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<br />Lee Harris: ‘It boils down to service’

Elections matter and who we elect matters. I care deeply about this City and I’ve been blessed by this community. I am committed to making a positive difference and this is one way I can do that. Tri-State Defender: Why are you running for the City Council, District 7 seat?

 Lee Harris
 Lee Harris

Lee Harris: I’ve been involved with politics for a number of years. I grew up in Memphis and have been in the city most of my life. Politics is a dirty nasty game and not for the faint of heart. If pressed, I would probably say honestly I’d rather not be involved in politics, but ultimately elections matter and who we elect matters. I care deeply about this City and I’ve been blessed by this community. I am committed to making a positive difference and this is one way I can do that.

TSD: So where does your interest in politics extend from?

L. Harris:  Again, I don’t have an interest in “politics.” I only have an interest in this City and seeing it move forward. I think we’re at a pivotal moment. I believe our next days are our best days and that’s why I am involved…. (Politics)…is a real nasty game, particularly in Memphis. But, it’s a means to an end and that end is making sure that there is someone who is making a positive difference and cares about the community and is part of the community in this office. So that’s where my motivation comes from.  

TSD: As you’ve been out on the campaign trail and talking to voters, what are you hearing, what are they telling you their issues are? What do you see as the primary issues to be addressed from the perspective of District 7 Councilman?

L. Harris: What I’ve come to find after talking to so many voters is that they are interested in stable communities. If you talk to ten voters, eight of them are going to talk to you about empty houses, high grass and improving their communities. Stable communities are a high priority. Another issue is transportation; they want an effective public transportation system. They want a city government that partners with community activists and grassroots community programs. There are a lot of community programs that are doing good things but don’t have an effective partner.  They want a council person who will be an advocate and an effective partner.  

At the end of the day, everyone I’ve talked to in District 7 doesn’t want anyone with big ideas and change the world tomorrow and that kind of stuff. They just want city government to do its job well and a representative that understands that. They want someone who is an effective partner to help them get the things that they want done, done.

TSD:  So in response to those demands and interest, what do you tell them? Do you tell them you’re the person for the job?

L. Harris: Yes, I definitely tell them that I am the one for the position. The biggest issue is about what to do about empty houses and high grass. I tell them about enhance and expand, expanding and enhancing the powers of code enforcement officers. Too frequently, they don’t have the ability to enforce the codes on the spot as they identify issues. They need more autonomy and power to cruise communities and be able to penalize and call to court violators rather than simply responding to complaints and writing citations.  

Then behind that I talk about expanding code enforcement, having more officers and a more robust department to handle a myriad of issues as it relates to improving communities and reducing blight. The really disappointing thing and challenge is that there continues to be reductions in essential services to residents rather than expansion. When you look at various essential services that are needed in District 7, you see reductions – police substations, post offices, code enforcement officers, and others are being cut back rather than enhanced or expanded.  

So it is my intent to find ways to deliver on these core needs for the residents of District 7. I’d also like to see the city partner with grassroots community run programs providing technical assistance and resources from to grow and enhance those programs that are working to improve the lives of residents. I will focus on ensuring the city provides support to programs like those run by Deandre Brown (Lifeline), Charlie Caswell (Frayser/Rangeline) and Pastor Smith over at Union Grove Baptist Church.

TSD: When you talk about expansion of code enforcement and support of community groups and partnerships, how do you plan to overcome the budget challenges that the city is facing to be able to accomplish those things? What are your plans or ideas relative to alternative revenue sources, efficiencies or other things to ensure the city is operating in a positive fiscal environment?  

L. Harris: Let me preface my comments by saying I’m not a sitting councilman and don’t know all of the factors, but I can share with you my values and my understanding of what things are. I believe a budget is how you set your priorities and values. It is who you are. If there is any money, it should go first to what you think is your highest priority. For me as a resident of district 7 and a candidate for office, some of the things I’ve talked about are more important than some of the things the city has allocated money for in the past. The city has money it is just a question of how we’re spending it.  

For example, we spent money on FedEx Forum; I was against that from the start. FedEx Forum, Bass Pro, are all irrelevant if you don’t have an effective code enforcement office operating in District 7, or an effective police substation in the district.  So it is all about how you set your priorities. The kinds of things I’ve talked about are essential services, they have to come first.  I believe if we do right by our inner city communities we might be able to create new investment and revenues. By having safer, cleaner neighborhoods we promote home ownership and private business investments, which serve to improve city revenues.  

My ideas for alternative revenue sources involve capturing some kind of tax on people who travel in and out of the city to work. I’m generally against increasing property taxes and think they’re probably too high already. However, I think implementing an occupational tax that is paid by all those that work in the city, except those that live in the city get a rebate, a check in the mail, for what they’ve paid while those that live outside don’t get the rebate. That process would capture revenues from people that don’t live in the city but rely on Memphis’ resources and services day in and day out.  

TSD:  So what have you done in the community, what’s your track record of service?

L. Harris:  I have been in the City of Memphis my whole life, except when I went to college at Morehouse and law school at Yale. I have helped run a Head Start program, 100 four year olds in the South Memphis area. I’ve been a big brother in the Big Brothers Big Sisters programs for a number of years. I started a legal clinic at the University of Memphis to give free advice to those wanting to start a small business. I helped restart the Shelby County Young Democrats organization and served as president of that organization. I started an oratorical contest at Northaven Elementary School. I directed the high school mock trial competition. I’ve taught in the Tennessee Institute for Pre-Law program encouraging and preparing African-Americans and other minorities to pursue degrees in law.  

I am always trying my very best to serve. It boils down to service for me, serving the community, serving the people. I’ve also served on the board of Goodwill Homes. I’ve done a lot of things on the service side and political side that have prepared me to serve in office. I’ve also got a deep commitment to the community. I’m raising a family here. I’m married and have two children. One of my kids goes to Campus School, a public school, and I’m a product of Memphis City Schools. So hopefully the voters can see my track record for service here in the Memphis community.

TSD: You alluded to the nastiness of politics in Memphis. Through various outlets and different factions of the community it’s been said that you are a candidate that is supported by or worse yet “bought” by the wealthy, white establishment so to speak.  How do you respond to that accusation?

L. Harris:  I don’t believe the voters of district seven buy into that kind of stuff. I believe that we have strong community support. We may ultimately lose the race, but it won’t be because we didn’t get grassroots, black support. Whether I’m bought out or all that kind of stuff, who knows how to answer to that? It’s like answering how do you prove you are black? I know I am rooted. I went to Overton High School and then to a black college as did my mom, my sister and my brother. I’m married to a black woman and I grew up in an all-black neighborhood.  There is no evidence in my life of ever “selling out” or never saying what I believed to be true in my heart. There is no evidence to any of those assertions.

In my campaign I raised a lot of money, but the biggest donor to my campaign was me. I donated $15,000 to my campaign and I raised a total of $40,000. So unless someone was going to donate more than $15,000 it would be hard for someone to have “bought me off.” Most of my donors were friends and family members and made donations of a few hundred dollars or less.  

TSD:  So talk about your position on privatization of the sanitation department and then privatization as a potential option for other areas of government as means to balance the budget and create efficiencies.  

L. Harris:  My philosophy on privatization is I’m against it for any essential services.  The primary role of City government is to provide essential services for its residents. For instance, we can’t just have garbage pile up. If a private business has a contract with the City but is losing money or having issues and decides to shut down all of sudden, there is no garbage pick-up this week and the community suffers. My thoughts are if it’s an essential service, fire, police, sanitation, health department, utilities, code enforcement, etc., it shouldn’t be privatized.

TSD: Many varied personalities on the City Council, how will you mesh with and work with those to get things done?

L. Harris:  First of all, I hope that my candidacy and subsequent election will spur a new crop of people to get involved with politics and run for office in this City. I don’t argue or get belligerent, I’m not that type. I like to be prepared. I’m serious and passionate about the things I do. I like to work collaboratively and I’ve worked behind the scenes in politics, so I have a working relationship with many of the current council members.  I know I have some lines of mutual respect with many of them and believe that gives me the advantage in terms of working with the existing council to get things done.

I’d also be the only black lawyer on the council and I think that has some value. It is a law making body at the end of the day and that is what the council is tasked to do. There are white lawyers on the City Council but there are no black lawyers. I think my presence would fill a void that we currently have. I think my distinct set of experiences in law would add some unique value and make me a go-to person on some issues.  

TSD: A priority for all of our elected officials should be job creation and economic development. What is your plan for these priorities?  What is your take on the utilization of the P.I.L.O.T. (payment in lieu of taxes) program as a primary tool to attract new businesses to Memphis?

L. Harris: One of my primary approaches is partnering with folks already doing job training and development and supporting them in existing work that they are doing. I’d like the City hire more young people and utilizing our existing resources and challenges to create job opportunities. One example would be working with community groups doing job training, providing them with access to city lawn equipment to put, particularly young black males, to work cutting vacant lots and abandoned properties.

On P.I.L.O.T.s, I think you have to be very judicious with application of tax incentives. More importantly, there should be a higher level of requirement and accountability to firms that receive them, meaning no waivers for local hiring, small and minority business contracting and other things that truly stimulate the local economy. How can we grant waivers to these things to companies getting public support?

I also think there should be a stringent auditing and accountability process to make sure that the companies are meeting the goals that they set. Local hiring, capital investment, local and minority business spending should all be audited annually compared to what they said they would do, and if they haven’t met the goal, then the incentives should be scaled back and adjusted. This program must have a higher level of scrutiny and oversight and include incentive reductions for non-compliance.

TSD:  So what are your ideas on schools and crime?

L. Harris: I’m not an expert on crime issues but I like the smart approach of Blue Crush in using statistics in identifying hot areas and applying resources to those areas. My brother’s a police officer and I am in favor of empowering law enforcement officers to do their jobs on the street and work with the public to create safer neighborhoods. I was endorsed by MEA, the teachers union and I believe in our public schools. I believe the reforms in place will help improve schools as we go forward.  

In District 7, we have had several successful public charter schools. KIPP, Promise Academy and Memphis Business Academy have all done well. Some things I like about charter schools and some I don’t, but I believe it’s another situation where you have public dollars being transferred to private entities, so you need to have a high degree of scrutiny and accountability as they continue to implement more.

TSD:  What’s your take on wealth creation in the African-American community? How do you see from your seat being able to affect the growth of African-American businesses, particularly in participation with public projects?

L. Harris: I think the city has to be a catalyst for providing access to capital for minority business growth because access to capital is generally one of the major challenges. I’d also like to see Memphis Area Legal Services expand its services to provide free legal services to small and minority businesses to assist those companies in avoiding some of the pitfalls of going into business.

TSD:  What about public projects such as the FedEx Forum, a publicly funded project of $250 million where African Americans received less than seven percent of the business. How do you get more diversity on public projects and ensure opportunity equity on those deals?  

L. Harris: Obviously those numbers are unacceptable and need to be improved. First of all, the business case has to be made as to why it makes good sense for African-American businesses to grow to higher levels and employ more people. Secondly, measures have to be put in place and it has to become a priority, as it did in Atlanta, in order for it to truly happen.  I will definitely work to make those things happen.

TSD:  Who has endorsed your candidacy?

L. Harris:  Memphis Education Association, United Campus Workers, Communications Workers of America (Police dispatchers), New Path, West Tennesseans for Progress, Tennessee Equality Project, Association of Realtors and six of my previous opponents from the general election.

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