herenton Paul Young Floyd Bonner Van Turner J.W. Gibson Michelle McKissack 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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