In August, Lee Harris will face Worth Morgan in election for Shelby County Mayor

·4 min read
Incumbent Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris speaks as he is again voted the Democratic nominee for the position of county mayor Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at an election watch party in Memphis.
Incumbent Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris speaks as he is again voted the Democratic nominee for the position of county mayor Tuesday, May 3, 2022, at an election watch party in Memphis.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Worth Morgan has appeared with members of the Memphis Police Association but the organization has not endorsed him. 

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris was elected mayor in 2018 as part of a "blue wave" that swept Shelby County, with 55.3% of the vote to Republican David Lenoir's 44.6%.

More: Incumbent Lee Harris beats Ken Moody in Democratic primary for Shelby County Mayor

But in August, Harris, 44, will face Republican Worth Morgan, a candidate with strong conservative backing.

Harris will enter the general after a term that came with both policy wins and losses, and in which the mayor faced criticism for his administration's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previously a state senator and a Memphis city councilman, Harris has strong roots in Memphis, having grown up in Whitehaven. He attended Morehouse College and received his juris doctor degree from Yale Law School in 2003. Before becoming mayor, he was a law professor at the University of Memphis.

As mayor, Harris passed a paid parental leave program for Shelby County employees, eliminated inquiry into criminal history from most Shelby County Government employment applications and delivered a property tax relief program for veterans, the elderly and the disabled.

He also championed a plan to provide equity in pay with a 20% pay raise for public safety employees, which was approved with a unanimous vote by the Shelby County Commission.

A hallmark of Harris’ time in office became the fight for $15, with Harris supporting an increase to the minimum wage for both employees of Shelby County and those outside his direct authority, including cafeteria workers in Shelby County Schools and employees at the University of Memphis.

In the latter case, Harris tussled publicly with University President David Rudd in 2019, exercising his veto power for the first time and pointing out that the university had not committed to a timeline to raise its minimum wage. The university announced it would fully implement the $15 minimum in 2021.

Harris would go on to garner the endorsements of numerous labor organizations in his primary, including the AFL-CIO Labor Council, Teamsters Local 667, United Campus Workers - Communications Workers of America and The Memphis and West Tennessee Building and Construction Trades Council.

When it came to funding the Memphis Area Transit Authority, a campaign promise of Harris', he hit a barrier. His proposal to increase the wheel tax to raise millions in funding for MATA ultimately failed due to opposition from the Shelby County Commission.

But being mayor of Tennessee’s largest county during a global pandemic has undoubtedly been Harris’ greatest challenge.

When the pandemic first reached Shelby County, Harris drew criticism for being out of the country on a Memphis in May trip to Ghana. And in early 2021, Shelby County’s authority to manage COVID-19 vaccines was taken away by the state and given to the City of Memphis after thousands of doses were wasted. The state found deficiencies in Shelby County’s handling of vaccines, and both the director of the county’s health department and its chief of nursing resigned, with the chief of nursing later suing the county, including for remarks made by Harris.

So far in his campaign, Harris has continued to focus on the working class, saying he wants to bring forward another MATA proposal, work intensely on issues of healthcare and continue to provide access to jobs for ex-offenders.

Worth Morgan on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, during a Memphis City Council meeting at City Hall.
Worth Morgan on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020, during a Memphis City Council meeting at City Hall.

Before announcing his run last year, Morgan, 35, who has served on the City Council since 2016, had long been bandied about as a candidate for countywide or citywide office.

Throughout his time on the ostensibly nonpartisan council, Morgan, a private investor, has staked out political ground as part of the body’s more conservative – largely moderate faction. He’s been opposed to raising the city’s property tax rate and been supportive of major tax breaks to spur development, including the recent decision for the city of Memphis to backstop One Beale’s debt.

Morgan went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, but his college career was derailed when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, its recurrences routinely interrupting his studies. In 2011, he underwent a major surgery connected to that disease, which turned into six surgeries in the course of months. Morgan has not finished college.

On the council, Morgan also has been very pro-police. In 2020, he emerged as an ardent advocate for a public referendum that would’ve asked voters whether police officers and firefighters should no longer be required to live within Shelby County limits. Morgan wanted to do away with the requirement.

Throughout his early run for the county mayorship, Morgan’s campaign account has focused local homicide victims, highlighting violent crime and signing off with the catchphrase, “We deserve better.”

Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at samuel.hardiman@commercialappeal.com or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman. 

Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at katherine.burgess@commercialappeal.com, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: In August, Lee Harris will face Worth Morgan in election for Shelby County Mayor