Republican Brent Taylor wins Kelsey’s state Senate seat, and incumbents win other General Assembly races

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 09, 2022 11:21 AM CT | Published: November 08, 2022 10:32 PM CT
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Incumbent candidates for every state legislative seat in Shelby County won reelection, and no open seats flipped from one political party to the other, in an election where redistricting was a major theme.

In the highest-profile General Assembly race in the county — to replace Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey in the state Senate — Brent Taylor defeated Ruby Powell-Dennis to keep Senate District 31 in the hands of the GOP.

<strong>Brent Taylor</strong>

Brent Taylor

Taylor had 66% of the vote, or 43,117 votes, with the Shelby County Election Commission reporting all 36 precincts in the district and 130 of 142 precincts in the county. Powell-Dennis got 34.0%, or 21,836 votes.

Kelsey won his seat in 2018 by less than two percentage points in one of the closest Senate races that year, winning 40,504 votes. Since then, Democrats have seen it as one of their best chances to chip away at the Republican supermajority. Around 35-40% of the votes cast in Tennessee are usually for Democrats, but the party holds less than 20% of state senate seats — only 6 out of 33.

Republicans stretched the suburban district east in this year’s redistricting process to make it more conservative. That paid off, as Taylor won by a much wider margin than Kelsey did.

The posts: Local voters talk Election Day

Taylor, a businessman, served on the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission and the Shelby County Election Commission.

Taylor is more moderate and business-minded than much of the Republican caucus, but he has made crime a top issue.

Earlier this year Taylor sold his funeral home business, which he said was worth about $20 million.

Establishment Republicans have quickly embraced him and brought their fundraising power to bear. Taylor had much more money than Powell-Dennis, and gave his own campaign more than $420,000. His campaign spent $240,889 in the month of October, compared to Powell-Dennis’s $18,288.

Powell-Dennis, much of whose experience is in education reform, ran as a progressive.

Election Day remains quiet in Shelby County

She said she wanted to address systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality while speaking out against partisan Republican laws. She supports Medicaid expansion, opposes permitless gun carry, and wants to end mass incarceration.

“I appreciate the confidence Shelby County voters have placed in me,” Taylor told The Daily Memphian.

“Voters trusted me on the City Council. They trusted me again on the County Commission and, recently, as Chairman of the Election Commission. Many people in Memphis and Shelby County have trusted me after the loss of a loved one. I’m grateful voters have placed their trust in me to serve them in the State Senate.”

Gillespie wins reelection

State Rep. John Gillespie (R-Memphis) won a second term in office, defeating Democrat Toniko Harris.

Gillespie, the youngest Republican in the General Assembly, won 57% of the vote, or 11,305 votes, according to incomplete and unofficial district-wide returns. Harris got 43% of the vote, or 8,422 votes.

<strong>John Gillespie</strong>

John Gillespie

Gillespie’s House District 97 was redrawn to be more compact; it lost parts of Bartlett and Germantown and now covers a wider swath of East Memphis.

Gillespie, like Taylor, made crime his top issue; he said he intends to sponsor more tough-on-crime legislation in the upcoming session.

“My district sees the importance of a leader that supports ‘truth in sentencing’ and will help fight crime in Shelby County at the state level wherever possible,” Gillespie said in a text message.

“I’m very thankful for the support that the voters in District 97 have given me and I look forward to continuing to serve them for the next two years.”

Harris won the Democratic primary against Houston Wolf by only 21 votes. She said her experience as a first responder motivated her to run.

Barbara Cooper wins final race

Former state Rep. Barbara Cooper (D-Memphis) won despite her death last month, which happened after the ballot was finalized.

Her victory means the House District 86 seat will remain vacant until the Shelby County Commission appoints a replacement; a special election will follow.

Cooper, who was elected in 1996 after a career in teaching, was the oldest lawmaker in Tennessee history. She won with 72% and 7,999 votes over independent Michael Porter, according to incomplete and unofficial district-wide returns. She turned 93 on primary election day, Aug. 4.

The rest

State Sen. London Lamar won her first full term in the Senate against Republican Frederick Tappan.

Lamar, who had been a state representative, was appointed to the Senate District 33 seat in March after the ouster of former state Sen. Katrina Robinson.

Lamar won 22,730 votes to Tappan’s 4,820, according to incomplete and unofficial district-wide returns.

<strong>London Lamar&nbsp;</strong>

London Lamar 

Lamar is the youngest senator by far, and the youngest woman in the General Assembly. She’s viewed as one of the few Democrats who are effective at working with Republicans to get legislation passed.

”I am thankful the citizens of Senate District 33 decided to keep me as their State Senator!” Lamar said in a text. “I will continue to advocate for strong schools, healthy families and safe communities for the future of Memphis and the State of Tennessee. Looking forward to working on legislation for this upcoming legislative session!”

Tappan, a pastor, ran a well-funded campaign, and won the support of some establishment Republicans. Last month several Republican lawmakers held a town hall on crime issues at Eureka Truevine Baptist Church, where Tappan is the pastor. But his efforts were not enough to overcome the overwhelming Democratic majority in the South Memphis district.

(The Daily Memphian attempted to reach Tappan last month for a story on the race, but he did not respond to requests for comment.)

In the only other contested race, Rep. Kevin Vaughan (R-Collierville) easily defeated Democrat Patricia Causey.

Vaughan won 17,027 votes in the District 95 race; Causey won 5,575.

Vaughan, a real estate developer, served on the Collierville school board before being elected to the General Assembly in 2017. He chairs the House Commerce Committee.

Memphis Election Day answers questions away from national spotlight

Vaughan’s most controversial bill this year followed the cancellation of the proposed oil pipeline through Memphis, which environmental justice activists successfully defeated. His bill limits local governments’ ability to make rules about those pipelines.

Causey’s campaign was quiet. She didn’t have a campaign website or any campaign money, and the state registry of election finance slapped her on the wrist for filing reports late.

The following state lawmakers from Shelby County were unopposed in the general election:

  • Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis)
  • State House Minority Leader Karen Camper (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Jesse Chism (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. G.A. Hardaway (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Torrey Harris (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Tom Leatherwood (R-Arlington)
  • Rep. Larry Miller (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova)
  • Rep. Joe Towns Jr. (D-Memphis)
  • Rep. Mark White (R-Memphis)


Brent Taylor Ruby Powell Dennis Barbara Cooper Toniko Harris John Gillespie
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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