Presidential campaigns have distinctly Memphis flavor

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 27, 2020 8:03 PM CT | Published: October 26, 2020 4:00 AM CT

As early voting got underway this month, the presidential campaign showed some signs of life locally even though the city hasn’t seen any in-person campaigning for president since the March Super Tuesday primaries.

It’s been a different kind of presidential campaign life, however. That’s partly because of the pandemic, although there’s more to it than that.

The intersection of the city’s electoral politics with its movement politics was underway for several years before Donald Trump was elected president. He was elected with 11 electoral votes from Tennessee, despite Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton carrying Shelby County by about the same margin Trump carried the state. 

But the reaction in the blue city surrounded by red suburbs within a red state grew between the 2016 election day and Trump taking office in January 2017.

The occasion was marked by a mammoth local version of the Women’s March in Washington. The Memphis version drew thousands starting at the Judge D’Army Bailey Courthouse and ending at the National Civil Rights Museum -- making it the largest march locally since the early 1970s.

And that march followed by six months the July 2016 Black Lives Matter march that spontaneously moved from the plaza outside FedExForum and grew to an occupation and shutdown of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge for several hours.

The women’s march here, the day after Trump’s inauguration, was the largest of several protests that were outlets for the frustrations of a majority Democratic voting base locally with the results of the election.

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Three years and nine months later, a much smaller crowd of several dozen gathered on the same courthouse steps between the seated sculptures of authority and liberty to mourn the September death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They also acknowledged that almost four years of heightened activism has tested the endurance of those new to the political process in 2016.

Ashley Coffield, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi, pointed out that of the 17 abortion-related court cases pending, there is Tennessee’s abortion ban.

“Y’all, this is real,” she said. “We just don’t have the time to mourn.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m exhausted,” said Cherisse Scott of SisterReach, a local nonprofit on women’s health and reproductive issues. “I’m terrified that all of our work is going up in smoke.”

“It is on the local level,” she said of the issues at stake in the court vacancy and the election. “We are losing our rights faster than we can fight for them.”

“You have more power than you dare think,” Democratic state Rep. Raumesh Akbari told the group.

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Local Republicans, meanwhile, have their own version of political melancholy.

By the time Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden got on stage this past Friday, Oct. 23, at The Grove at the Germantown Performing Arts Center to close out the annual Lincoln Day Gala of the local Republican Party, the outdoor stage had more than a few leaves strewn across it.

An audience of about 200 at socially distanced tables was beginning to feel the cold front coming in with an evening rain storm.

“You preach to the choir because you want them to sing,” Golden told the group at the party’s largest -- and with the pandemic – it’s only fundraiser of the year.

Republican state Sen. Brian Kelsey also acknowledged the Democratic majority in the county that has made Shelby County a blue – or Democratic county – in presidential elections longer than Tennessee has been a red – or Republican state.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “We’re outnumbered.”

Kelsey balanced the local political realities with a reminder greeted by applause that Nashville and the Legislature is “where we still hold super majorities for the Republican Party in the House and the Senate.”

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For local Democrats and other Trump critics, the super majorities are another reason to vote for Biden and Democrats in other down-ballot races for three state House seats considered close.

Republican U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Germantown called for support of Trump’s re-election as a defense of “the American way of life – our freedoms.”

“You can see the crossroads we are at,” he told those in The Grove.

And Republican U.S. Senate nominee Bill Hagerty repeatedly called it a choice between “socialism and freedom.”

Among the Republican politicos at the Germantown gathering was Memphis City Council vice chairman Frank Colvett, who was also among the elected officials who showed up at Limit Breaker Church in Hickory Hill the next afternoon.

“I’m sure I’m in a room full of Republicans, clearly,” Colvett joked to the group of about two dozen early voters who planned to vote en masse at nearby Anointed Temple of Praise Church -- and probably not for Trump or any other Republican on the ballot.

“We may not share the same party. It doesn’t matter,” Colvett said. “The thunder of your vote and the turnout send the message to Nashville and sends the message to Washington that we are Memphis. We are Shelby County. We will be heard. We demand our fair share.”

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Hagerty told the Shelby County Republicans the Democratic party has gone “so far to the left” that the party is “unrecognizable.”

That’s the same way some Shelby County Democrats regard the Republican party during Trump’s term of office.

As Hagerty continued making little distinction between peaceful protests since the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and violence around some of the protests, Memphis rappers 8Ball and MJG were sponsoring a march to the Downtown early voting site with a group of about 100 people following.

While those active in both local parties concede Biden will carry Shelby County and Trump will take the state, Hagerty’s Democratic rival, Memphian Marquita Bradshaw, doesn’t accept any such political orthodoxy.

She contends Tennessee isn’t a red state. To her, it is “a people-powered state” that is neither Republican or Democratic.

The surprise winner of the August statewide primary is perhaps the best example of the move by activists and organizers into retail politics.

Bradshaw is an environmental activist who embraces the “Green New Deal” proposal of new environmental regulations and priorities. She says her connections to other organizers are all she needs to win a statewide campaign and become only the fourth woman to ever win statewide office in the state’s history.

That’s counting two Democratic Tennessee Public Service commissioners – a body that no longer exists – and Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn – arguably Trump’s most vocal advocate among the state’s Republican elected officials.

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Blackburn’s vocal alliance with Trump on all issues and allegations is the model for Hagerty’s Senate campaign. His campaign consultants are the same team that ran Blackburn’s successful 2018 campaign over former Gov. Phil Bredesen – the last Democrat to win a statewide office with his re-election as governor 14 years ago.

Blackburn has called for a complete shutout of Democrats in Tennessee politics.

“We are not going to let the mob win,” she said days before the August primary as Trump again endorsed Hagerty at an online fundraiser.

“We are not going to let the liberals get a toehold in Tennessee,” Blackburn said. “We are going to remain a conservative state and … right-of-center nation.”

In his Germantown stump speech, Hagerty portrayed Biden as a puppet of more liberal Democrats who would “turn our economy in the wrong direction.”

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He also repeated the allegations made by Trump of Biden family financial interests he claims are connected to improper payments by China.

And Hagerty talked of a difference between blue states and red states hit hard by the economic downturn that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These irresponsibly managed blue states, they want the citizens of Tennessee to bail them out,” he said.

Asked earlier about what happens if Biden wins and Trump loses and he is elected to a Senate that may or may not remain majority Republican, Hagerty said he has a “long-term perspective.”

“I’m going to work with whomever I need to to advance the needs of Tennesseans,” Hagerty told The Daily Memphian, still touting his “conservative values.”

“I ‘m going to take that to Washington with me,” he said. “But if I can use my conservative perspective to shape policy under any balance … I’m going to do my very best to carry that strong conservative posture forward for Tennessee.”

Far from being limited to a Memphis campaign, despite having a campaign war chest that has never been anywhere close to Hagerty’s, Bradshaw has campaigned across the state in the primary and general election campaigns, using a network of organizers and contacts developed over 25 years of activism.

Ask Bradshaw about the millions of dollars Hagerty has in reserve, not to mention the millions he has spent, and Bradshaw’s response is to double down on the bedrock of organizing. It’s not that organizers and activists are becoming politicos. To Bradshaw politics is becoming an extension of organizing.

“We have had over 800 people sign up to be volunteers since election day. You hear me? Eight hundred,” Bradshaw said on the WKNO program “Behind The Headlines” two weeks after her primary win when asked about her fundraising goals.

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Earle Fisher, the founder of UpTheVote901 and pastor of Abyssinian Missionary Baptist Church, initially had some misgivings about mixing activism with politics. But Fisher, who was among those on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge in the summer of 2016, has just as sharp an eye for election turnout statistics as any veteran campaign consultant.

He organized the 21st century version of the People’s Convention that was a factor in Willie Herenton’s election as mayor in 1991 and used a form of ranked-choice voting to select the candidates in the 2019 city elections that the convention endorsed.

He has the same bluntness as Bradshaw.

“Activists don’t just do activism because it’s Thursday and they are bored,” Fisher said on The Daily Memphian Podcast as early voting was underway. “We do activism in response to issues that are impacting people on the ground. And those issues are directly related to public policy.”

Fisher sees activism as a step to the politics.

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“If you want to maximize any social justice initiative, you need progressive policy support,” he said. “Activism has to be connected to the political process and the political landscape which is undergirded by public policy.”

Rev. Kia Moore, like Fisher, was part of the bridge protest. She noted at Saturday’s Hickory Hill event that during the protest she was pregnant with her 3-year old daughter, Harper Dream Moore, wearing a face shield and fidgeting a bit the longer the church program continued.

“We are at a moment where we have to bridge resistance to injustice with action,” Moore said later. “We have to take the same passion that’s fueled every protest before then and since then and bring that passion to the polls and conversations with elected officials. All of those things have to work together. We have to have both.”

And Moore said that also means “maybe having conversations with people that we don’t agree with.”

Trump would be a person with whom Moore does not agree. She sees his presence as part of a collision with forces for a different kind of change already present in the city. As much as local Republicans talk about losing what they see as national gains under Trump’s tenure, local Democrats worry about losing gains in a developing progressive political climate that is in sharp contrast with the rest of the state.

“He emboldened a lot of racism and hatred that collided with the passion that was already present,” Moore said. “That collided with the desire to see justice that was already present. So now, there’s a lot of passion. There’s a lot of emotion.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our election coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


Presidential Election 2020 Cherisse Scott Scott Golden Earle Fisher 2020 U.S. Senate race

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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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