Mayor's race

Van Turner has had plenty of stops on path to mayor’s race

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 02, 2023 12:54 PM CT | Published: September 02, 2023 4:00 AM CT
In a series of stories, The Daily Memphian is featuring the candidates for Memphis mayor, including full profiles of the major candidates. The full profiles are running in alphabetical order by the candidate’s last name. We’re making these stories free for all readers.

When he returned to Memphis in 2002 after law school in Knoxville, Van Turner Jr. didn’t see much of a path to elected office.

“A C Wharton had just won county mayor, W.W. Herenton was city mayor, Harold Ford Jr. was Congressman,” said Turner, a former Shelby County commissioner who’s a candidate for Memphis mayor.

“They were there as long as they wanted to be,” he said.

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What changed for Turner and other Generation X politicos was term limits. Shelby County voters approved term limits for the County Commission and county mayor starting in 1998, and term limits for the city mayor and council would start in 2011.

“I would say term limits gave folks in Gen X, who are my age … an opportunity to run and get into office,” said Turner, 47. “If not, our generation would have been skipped, I think because those in office would not have left.”

As Turner heads into the final weeks of the Memphis mayoral race, his campaign has been shaped by that early opportunity to be on the county commission, as well as his own journey from — and then back to — Memphis.

But it’s a campaign that’s also been shaped by criticism of his not living in the Memphis city limits until recently, along with criticism that he is not tough enough on crime. 

Reginald Milton served two terms as a County Commissioner with Turner. Both hit the two-term limit and left the commission at the end of August 2022; Turner announced his bid for mayor on Sept. 1.

“They say it’s like working with cats — it’s dead cats — trying to herd dead cats. It’s hard,” Milton told The Daily Memphian of being chairman of the commission. “Everyone has their own opinion. That’s the way it is supposed to be but it ain’t easy.”

Milton and Turner’s first term on the commission was when the body’s partisan balance was closer than the current nine-to-four, Democrat-to-Republican ratio; at seven-to-six, it was close enough that the two sides frequently swapped swing votes.

“Often we would be faced with decisions that needed the expertise of someone who understood the legal aspects of the issue,” said Milton, who is now deputy administrator of the Office of Education and Youth Services within the county’s Community Services Division.

“(Turner) came from a position of facts and he didn’t let passion alone be his deciding force,” he said. “He always thought his statement out. I found him to be a very rational person.”

From Whitehaven to Japan

Turner returned to Memphis 21 years ago from a journey that took him from Whitehaven to Morehouse College in Atlanta to Japan for two years and then to law school in Knoxville.

He taught English in Tsuru, Yamanashi, a city of 30,000 in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

“The time between undergraduate and law school was very quick and I felt like I needed a break,” he said. “I needed to recalibrate and do better on my LSAT (Law School Admission Test).”

He also was still healing from a car crash that sent him to the Regional One Health Elvis Presley Trauma Center.

“I went to Japan with two broken ribs that were still healing,” Turner said.

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He chose Japan because he had an aunt from Yokohama; she and his uncle, who was in the Navy, met in Japan, married and moved back to Memphis. 

“We would go to her home and she would give us Japanese cuisine and speak the language and introduced us to the culture,” Turner said. 

Turner was the first Black American tutor to come to Tsuru in person.

“They had never seen an African American or Black person in person,” he said. “They would run up to me and touch my hair and rub my skin to see if the skin color would change. I was as much intrigued by them as they were with me.”

He traveled extensively in the larger region, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Singapore, South Korea and Australia.

(Turner) came from a position of facts and he didn’t let passion alone be his deciding force. He always thought his statement out. I found him to be a very rational person.”

Reginald Milton
Former county commissioner

He also took the LSAT in Tokyo.

“It taught me self-reliance, dedication,” Turner said of his time in Asia. “Many life lessons were learned and I think it prepped me for the rigors of law school and a career in law and life.”

After graduating from the University of Tennessee Law School in Knoxville, he considered practicing law in Atlanta or Nashville.

An offer to clerk for U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays drew him home. From Memphis federal court, he joined the Glankler Brown law firm where he had been a “runner” for a summer during law school.

Along the way, he worked on the 2004 reelection campaign of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.

Van Turner says he lives in Binghampton, though MLGW bills show he doesn’t use any water

“I was just grabbing numbers off the polling sites, putting signs in yards, going door to door,” he said.

Turner already had some experience with the basics of politics. His cousin, Bill Richardson, was the first Black man elected to the Mississippi Legislature out of Sunflower County.

“He had a saying — from the cotton fields to Capitol Hill,” Turner remembered. “I remember those little cups they had with his name on it. That piqued my interest as a young child really.”

Before graduating from Morehouse, Turner got a job in Washington in the Clinton administration. He worked for a summer in the Office of Presidential Personnel in the Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Turner also talked to U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis as both attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009.

Turner was already parliamentarian of the Shelby County Democratic Party. He sought and got Cohen’s backing for the party chairmanship, which he held from 2009 to 2013.

Turner’s NAACP roots run deep

Turner met his future wife Tamara at Havenview Junior High School when both were 14 years old. Turner sent her a note in biology class.

“I said, ‘Will you be my girlfriend circle yes or circle no,’ ” Turner recalled this past March during a campaign stop at Four Way Grill.

“Tammie got that note and it took a little time for her to pass it back up,” he said. “So I got scared.”

She returned the note with the “yes” box checked.

It is a story Turner tells often, especially if his wife and mother of their three children is in the room. 

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“I’m going to keep telling this story,” Turner said. “Every time I’m here, I’m not at a son’s basketball game. Every time I’m doing this, I’m not at a dance recital. … That’s a sacrifice for her and the family.”

Turner’s Whitehaven childhood was a mix of NAACP Youth Council, Sundays at Metropolitan Baptist Church — institutions built by earlier generations of Memphians.

“I grew up in the NAACP and Metropolitan Baptist Church was as much a part of civil rights as any other church in town,” he said. “What I represent is a continuation of that service to the mayor’s office.”

As a county commissioner, he represented a district that takes in part of Memphis as well as part of unincorporated Shelby County. And Turner lived in the unincorporated part of the district, not within the Memphis city limits.

He and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. successfully challenged the five-year residency requirement in the city charter earlier this year. Chancellor JoeDae Jenkins ruled a city charter amendment in 1995 approving the formation of City Council super districts also eliminated any residency requirement for candidates.

My father told me of the pain he felt growing up in Memphis and having to be under the eye of Nathan B. Forrest and the eye of all of that oppression in Jim Crow Memphis that he endured growing up.

Van Turner
Memphis mayoral candidate

The Daily Memphian reported in May that although Turner said he lived at a house in Binghampton, Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division bills showed no water usage since the utility bill was put in Turner’s name in late 2022. The utility bills also showed sparing electric usage and erratic gas usage.

At the time, Turner said the house needed work, and its condition prevented his wife and children from staying there.

More recently, a campaign consultant told The Daily Memphian Aug. 11 that Turner and his family have been staying in an apartment in Binghampton throughout the summer and that renovations at the family’s home were underway. 

Turner stepped down as president of the Memphis Branch NAACP in July on the day he filed his qualifying petition to run for mayor, per the bylaws of the civil rights organization.

In his role at the NAACP, Turner worked with attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the family of Tyre Nichols in the civil lawsuit against the city. Turner says he has not acted as legal counsel for the family. 

Forrest remains removed from Health Sciences Park

While critics have questioned whether Turner is too critical of police — some using his support of the Department of Justice probe of MPD as proof — Turner has repeatedly said he supports increasing the number of police officers to 2,500 from the current 2,000. 

“I’ve been a vocal critic of bad law enforcement,” he said at a Greater Memphis Chamber mayoral debate in August.

‘You don’t burn bridges because you might have to go back over them.’

His first term on the county commission included a role as the president of Memphis Greenspace, the private nonprofit that the city sold two parks with Confederate monuments.

Memphis Greenspace then had the monuments removed, including an equestrian statue of Confederate general, slave trader and Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Turner recalled talking to his father, Van Turner Sr., about not being allowed to even walk through what was then Forrest Park.

“My father told me of the pain he felt growing up in Memphis and having to be under the eye of Nathan B. Forrest and the eye of all of that oppression in Jim Crow Memphis that he endured growing up,” Turner said.

The monuments were removed from the parks in December 2017 on his father’s birthday.

Turner called his father that evening to tell him.

“He was dying at the time,” Turner remembered. “And it was just a great birthday present for him on his last birthday. I think it was a present to Memphis because we were no longer under the eye of that white supremacy and of that very painful past.”

When Turner opened his mayoral campaign this past September, it was on the place where Forrest’s statue once stood.

The issue put Turner between the two most vocal advocates of removing the statues — Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and fellow County Commissioner Tami Sawyer.

Van Turner kicks off Memphis mayor’s race as his commission term ends

Strickland and Sawyer each questioned the motives of the other, but Turner maintained his relationship with each.

“When I first became party chair in 2009, (state Rep.) G.A. Hardaway sat me down and G.A. said to me, ‘If you don’t hear anything else, hear this: You’ve got to learn to separate your personal life and your professional life from your political life and keep them separated,’” Turner recalled. 

“And that informs me in how I really want to treat people, because you don’t burn bridges because you might have to go back over them.”


2023 Memphis Mayor's race Van Turner Memphis Greenspace

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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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