Memphis City Council’s non-partisan status questioned after Democrats’ votes cross party lines

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis City Council is touted as non-partisan, but with city council members identifying as Democrat and Republican, sometimes lines can be drawn.

“It’s bipartisan, but people know what side of the aisle everybody sits on,” Memphis City Council Member Martavius Jones said.

But the differences seem to still work out — until they don’t.

Attorney Ricky Wilkins says that’s been the case for three city council members, elected from a Democratic district, who have been crossing the aisle to vote with Republicans.

“When Black folk sent our elected officials from out district to represent us, they are trusting and depending on us to go and present them, not the Republicans,” Wilkins said.

He says it’s costing African American representation on crucial issues, and the biggest one was the recent election of City Council Chair. It came down to Republican Frank Colvett and Democrat Martavius Jones, both who have been on the council since 2015.

Democrats Patrice Robinson, Cheyenne Johnson and Edmund Ford Sr. joined Democrat Jeff Warren in casting their vote for Colvett, giving him the eight votes to beat out Jones.

“I heard some of these folks say, ‘I gave Republican Council Member X my word on this particular vote that I would vote a certain way.’ As if their word carries the day,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins said the power of the chairmanship can direct which items come forward for a vote and which areas of town get the benefit.

“Four Republicans were able to assume a position of power and control of Memphis City Council because they aligned themselves with three African Americans who should have been there in solidarity on behalf of their constituents,” Wilkins said. “Who are their constituents? They are Black and brown and poor people who live in South Memphis where I grew up.”

Colvett says he was elected for his leadership and as far as party splits, party-line votes are very rare.

“I think it’s because we all love Memphis. You have 13 individuals with different approaches on how to move Memphis forward,” Colvett said.

Wilkins says he has asked the council members to start voting in a way that reflects the people that elected them. So far he says there hasn’t been much response.

Robinson said she has always represented her constituents and conducts surveys to see what they want. She also said Colvett approached her first and asked for her vote, which she agreed to give.

Keeping your word is important, Robinson said. “It’s important to be able to get along with people so you can get what you need for your constituents. It’s important to have great relationships.”

Johnson said she too had given her word first to Colvett. She said she has not received the message that all Blacks vote the same, and she is known to be fair and ethical across the board.

Ford said there is no Republican or Democrat in the City and he has no response to Ricky Wilkins.

So is there anything that binds an elected leader to vote along certain lines? We took that question to political analyst Steve Mulroy.

“There is no formal or legal requirement that you have to vote a certain way,” Mulroy said. “The representative is allowed to use their conscience and their judgment to vote the way that is best. However there is an expectation that the representative will for the most part try to vote in a way that reflects the interest and needs of the people in their district.”

There are examples of what can happen when they don’t. The Tennessee Democratic Party pulled its support of Representative John DeBerry after saying he crossed the state legislative aisles too many times, supporting Republican causes. It ultimately led to DeBerry losing the House seat he held for years.

“The idea is that if the representative continues to vote against the district’s interest time and time again, then at the next election the people will punish them for it and replace them with someone else. The problem is at the local level voters are often not really informed. They don’t have the time to stay up on everyone of the votes,” Mulroy said.

But Wilkins plans to make voters aware, saying if things don’t change, it might be time to find candidates who will make the change.

“I am not gonna let anybody stand in the way of Black folks achieving their rightful position in this community,” says Wilkins.

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