Memphis voters took to the polls early Thursday for the 2019 Memphis Municipal Election.
The wide-ranging ballot includes candidates for mayor, city council and a sales tax referendum.
Orange Mound resident Jessie Watkins, who voted at a neighborhood community center around midday, says there was one glaring omission in the months leading up to the ballot box.
He didn’t get to see the major mayoral candidates on stage together in an organized debate.
“I voted for [Tami] Sawyer because she actually wanted to debate and wanted to defend her platform whereas the other two main candidates didn’t want to debate her,” he says.
Sawyer is widely viewed as the most progressive choice in a contest pitting her against former Mayor Willie Herenton and current Mayor Jim Strickland, both of whom backed out of a September debate at the University of Memphis.
Watkins, an IT worker, says he wants leaders who are sensitive to both preservation and growth in communities such as Orange Mound. He’s originally from Nashville and has seen aggressive development policies there that have spurred unprecedented gentrification.
“I want us to be able to benefit from it instead of being kicked out and pushed further out in the city,” Watkins says.
At an East Memphis polling site, several voters praised Mayor Strickland’s business-friendly agenda.
“The quality of our jobs obviously needs to increase substantially, and that is a key thing we need to be working on,” says East Memphis resident and financial investor McClain Gordon. “But I think he is moving the city ahead and keeping people in the right frame of mind to invest and grow.”
Outside of the mayor’s race, many voters said they had a hard time deciding on the ballot’s sales tax referendum—an initiative pushed by police and firefighter unions to fund retired safety workers’ pensions. Opponents say it’s unclear how the money would actually be used and that it could backfire on the city during an economic downturn.
Voter Ron Goldner says although there are still unanswered questions about the half-cent increase, he ultimately cast a vote in favor of it because he personally knows a retired firefighter who lost some benefits in 2015.
“It looks like it’s going to be used for the purposes of why we voted upon it," he says. "But going forward, hopefully it will remain so, so that folks like him will still be taken care of.”
Polls are open until 7 p.m.