Early campaigns for 2022 point to crime, other problems

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 01, 2021 12:03 PM CT | Published: November 01, 2021 4:00 AM CT

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Two years after she ran for Memphis City Council, Britney Thornton says she is “still running” rather than running again.

Thornton opened her bid for the District 10 Shelby County Commission seat in the May Democratic primary. She is running for the Orange Mound-based seat that Democratic incumbent Reginald Milton is leaving after two terms because of term limits.

Milton is weighing a bid for countywide office in the 2022 county elections.

He showed up for Thornton’s campaign opening in Cooper-Young last week although he made no endorsement in a race for an open seat that is expected to draw more candidates.


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Contenders in the May county primaries can’t begin pulling or filing qualifying petitions until Dec. 20.

“I feel like there’s a baseline to build on. You don’t get that all the time,” Thornton said of Milton. “There has been work to build on and I feel a sense of obligation to continue to go further with the inroads we have made.”

Thornton, who unsuccessfully challenged City Council incumbent Jamita Swearengen in the 2019 city elections, is an Orange Mound native who returned to the city as a teacher for seven years. She founded the Orange Mound based nonprofit Juice.


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Thornton is running from a familiar position compared to her 2019 council campaign in a district that covers some but not all of the same areas the commission district covers. Orange Mound is common ground in both districts.

The council district is a larger area because of the math of seven single-member districts that cover the entire city versus a countywide commission with 13 single-member districts for the entire county including Memphis.

The common theme from the council bid is a disparity in a boom in development and long-term prosperity that can be seen in some parts of the commission district but not in others.

“The northeast side of the district and the southwest side of the district — it’s a tale of two different stories. It really is,” Thornton told a group of about 40 supporters at Alchemy.

“Just look and see how prosperity seems to be congregated in a certain part of the district,” she said. “Meanwhile, there seems to be a disconnect and abandonment really with other parts of the district.”

That’s not a knock on Milton, who has been adamant that time is running out to spread the economic development boom to Orange Mound and other areas left out of past booms.


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Milton pushed recently the formation of a metro consolidation charter commission to consider a merger of city and county governments as a way to change the trajectory.

The commission as well as the council, however, have each stopped short of such a move with a study committee.


Chairman’s new committee causes rancor in County Commission


The committee stops short of the process in state law that starts the clock ticking on a consolidation charter referendum with the formation of a charter commission.

Milton agreed to the smaller step and was appointed by commission chairman Willie Brooks to lead the county side of the discussion. But at one point, he expressed frustration with some vocal reservations by other commissioners about even that tentative move.

His argument is that the city’s prosperity should be about growing existing communities instead of new growth and development pushing out long-time homeowners and business owners.

“And 10 years from now, South Memphis, Frayser are just the same as they are now, even worse,” he said at the Sept. 27 commission meeting of what could happen without a big change like consolidation.

“You guys don’t want it — to hell with each and every one of you who let this happen, if nothing changes,” Milton said.

Thornton said she would continue to push for the development and its prosperity to move into areas overlooked in the past and made no mention of government consolidation.

“If you’ve just been in our county for just a minute, you see that things are changing,” she said. “We need to keep up with the times and to make sure that we are fully present and that we are electing leaders who are not ready to just sit there and react to things. … We need people who are looking for opportunities, who are curious about the gaps.”

Meanwhile, another lingering issue could be on its way to the 2022 elections directly as a ballot question or referendum.

A new poll commissioned by the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission could be the start of a renewed push to amend the city charter to allow Memphis Police officers to live outside Shelby County.

The poll by Public Opinions Strategies of 425 Shelby County voters, 275 of whom live in Memphis, showed 73% favored allowing police and firefighters to live in a bordering county or within a 50-mile radius of the county, with 24% opposed to changing the requirement for public safety employees.

By race, 81% of the white voters who participated favored changing the residency requirement, with 65% of the Black voters surveyed supporting the change.


Pandemic, gun violence top concerns in Crime Commission poll


Changing the residency requirement would require a change in the city charter, which requires city employees to live within Shelby County. The charter change would have to be approved by city voters in a referendum on the August or November 2022 ballots.

A referendum to do that was put on the November 2020 ballot by the Memphis City Council that left office at the end of 2019.

The current council that took office in 2020 rescinded the referendum, taking it off the November ballot three months before it was to go to voters.

It was also three months after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody that prompted protests around the world, including 12 consecutive days of protest in Memphis with more than 100 arrests.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland vetoed the council action in a bid to keep the proposal on the ballot. But an eight-vote majority on the council overrode the veto the same day it was issued.


Mayor vetoes, council overrides on residency question


Council members Ford Canale, Worth Morgan (who is running for Shelby County mayor) and Chase Carlisle have all talked of returning to the residency issue and a referendum vote.


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They and Strickland contend a broader residency zone is essential to get the Memphis Police Department to a goal of 2,500 police officers on a force that numbers about 2,000. The want to do it rapidly enough to have an impact on the increase in violent crime.


A tale of two crime discussions


The council, including council members who voted to rescind the referendum, approved the goal of 2,500 officers.

That was after Strickland originally said the goal should be 2,800 based on a recommendation by criminal justice consultants who were part of MPD’s move to the Blue Crush strategy of the administration of former Mayor Willie Herenton.

Blue Crush massed and moved police numbers to crime hot spots as shown by police data.

Critics argue that while it reduced crime, it shouldn’t have been a long-term strategy and should have coexisted with a return to community policing.

Council members opposed to loosening the residency requirement have said they aren’t opposed to having a larger police force, but they also feel police officers should live in the city they patrol or at least the county.

Strickland continues to talk about “the revolving door of 201 Poplar” in his weekly emails as he talks about violent crime and crimes involving guns specifically.


Police force of 2,800 key to community policing, city experts say


In his Friday, Oct. 29, email, Strickland noted what was originally thought to be another interstate shooting four days earlier in which one man was injured and another died later after both were driven to the Regional One emergency room.

Although the car with two other men bringing the two men shot had bullet holes in it, police found no evidence that was the result of a shooting on the interstate.

Instead, Strickland noted two of the four men in the car were out on bond on charges from a fatal shooting in November 2020 that included first-degree murder during a robbery.

The robbery was of people who had sold them drugs in the past, according to the charges, and included 54 gun-shell casings at the crime scene.


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“Fast forward back to the emergency room this week — these men were likely targeted by individuals who surely knew them and may have been retaliating against them for their past actions,” Strickland wrote. “Bottom line — the revolving door at 201 Poplar released two individuals charged with murder and more violence ensued.”

Strickland also said the incident is the kind of violent crime cycle that the Group Violence Intervention Program he formed and funded in the city budget is designed to intervene in and stop.

The still-forming slate of candidates for dozens of nonpartisan judicial positions on the August 2022 ballot includes attorneys calling for a change and criminal justice reform in general as well as incumbent appeals arguing voters should side with experience.

“When it comes time to vote, I want you all to do your best to educate yourself about who is on the bench, who is doing a good job, what they need to do,” Criminal Court Judge Mark Ward told several dozen supporters Thursday, Oct. 28, at Wiseacre brewery Downtown.

Most of those in the crowd were attorneys, which mirrors the attendance at other campaign openings and fundraisers for judicial candidates — incumbents and attorneys running for open positions or challenging incumbents.

“You guys know who you want on the bench. You know that all these men and women are doing an excellent job,” he said. “But there are a lot of people out there who don’t have a clue about who to vote for in a judicial race. It’s up to you to spread the word.”

Candidates in the judicial races aren’t likely to be a vocal part of the larger debate across several 2022 races, including the District Attorney General and Shelby County sheriff, because of the ethical limits on what someone running for judge can and cannot say in Tennessee.


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“We can’t really promise anything. All we can promise is to be fair, to follow the law, to treat the people that come before us with courtesy and respect,” Ward said. “And make the court environment a place where lawyers and litigants want to come to and they are not afraid to come in there.”

Topics

2022 elections Britney Thornton Mark Ward 2022 judicial races Jim Strickland violent crime residency referendum Reginald Milton Orange Mound

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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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