Mayor's Race

‘A responsibility to give back’ drives businessman J.W. Gibson’s mayoral run

By , Daily Memphian Published: August 30, 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.

A city is never just one thing. A person’s life is never just one thing.

Unless, of course, you are living a life in a place where past, present and future feel the same — a place where you feel limited, even trapped.

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That was the life a young J.W. Gibson knew growing up in the Dixie Homes housing project in South Memphis.

“For me,” he said, “there weren’t a whole lot of dreams going on.”

Fortunately, he was not the only keeper of dreams.

His father, James Wesley Gibson, did not believe in Dixie Homes as a place to settle, but rather as a milepost to be put in the rearview mirror as soon as possible.

“My father was one of those gentlemen that came up from humble beginnings as well,” Gibson, 61, said recently from behind his desk in his office at Gibson Companies on Cromwell Avenue. “But he was a stickler for accountability.

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“Back in the day, he was of the mindset that housing projects were temporary housing, and you pick yourself up and move yourself to a better situation. And that’s what we did.”

Today this is what Gibson, candidate for Memphis mayor, believes the city must do: collectively hold itself accountable and not settle for the current situation, which includes a community rife with crime and a citizenry skeptical about elected officials.

His city

Back in the day, James Wesley Gibson literally pulled himself up as a lineman climbing poles for MLGW — Memphis Light, Gas and Water.

“When he retired in 1979,” said the son, James Wesley Gibson II, “he was supervisor of safety.”

A change agent — not just for himself, but for his family — J.W. Gibson grew up as one of six children. Most of all, he had a real-life, walking-and-talking model of starting in one place and working to go higher.

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And so now, J.W. Gibson is a successful businessman and a candidate for mayor. He is a long way from Dixie Homes, yet oh so close, too.

This was, and is, his city.

So it’s not surprising that hanging from a file cabinet behind Gibson’s desk is a recent Grizzlies Growl Towel with the words: “Ain’t ducking no smoke.”

Asked if that’s a campaign slogan, Gibson said: “It should be, it should be. It’s a life position that I’ve taken.”

It also speaks to what will come with the job of mayor, should Gibson find a path to victory.

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“There will be a lot of smoke,” he said with a laugh, adding, “We coming to you hard and we’re coming to you correct.

“That’s from Dad.”

Making a way

Gibson says he first remembers daring to dream at age 15, when he got a job at a little grocery, Pic Pac, on the corner of South Bellevue Boulevard and East McLemore Avenue.

“I was able to have a little money in my pocket, a little freedom.”

He took ROTC at Fairley High School, and that led to the idea that there was a future in joining the Navy.

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“It was a rude awakening for me,” he said. “To be in the Navy, back in the 80s, it was still a relatively racial organization.”

But he did his duty and he’s proud to say he advanced from E-3 (Enlisted) to E-5 and had supervisory responsibilities on ships.

When he came home, Dad got him a job at MLGW and he took business courses at night through Christian Brothers University. But it was work he did on United Way campaigns, on loan from MLGW, that fostered his entrepreneurial spirit.

By 1991, he had started his first business: The Premier Group, a medical supply distribution company that he launched out of his mother’s garage.

“We recognized there was not a locally owned distributor of medical supplies, let alone minority-owned or veteran-owned, so we created a little niche,” Gibson said.

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Next came the Southeast Regional Development Corporation and creating senior housing in Westwood.

By 2004, he had founded Tec-Print LLC and won a contract to print state lottery tickets.

Over the years, Gibson has served on many boards. Currently, he sits on boards for the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, Memphis River Parks Partnership, the Mid-South Latino Chamber of Commerce and on an investment committee with United Way of the Mid-South.

Gibson also brought a bold idea to Hattiloo Theatre founder Ekundayo Bandele: raise money and construct your own building in a better location.

When Bandele opened his new digs in Overton Square in 2014, he did it debt-free. Bandele says Gibson ran the fundraising campaign, brought in more than $4 million for the project and, on top of that, Gibson and wife Kathy made their own “six-figure gift.”

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In fact, Gibson was so invested in the Black repertory theater — and not just financially — that it led to opinionated discussions as the project was evolving.

“He has a very strong personality,” Bandele said. “So, we got into debates — never arguments, but debates — and he’d finally say, ‘You’re the founder, I work for you.’

“His ability to relent, I just really respected.”

Deciding to run

When Gibson told his wife he was considering a bid for mayor, he didn’t get the reaction he hoped he would.

“She wasn’t necessarily all on board at first.”

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Kathy Gibson confirms this is true, saying she was most concerned about the impact on their family. Their twin daughters — Alicia Renee and Savannah Jaye — just turned 14. A four-year mayoral term would coincide with the girls’ last years at home before going off to college.

But, she says, as her husband explained why he wanted to do it, why he believed he had to do it, “I understood. I agreed with him.”

And the twins, at their own pace, embraced the idea.

“They were a little nervous when we first went out on the campaign trail,” Kathy Gibson said, “but they’ve gotten more comfortable. And they’re proud of him and they’re recruiting their friends and their friends’ parents to be supporters.”

Still, it’s a valid question for a man clearly living a good life: Why take on, well, all the smoke that would come with being Memphis mayor?

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Bandele, while surprised Gibson wanted to run for mayor because of how busy he is, says in another way, it made sense.

“J.W. really loves Memphis. It’s Memphis first,” said Bandele, who is not publicly endorsing any candidate for mayor because two others in the race — Paul Young and Van Turner — also have been very supportive of Hattiloo Theatre.

Gibson’s own answer to the “why run?” question: “I could easily walk away and say the h--- with it, but my commitment to the city goes deep.

“My life sets forth an opportunity for those teenage African American and brown-skinned kids who don’t have hope. My life challenges, and how I dealt with those challenges, presents an opportunity to motivate people who might not think they have an opportunity to do anything besides what’s in front of their face right now.

“I have a responsibility to take Memphis to a different level,” he said. “I have a responsibility to give back.”

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To win the mayor’s race, a candidate will have to convince voters that he or she has a plan for curbing crime. It’s a longstanding challenge, with outgoing Mayor Jim Strickland having said many times that the crime problem has been an enduring frustration of his tenure.

Recently, a poll commissioned by The Daily Memphian showed the majority of residents believe crime is a “major issue.”

Roughly half of those surveyed said they have considered leaving the city because of crime.

“It’s a pretty serious state of being,” Gibson said. “There are so many angles to this. We have to understand what causes the issues. We have to be tough on crime to deter some of these issues.

“I’m a potential victim. My family is a potential victim. I’m trying to raise 14-year-old twins in this city. So, I understand. I have a deep appreciation.

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“But the city mayor is limited in what he can do,” Gibson continued. “So, we do have to talk about things people do not really want to talk about, like how do we really make the sentencing fair? That’s being decided by somebody else, so we have to bring those people to the table.

“When we talk about releasing them on bond for little or nothing, that’s totally out of the mayor’s hand. But we have to bring those people to the table so we can tighten that up.

“It might sound like a put-off … but we have to start convening folks,” he added. “And we’re doing that with the victims in mind — they have top priority. We feel that angst.

“We’ve got about 2,000 repeat offenders that are in and out of the jail system. We need to tighten up on sentencing and how long it takes for these court cases to be processed.”

Then and now

When asked about previous mayors over the past three decades, all of whom Gibson says had their good points and their bad, he does something unexpected:

He begins talking positively about the man who is perhaps the biggest threat to Gibson winning election: Former Mayor Willie Herenton, who clearly has the greatest name recognition in a crowded field of candidates.

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“Dr. Herenton was the most bold, up front, able to articulate his thoughts and his wishes and visions for this city,” Gibson said. “And he took on challenges that a lot of people wouldn’t have taken on.

“So, if I had to grade who was the best since 1991, I’d probably have to give it to Herenton.”

When it was mentioned that saying this publicly might not be what a campaign strategist would advise, Gibson said: “Here’s one of the things you will come to find out about me: I’m not about political rhetoric. If that’s my honest opinion, I’m gonna give you my honest opinion.

“Just as I suggested to you that he was good at what he did back in the day, Herenton left after 17 years in the midst of his term. Now, I’m not one of those people that’s going to get into a lot of negative talk about anybody, either, but he left in the middle of his term. And now he’s 83, and the thought processes don’t move the same.”

So, Gibson draws a firm line between then and now.

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And in stating the reasons that he believes he is the best candidate for mayor, Gibson returns to his austere beginnings.

He also recounts the lessons learned from his father, and he emphasizes that he has a more than 30-year track record of successfully running local companies.

“One of the things we don’t talk about,” he said, “is a business-minded individual taking leadership of this city is paramount. And we have examples of how it has panned out for other cities. When you look at Nashville and (Phil) Bredesen, when you look at Chattanooga and (Bob) Corker … they took cities on a different trajectory, to a different place.

“We can definitely do that here in Memphis. We can go into the office looking to create accountability (his dad’s favorite word) and efficiency and vision.

“That’s different than a politician who tells you what you want to hear.

“A businessman is what we need,” said Gibson, whose dreams began with a part-time job as a teenager at a corner grocery. “A businessman is what I bring to the table.”


JW Gibson 2023 Memphis Mayor's race Ekundayo Bandele
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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