‘It’s not about policy, it’s about personality and effectiveness’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 24, 2022 4:01 AM CT | Published: July 24, 2022 4:01 AM CT

In a primary race for the state House in Northeast Shelby County, the two Republican candidates don’t have major ideological or political differences.

Instead, the main themes of the race appear to be the economy and whether GOP voters think incumbent state Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington) is effective.

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Leatherwood’s challenger, Lee Mills, says the district needs a more energetic leader as Arlington, Bartlett and Lakeland anticipate rapid growth from Ford Motor Co.’s electric SUV plant at the Megasite of West Tennessee, about a 20-minute drive away from Arlington.

“District 99 is the place they’re going to go, because the schools are fantastic,” Mills said in an interview.

Mills paints Leatherwood as “lackadaisical” and a “back-bencher” who hasn’t fought for infrastructure improvements in the area.

Still, Mills said, “there are very few things we disagree on.”

“It’s not about policy; it’s about personality and effectiveness,” Mills said. “Our district is in need of strong leadership right now, and I don’t think he’s providing that. … He is not a bad guy, I just think that he’s not effective.”

Leatherwood defended his record and said voters are more concerned about broader economic issues, which he blamed on the Biden administration. He took credits for tax cuts as the state enjoys big surpluses.

“I think people are just incredibly concerned about our economy and what’s happening with inflation, and I think they’re looking for someone with a proven conservative record to try and address these issues,” he said in an interview.

“I’m proud of what we have done in the state legislature with the economy,” Leatherwood said. “Of course, it’s difficult for a state to overcome the bungling of the economy at the national level.”

There are no candidates from other parties on the ballot, so the winner of the Aug. 4 primary is essentially guaranteed the seat in Nashville.


Mills, who is a pilot for FedEx Express and the former chair of the Shelby County Republican Party, was nearly excluded from the ballot due to a dispute over the Shelby/Fayette county line.

Even though he and his wife, Shelby County Commissioner Amber Mills, had run for office in Shelby County before, the state election commission said this spring they were considered Fayette County residents and were therefore ineligible.

The court dispute prevented Mills from meeting voters and raising as much campaign money as is needed to mount a formidable challenge to an established incumbent.

<strong>Lee Mills</strong>

Lee Mills

Leatherwood is among the top 10 Shelby County candidates for the General Assembly in terms of fundraising, spending and cash on hand — and second or third among Republicans in each category. He reported having $46,304 on hand after raising $14,661.36 and spending $22,618.

<strong>Tom Leatherwood</strong>

Tom Leatherwood

Mills reported raising $3,424 and spending just $87.76, for bank fees.

Third time’s the charm?

It’s the third time Mills and Leatherwood are competing for the seat. Leatherwood won handily in the 2020 primary, with two-thirds of the vote.

He was appointed to the seat in 2018 after former state Rep. Ron Lollar’s death. Mills, who chaired the county GOP at the time, also sought the appointment. He and Amber Mills were both on the GOP committee that chose a nominee for the County Commission to appoint, but they both recused themselves.

“Had my wife and I not recused ourselves, I would be the state rep,” he said. “We did the right thing.”

Leatherwood blamed Mills for Republicans losing countywide seats in the 2018 “blue wave,” which saw a big Democratic midterm backlash against Donald Trump. County Mayor Lee Harris was one of those Democrats to flip an office previously held by a Republican.

“The Republicans lost every countywide position that we held because of his poor leadership in that position,” Leatherwood said. “And that is one of the reasons people recruited me to run for the state House. (Mills,) frankly, was a disaster for Republicans.”

Mills said the party had strong fundraising, but that Trump, as well as “recycled candidates” like Leatherwood, were the main reasons Republicans lost ground.

Few policy differences

While Mills said he would agree with fellow Republicans on just about every issue, he disagrees with House leadership on massive grants to corporations.

He said he wouldn’t have supported giving the Tennessee Titans $500 million for a new stadium, and he said he would have given Ford a much-less-generous incentives package to set up shop at the Megasite. These incentive packages tend to be bipartisan, but opposition on the left and the right appears to be growing.

“I don’t believe in corporate welfare,” he said.

Mills also said he had some concerns that the new school funding formula concentrates too much power in the Tennessee Department of Education and could cause local governments to raise taxes in a few years.

He said he supported “truth in sentencing,” which eliminates or reduces the possibility for early release for some repeat violent or drug offenses. The law is expected to increase the prison population. He notes on his campaign website that the United States has a higher incarceration rate than Russia and China, saying he wants fewer people locked up for minor offenses.

“Yes, we have to have ‘truth in sentencing,’” Mills said, “but we also have to have an approach to reform. The governor is right when he says a lot of these people are going to get out. And what are we going to do?”

Leatherwood served two terms in the state Senate in the 1990s, then was the county’s register of deeds from 2000 to 2018.

In his second stint in the General Assembly, he has supported anti-abortion legislation, this year’s “truth in sentencing” law, the new school funding formula and other conservative priorities.

This spring, he sponsored a bill that would have created a separate category of marriage that excluded same-sex couples. It failed in part because a version of the bill had no age minimum for these common-law marriages, and some lawmakers were concerned it would allow for economic exploitation of seniors.

He also noted that lawmakers eliminated the license plate renewal fee for a full year, reduced the professional privilege tax and cut the tax on food for August, which he said was “unheard of.” Tennessee is one of only 13 states that include groceries in their sales taxes, according to CNBC.

“All of this will keep money in taxpayers’ pockets,” Leatherwood said.


Tom Leatherwood Lee Mills August 2022 election Tennessee General Assembly
Ian Round

Ian Round

Ian Round is The Daily Memphian’s state government reporter based in Nashville. He came to Tennessee from Maryland, where he reported on local politics for Baltimore Brew. He earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in December 2019.


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