Changing who wins and how long they serve: A call for city primaries and extending term limits

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 25, 2022 10:48 AM CT | Published: April 25, 2022 4:00 AM CT

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Term limits and partisan politics are important undercurrents in city and county government.

Related coverage:
The Backstory: Primaries

The Backstory: Term Limits

Both have term limits. One has partisan primaries and the other doesn’t.

So when Memphis City Council member Martavius Jones went public last week with ballot questions on both, it wasn’t surprising. And positions began forming quickly — reactions even quicker.

“For the record, if this fails and I’m off the council next year —fine,” Jones said during The Daily Memphian’s On The Record podcast.

“This is not me wanting to continue an indefinite political career,” he said. “I think there is still great work to be done on the Memphis City Council.”

Jones has proposed two referendum ordinances that, if approved on three votes by the council, would put ballot questions to voters that would change the city charter if voters approve them.

Council debates partisan city primaries and term limits

One would extend the current limit of two consecutive terms for city council members to three consecutive terms.

The other would allow for the local Democratic and Republican parties to hold partisan primaries in advance of city elections for Memphis mayor and City Council.

The ordinance to put the term limits extension on the August ballot was approved Tuesday, April 19, on the first of three readings.

November ballot questions join long line in last decade

The council takes up first reading of the partisan primary measure at its May 10 meeting.

The two referendum ordinances represent fundamental changes to the 54-year history of the city’s mayor-council form of government — not the structure, but who gets elected and how long they can serve.

It comes almost four years after Memphis voters rejected a similar charter amendment to extend the limit to three terms for the mayor as well as the council. Jones didn’t include a three-term limit for the mayor in his proposal.

“This would give a little bit more advantage to the legislative branch of government. The people who really run the city of Memphis aren’t the elected people,” Jones said of the omission. “These are the career people who may be with the city 20, 25, 30 years. A lot of them … they can wait the elected officials out before we can have any type of substantive change.”

Ballot Basics: Memphis’ three city charter referendums

City council member Chase Carlisle said he could possibly support a three-term limit if it didn’t apply to the current council members.

Jones is one of five council members serving their second consecutive term.

Carlisle has larger philosophical problems with both ballot questions, starting with Jones’ assertion that three terms are necessary for council members because of the “steep learning curve” that council members have by virtue of being part-time versus a full-time mayor.

Jones is far from the first advocate of expanded term limits to use that phrase.

“I think it’s a little bit of a cop-out to say that it’s a steep learning curve,” Carlisle said in the On The Record podcast. “It’s really saying I haven’t put in as much time and work to get up to speed as I should have. … When you run for office, you have to put in the work to make things happen sooner rather than later.”

He also said two terms, or eight years, can accelerate the pace of change.

“I certainly don’t think that the average citizen of Memphis thinks that politicians deserve any extra time,” he said. “What term limits do outside of just getting fresh ideas in is it hold politicians to a clock. I creates a sense of urgency to get things done on behalf of the citizens.”

Despite the rejection of an expansion to three consecutive terms in 2018, Jones said the context has changed for the new push.

I think it’s a little bit of a cop-out to say that it’s a steep learning curve. It’s really saying I haven’t put in as much time and work to get up to speed as I should have. … When you run for office, you have to put in the work to make things happen sooner rather than later.

Chase Carlisle
Regarding term limits for Memphis City Council

That primary change is the city’s response to the COVID pandemic and specifically the council’s push to direct federal assistance to small businesses, including the hard-hit hospitality industry, as well as setting up other similar funds directed to specific sectors of the economy and the community.

City Council approves projects to spend ARPA allocation

“And that’s something we didn’t have a track record of doing prior to that,” Jones said. “It may not be enough to win it over. But I will say that’s a major thing that’s different. We had an opportunity to help dozens and dozens of organizations.”

Carlisle believes partisan primaries in city elections could have the effect of dividing the council along national and state ideological lines, the way the Shelby County Commission has been divided in instances like county funding for a playground at the Memphis Center for Reproductive Health that became a debate about access to abortion.

County Commission Scorecard: COVID tests, CHOICES playground and Juvenile Court

Primaries, to Carlisle, would see council members squeezed by local party leaders to hold the ideological line.

He said the squeeze is best illustrated in the only contested Republican contest on the May county primary ballot between incumbent commissioner Brandon Morrison and challenger Jordan Carpenter.

Carpenter has faulted Morrison for sponsoring $1.3 million for the Memphis Area Transit Authority in the current county operating budget, calling it wasteful spending on what is a city agency.

Political Roundup: Walking local party lines

“Any business leader with half a grain of sense understands that it is the government’s responsibility to talk about transportation and that transportation has correlates with economic growth,” Carlisle said.

“You’ve got suburban Republican commissioners talking about wasteful government spending because that’s a Republican talking point when in reality, all of the data suggests that investments in transportation are exactly what government should be investing in because it helps with gross domestic product.” 

Carpenter has the backing of the other four Republican county commissioners.

Morrison has the backing of all five Republicans in the Shelby County delegation to the state House as well as Republican District Attorney General Amy Weirich.

Morrison-Carpenter matchup draws distinctions, few sparks at Southwind

“It’s partisan talking points versus individuals out there saying, ‘I really don’t love spending all of this money on transportation. But I really believe it is in the interest of the region as a whole, so I’m going to do it,” Carlisle said. “I don’t care about ideology. I care about the solutions that are going to drive and move Memphis forward.”

Jones said partisan primaries confirm what is already a political reality.

“We already know who’s a D and who’s an R on the Memphis City Council,” he said. “It wouldn’t change anything in that respect in my opinion. … I think that for the most part, they have a good relationship. Now, some of them may go into their corners on certain issues. But you have that on the City Council even without having partisan elections.”

Second Term: The Mayor, The Council and The Middle

The value, according to Jones, is that it eliminates the need for a runoff provision in the city charter that applies to the seven single-member districts of the council.

If no candidate gets a simple majority of the votes in one of those seven races, the top two vote-getters advance to a runoff. It is the only runoff provision in city or county government and does not apply to the other six council seats that are divided evenly among two council super districts that each take in half of the city.

Ballot Basics: The enigma of the city council super district

Eliminating the city charter’s runoff provision was another ballot questions that city voters rejected in 2018, along with a proposal to do away with ranked-choice voting. Ranked-choice voting would also eliminate the need for a runoff.

Carlisle said the primaries would become a runoff by another name and don’t eliminate large fields of contenders with the winner of the party nomination conceivably being someone who doesn’t get a majority of the votes.

A guide to how city government works

He also pointed out that turnout in county primaries is historically the lowest for any election cycle in Shelby County politics.

“I think that partisan politics has no place at the local level,” Carlisle said. “To be frankly honest, the County Commission should go back to nonpartisan politics too.”

“Memphis is a blue (majority-Democratic) city,” Jones countered. “I think that we, being the compassionate city that we are, we tend to lean toward those ideals of helping people, of working people, of rights for workers and other ideals that I think are central to the Democratic party. Voters should know those ideals.”


"On The Record" podcast Memphis City Council council term limits city partisan primaries Martavius Jones Chase Carlisle referendums

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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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