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In open state Senate seat, both candidates contrast with outgoing Brian Kelsey

By , Daily Memphian Updated: October 24, 2022 9:54 AM CT | Published: October 24, 2022 4:00 AM CT
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State Sen. Brian Kelsey isn’t running for reelection, but his presence is still being felt in the race to fill his suburban Shelby County seat.

Both Democrat Ruby Powell-Dennis and Republican Brent Taylor would represent departures — albeit in very different ways — from Kelsey, a Germantown Republican who has been one of the most divisive members of the General Assembly.

Early voting for local, state, national general election begins on Oct. 19

The outgoing state senator, who voted to keep slavery in the state constitution and accused the University of Tennessee of “woke-ism” for dropping a standardized test requirement, faces trial on federal campaign fraud charges in Nashville in January.

Powell-Dennis is focusing her campaign on alleviating poverty and pursuing racial and economic justice. She would be the seventh Democrat in the 33-member state Senate, and she said she wants to roll back a number of laws passed by the Republican supermajority in recent years.

One of her goals, she said, is “shining a light on when folks are proposing policy that is harmful to people who are already struggling with the systems and structures we’re in.”

“I’m not running against Brent Taylor,” she said. “I’m running to replace Brian Kelsey.”

Taylor, a businessman who served on the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission and the county election commission, is a pro-business Republican, more moderate than Kelsey, who doesn’t want to initiate culture wars. Instead, he said, he wants to work with local Democrats on solutions to crime.

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“My style will be much more like Mark Norris when he was in the Senate, in that Mark was always very thoughtful in his approach to governing,” Taylor told The Daily Memphian, referring to the former state senator and current federal district judge. “I think the best way to do that is to not get caught up in the shiny ideological issues out there.”

District 31, which Kelsey won by less than two percentage points in 2018, is one of the most competitive in Tennessee, but it was redrawn this year to be more favorable to Republicans. It expanded to the Fayette County line and now covers most of Collierville and Lakeland in addition to Germantown and part of East Memphis. Most of Cordova was removed.

Powell-Dennis believes the district is still flippable. She said the reports of Democrats’ impending demise are greatly exaggerated.

“That’s a big lie, baby, that’s a big lie,” she said. “It’s still a purple district.”

Early voting began Wednesday, Oct. 19, and ends Thursday, Nov. 3. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

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‘Crime is the number one issue’

Taylor served on the Memphis City Council for 12 years in the 1990s and early 2000s. He served briefly on the Shelby County Commission in 2011 and 2012, choosing not to run for a full term after being appointed to an open seat. He served on the Shelby County Election Commission from 2019 until March of this year.

Since two high-profile crimes in Memphis captured national attention in September, Taylor and Republicans nationwide have made crime their top issue — even more, at least locally, than inflation and the economy.

Taylor has a long list of bills he intends to sponsor or vote for, including requiring faster turnaround times for rape kits and expanding on this year’s truth-in-sentencing law with more penalty enhancements and less access to parole for people convicted of certain crimes.

“Crime is the number one issue, and it is linked to economic development,” he said.

He also said he wants to use the state’s power to check Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy if he declines to prosecute certain crimes. He accused Mulroy of “a very liberal, George Soros-type message.”

Attacks on Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, are frequent in political rhetoric and often rooted in anti-Semitism. 

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“For the benefit of Shelby County, we need the DA to be successful. But,” he said, “I also want to hold him accountable.”

He has raised and spent more than anyone else in Shelby County this year, and he has loaned his campaign more than $420,000. His most recent report, filed Oct. 17, shows he spent $136,492 and ended with $395,382 on hand.

The Republican establishment has fully embraced him, perhaps a sign that the Democrats have a chance in the district.

His donors include Lt. Gov. Randy McNally (R-Oak Ridge) and the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and he’s held high-dollar fundraisers with U.S. Reps. David Kustoff and Mark Green.

Taylor spent his career in the funeral industry.

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He founded Brentwood Funeral Services and built it into one of the biggest such companies in the Mid-South. He said it was worth nearly $20 million when he sold it to a private equity firm in January.

Originally from Batesville, Mississippi, an hour south of Memphis, Taylor said he was a bad student, failing seventh, ninth and 12th grades.

“If it hadn’t been for summer school, I would still be in high school, I think,” he said.

While he got bad grades, he was interested in history and politics, and he volunteered on campaigns as a teenager. He said his political worldview was informed by Ronald Reagan, who was president when Taylor was a teenager.

Aside from crime, he said he’s a big supporter of trade schools, having built a successful business career with only a mortuary school certificate.

“Not every child is college material — I certainly wasn’t,” he said. “But I really think I’m the poster child for trade school and community college.”

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‘It’s still a purple district’

Powell-Dennis supports expanding health care, ending mass incarceration and investing more in public schools, and she opposes private school vouchers and permitless gun carry.

While most of her views are firmly progressive, she doesn’t like ideological labels.

“I am a mother and a modern woman trying my very best to talk about things where it doesn’t really matter your political affiliation,” she said. “It sticks people in boxes, and it keeps you from even having a conversation.”

“I see the poverty, I see, just, the inequity in Shelby County, and I want to do something about it,” she said. “The system forces me to identify as a Democrat.”

She said it’s important for lawmakers not to “operate from some sort of savior complex.”

Ballot Basics: Early Voting Oct. 19-Nov. 3

Regarding a law passed this year that makes it a felony to sleep on public property — which critics say criminalizes homelessness — she said, “We need to get stuff like that off the books. The repercussions and the optics of it, it sends a message that we don’t care about people.”

Much of Powell-Dennis’s experience is in school administration and education reform.

She’s worked for TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project), Teach for America and the Achievement School District. She founded Elect Black Women PAC in 2020 and has supported candidates at all levels of politics, including Odessa Kelly, a progressive from Nashville running a longshot campaign for congress against U.S. Rep. Mark Green.

She has degrees from the University of Memphis, the University of Florida and Southeastern Louisiana University. She’s been endorsed by the Tennessee AFL-CIO, Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood and Future901, among others.

She likes that Tennessee’s new school funding formula is weighted to support economically disadvantaged students but believes “it’s not enough” to address poverty and childhood trauma.

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“When our children are coming to school, they’re bringing all those system failures with them,” she said.

While she opposes permitless carry, she grew up with the understanding that guns were for more than recreation.

She’s at a distinct fundraising disadvantage against Taylor. Her latest report states she spent $16,316 and had $7,438 on hand. But money isn’t everything, she said.

“It doesn’t always come down to money,” she said. “We are the grit and grind city.”

Powell-Dennis is from Bogalusa, Louisiana, a small town across the Pearl River from Mississippi. She takes great pride in her family’s connection to the Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed Black self-defense group formed during the civil rights movement of the 1960s which fought against racist violence with violence.

Early voting opens with new voting system and new trends

“It’s a fascinating part of civil rights history,” she said. “When people talk about gun rights in the context of growing up in Louisiana … people had guns to protect themselves from the Klan.”

She said, “They modeled how you can both be Christian, love Jesus, know how to use a gun and fight injustice.”


Brent Taylor Ruby Powell Dennis Brian Kelsey
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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