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Written by Sam Prager
Photos taken by Catherine Patton.
Mayoral candidate Commissioner Tami Sawyer was born in Chicago. At 12-years-old, her parents moved to Memphis to be closer to family, a decision that would ultimately change Memphis’s political landscape.
‘We can’t wait,’ is Sawyer’s slogan and mantra, a phrase that embodies all elements of her campaign. Sawyer’s campaign focuses on making Memphis a better place for everybody, regardless of race or economic status, and taking politics into your own hands, not waiting for someone else to do it for you.
Though not a native Memphian, Sawyer considers Memphis home.
“Memphis is just as much a part of me as anything else. For better or worse, it’s my heart and soul. I claim Memphis because when you’re 12, you don't have a city identity,” she laughs. “All I know about Chicago is deep-dish pizza and the Bears.”
Sawyer attended high school and college in Memphis, graduating from St. Mary’s Episcopal School and eventually earning a degree in political science at the University of Memphis. After college, Sawyer moved to Washington D.C. to pursue a career with the US Navy.
Sawyer has worn many hats throughout her adult life. She spent seven years as a Human Capital/Diversity analyst for PEO IWS in the US Navy. She is also a Managing Director of Diversity & Community Partnerships for Teach for America-Memphis. Additionally, she is a published author, having written for the Huffington Post and CNN.
She had many goals and passions prior to her career in politics.
“There were a lot of things I wanted to be. I wanted to be a DJ. I wanted to own my own club, my own bar. I wanted to be a cupcake conglomerate. I always reach into my creative side. I do love politics, but you know. The last thing I dabbled in before getting serious with politics and social justice was lifestyle blogging. I’d write things like, ‘Five ways to incorporate plants into your living room,’” she laughs.
In 2013, Sawyer came home after living in D.C. for nearly ten years. Upon moving back, she became more aware of the injustices that surrounded her, revelations that would lead her towards activism and eventually a career in politics.
“It was never about being a politician. I came back home the year Trayvon Martin was killed. That shifted my mindset. All the things that I had named, that I had wanted to do, I had done in some capacity. I did the party hosting. I did the cupcakes. I did the baking, the lifestyle blogging,” she says. “I came back home at a time when it felt like the country was imploding, but really it was waking up. Trayvon had gotten killed, and within the first year I was back home, Mike Brown gets killed. Eric Garner gets killed. Those are things that really led me to start to examine my own privilege. I started to organize and become an activist. I was kind of thrust into it. I wasn't a trained organizer. I was just kind of like ‘No one's planning anything? OK. I’ll plan it.’”
Sawyer says she has always wanted to be around people, stating that personal connections were a driving force for almost every endeavor she has pursued.
“I think back to these people skills that I had developed. I felt I was able to encourage people to invest in things that I cared about, which is something that has always served me well. But what led me into politics, I was spending whole summers protesting in the streets or outside on Civic Plaza, in between city, county and federal buildings,” explains Commissioner Sawyer. “Politicians never came out to talk to us. One day I said, ‘We need to get on the inside.’ I didn't mean go in and do a ‘die-in’ in the lobby. I meant we need to take these seats. If they don't feel they need to listen to us and we've elected them, then we need to put people in there, and I will be one of them.”
In 2015, a 34-year-old Sawyer decided to run for the Tennessee House of Representatives against incumbent John DeBerry Jr.
Sawyer lost the state representative election by 639 votes. “It wasn't a huge turnout,” she says, “There were only about 5,000 people voting in that election.”
“It was an interesting time. In early 2016, nobody had any idea that Trump was going to be the nominee for the Republican Party. People were just sleeping,” explains Sawyer. “Trump gets nominated. Hillary gets nominated. The world turned on its head.”
“Several months later it's November, and Trump is elected president,” she continues. “ All of a sudden we had a completely different political climate, and overnight people began investing in women, in people of color, in millennials.”
In the summer of 2017, Sawyer's friend and mentor, former congressional candidate Tomeka Hart, encouraged her to participate in a political training camp called Black Campaign School in D.C. Sawyer returned home reinvigorated and possessing a better grasp of political systems.
In 2018, Sawyer ran for County Commissioner of District 7. In May of that year, she won her primary with 2,249 votes, making up 50.3 percent of ballots cast. The runner-up, Stephanie Gatewood, made up 35.7 percent of the vote.
The following August, Commissioner Sawyer ran against republican candidate Sam Goff. Sawyer won the election with 7,701 votes, making up 80.5 percent of total ballots.
Sawyer is also founder of the social justice movement #takeemdown901, which was instrumental in the removal of Confederate statues in Memphis parks.
As far as polling for the upcoming election, Sawyer isn’t concerned.
“We are a grassroots campaign. Our opponents have millions of dollars. I don't. We don't spend our money on polling, in fact I think that polling as a scientific measure of votes is outdated. I’ve voted in almost every election for the past decade and I’ve never been polled,” explains Sawyer. “What we've witnessed is that when we go door-to-door and we’ve reached almost 45,000 people so far, which we hope to double before election day, our numbers are skewed because we're in the South where people are just really nice. They're not going to say we don't support your candidate. They’ll smile and say we have their vote. We just have to assume that a lot of the people are just being nice.”
However, as we were conducting the interview at Crosstown Concourse, I personally witnessed several people come up and introduce themselves to Tami. Politely, she would pause the interview to talk to them. They’d end the interaction by saying, “You have my vote Ms. Sawyer.” If there is one thing that’s for certain about Sawyer, it’s the hope that she instills in people.
Commissioner Sawyer announced her plan to run for Mayor in 2018 against incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland, who currently sits as the city’s 64th mayor. Last year former Mayor Willie Herenton announced he would once again enter the fray. Sawyer explains that she never really believed that he was going to go through with it, and neither did most of Memphis.
If Herenton, who served as the city’s mayor between 1991 and 2009, wins this election he would be the oldest mayor elected in city history.
If Tami Sawyer, now 37, wins the mayoral election she would be the first woman elected to the office, the second youngest to ever hold the office, and the third person of color, following Mayor Herenton and Mayor A.C Wharton.
“In 200 years Memphis has had seven white men named John become mayor and no women,” says Sawyer. “It's kind of wild.”
The Memphis mayoral election is on Thursday, October 3rd.
“Win or lose, I hope that this campaign shows people we don’t have to wait for someone to do something for us. I hope that it continues to encourage people to be a part of the political process, because the status quo grows off of apathy. I hope that it encourages more people who might not fit the mold of what you’re supposed to look like, have the personal economic resources, be who you’re supposed to be, or talk about what you're ‘supposed to talk about,’ to have the courage to be involved,” says Sawyer. “I hope that regardless of who is the next mayor, whether it's me or someone else, that the people hold them accountable. What we’re talking about is real. I hope it pulls people to the ideology that Memphis can be a city that develops, a city that supports all of us. I want to see Memphis become a place that encourages, supports and includes all of us. ”
Outside of the election, Sawyer is looking forward to some personal time, and rightfully so.
“Whatever is next for me is definitely going to be about finding balance in my life. Win or lose, this is not sustainable. I’m always preaching to others about self care, so I need to start preaching that to myself. There is some travel I’ve been putting off. I’ve been wanting to go to Ghana for the ‘Year of the Return,’ which marks the 400th anniversary of the first slaves being brought from Ghana to the Americas. Most importantly I want to continue to serve the city of Memphis in whatever capacity and I want to continue growing as a person.”
Continue reading to hear some of Sawyer’s main policies.
“I stand for economic and educational equity. I believe the majority of Memphis is challenged by not having the opportunity to allow them to get an education, which in turn doesn’t allow them to earn the wages they need to take care of themselves and their families. I want us to redistribute the wealth in the city. We have a 750 million dollar budget and it needs to be redistributed. So that when people go to school they get educated in a way that will help them get a good job. My top priority is creating a youth and education fund. We need to start directly putting dollars in the programs that support our kids, their development and their education. But we also need to support adult literacy and pre-k for all.”
“I want us to also have an equity budget, where money gets spent based on need, not location. Walnut Grove never sees a pothole, but Watkins is never paved. We want everyone’s roads getting paved. We need to make sure that all parts of the community's have the basic things they need. I want to right-size the economic status of the city. Memphis 63 percent black, but only 3 percent of the wealth of this city is held by black people. So it's this big upside down triangle. We just need to reevaluate the way we spend our dollars as a government. We need to support small businesses, mentorship programs and other types of development that support minority-owned and women-owned businesses, so that they are really able to hire their own and take care of their communities.”
“We also needs improved transportation. It's an underfunded dinosaur. For us to compete as a world-class city we need to have a world-class transportation system. If 40 percent of this city is unable to even make a living wage, how are they going to get around on over priced bikes and scooters?. We’re also one of the most underbanked cities in the country, meaning a large portion of our citizens don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. You need those for scooters and bikes. Our buses aren't up-to-date. We don't even have an app that works well for what we do have. People just sit outside and wait. It's about modernizing our bus systems and restructuring the routes to better serve the people who use them. We need to advance the ridership by making them look better, feel better and be more accessible. We also need to make sure that the people who have been relying on those buses are taken care of and can still afford to ride them.”
Development and Displacement
"We want the city to grow, but we also have to make sure that we're not kicking people out. It’s more than gentrification, it’s displacement. We can make Frayser cool again, but we don't want to push out the middle-class and lower-class families that live there. The families that make Frayser what it is. There is a middle ground though. If you choose to ignore that displacement is an issue when you develop then that’s a problem. If you want to develop, you have to work on empowering those people in those neighborhoods to grow from within.”
“We should all be concerned about crime in Memphis and our safety. I believe the most important thing is funding education and funding neighborhoods, making people self-sufficient so they have what they need. That's the most important thing we can do to reduce crime in the city.”
“Politics is how we get funding for the arts. It’s how we can make a real industry where people don't have to struggle to produce art. Memphis is one of the most artistic and talented cities in this country and I want to embrace that.”