Tami Sawyer has just one month to go before voters decide whether to make her the next mayor of Memphis. She’s facing off against two men who are decades older than she is, and both of them have held the job before. Sawyer, 37, would not only be the first black woman to be mayor of the Tennessee city, she’d be the first woman ever.
On the afternoon of Aug. 30, Sawyer was sitting at her dining room table with her campaign manager, doing the calls and other business she had to get through, when she received an unexpected text from a friend telling her not to respond to “the cover.” Other people would have her back, the friend reassured her.
Sawyer had no idea what her friend was talking about. Whoops, my bad, the friend replied.
Sawyer quickly Googled around and found it: the September cover of Memphis magazine, featuring caricatures of the three people running for mayor.
“I just felt like I was slapped in the face. My face got red,” said Sawyer. “And immediately my eyes welled up with tears. I just can’t believe it. It wasn’t that I recognize myself in the caricature, but I knew from the arrangement of the cover who that was supposed to be. And I was appalled.”
None of the caricatures, by artist Chris Ellis, is flattering. But Sawyer’s, in particular, hit a nerve among her supporters. Sawyer’s portrait has an exaggerated nose and lips and scraggly hair ― all symbols that have historically been used to lampoon black women.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum: Tami Sawyer is a Black woman running for mayor in the South in an era of the emboldened racism and sexism,” said Brittany Packnett, an activist and friend of Sawyer’s. “Publications who seek to profile her should keep that in mind ― and not hire artists who openly disrespect their Black women subjects by calling them ‘monstrously obese.’ Memphis magazine chose this image; if they had any full-time Black staff in a city that is nearly 64% Black, they might have done better.”
Indeed, in a Facebook comment, Ellis defended his drawings and referred to Sawyer as the “black female” who was “monstrously obese.”
Deidre Malone, the president of the Memphis NAACP, put out a statement saying she was “deeply upset and saddened that we must still contend with blatant racism, sexism, body shaming and an overall abysmal disrespect.” She told HuffPost that she considered all the caricatures offensive, though, with former Mayor Willie Herenton, a black man pictured in the center of the cover, looking like he was “throwing up his hands like gang signs.”
On Aug. 31, the magazine put out a statement expressing some regret, but few people were satisfied. The editors said they “were following a long-standing satirical tradition” and said the magazine was a “progressive voice” in the city.
“The initial apology was as offensive as the magazine itself. It was defensive. ... And then to call themselves, ‘Hey, we’re progressive!’ They might as well have been like, ‘We have Black friends, guys,’” said Sawyer, who added that she had heard from perhaps more than 100 Black women who said they felt pain after seeing the image.
The next day, Anna Traverse, the CEO of the company that owns Memphis magazine, put out a statement that called its response “inadequate.” It was a fuller apology, and Traverse said she was pulling distribution of the September issue and removing the image from the website.
Sawyer’s progressive candidacy has shaken up and given national attention to the Oct. 3 mayoral election. Mayor Jim Strickland is running for reelection, and Herenton ― who was the city’s first elected black mayor from 1991 to 2009 ― is running for his old office. Sawyer is a commissioner in Shelby County, just elected to the job in 2018.
Memphis has never had a female mayor, but it has had seven men named “John” hold the job.
I think as recently as yesterday, people were threatening to euthanize me. The violence that people throw at me and throw at my body just propels me. You’re proving my point. Tami Sawyer, Sept. 5
If she wins, one of her priorities would be education funding. Right now, Memphis doesn’t spend any of its $750 million budget on K-12 education. That, she said, has to change.
“Instead of investing in tough-on-crime policing and downtown development, we should be investing in communities all across the city of Memphis and especially low-income communities,” she said.
Sawyer is generally considered a long-shot for the mayor’s office, behind Strickland and Herenton. A fourth candidate, LeMichael Wilson, is also in the race. So far, Herenton has refused to debate his opponents, and Strickland said he will participate in one only if it includes all four candidates. Therefore, Memphis hasn’t had a single mayoral debate this year.
Sawyer is new to elected office, but she’s not new to politics. She unsuccessfully ran for the Tennessee General Assembly in 2016 and worked for Teach for America for four years.
In early 2017, Sawyer started the Memphis chapter of Our Revolution, the group formed after Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential bid, dedicated to electing progressives and fighting for change in the Democratic Party.
“She’s one of our earliest activists and helped build Memphis for All, one of our best local groups in the country,” said Mike Oles, national field director of Our Revolution, which has endorsed Sawyer. “She’s a great organizer, a fantastic activist and somebody who not just talks about but lives out what it means to be an Our Revolution member. She really gets what it means to build out the political revolution. She’s one of us.”
Sawyer gained significant local and national attention in 2017, when she launched #TakeEmDown901, the campaign to remove Memphis’ Confederate monuments. Sawyer became the public face of the movement, which ultimately resulted in the removal of three statues.
“It was successful because we made it everybody’s movement,” Sawyer said. “It wasn’t Tami Sawyer’s quest to remove the statues.”
Sawyer has had to deal with all the scrutiny and indignities of being a young woman running for office. She’s been told she needs to have a husband. Where are her children? Is she straight or gay?
“She’s exactly the kind of person we need more of running for office,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which has endorsed Sawyer. “She’s an incredible woman of color. She’s running a campaign that really centers the marginalized of her community, that’s a majority of the city. She is smart as shit. She is deeply progressive in a really practical way that makes sense for how city government functions.”
Sawyer has also had to deal with death threats for years.
“Folks have threatened to throw me into the Mississippi River with a noose around my neck. I think as recently as yesterday, people were threatening to euthanize me,” she said in a Sept. 5 interview. “The violence that people throw at me and throw at my body just propels me. You’re proving my point. ... You’re proving that you do not see me as human, as a Black person or as a Black woman. Me standing up for myself, me standing up for people like me, is not allowed. Because if it was, you would not act so violently.”
She hasn’t had to invest heavily in security, but she did move for safety reasons, and her team is more careful about sharing where she will be.
Sawyer has taken inspiration from trailblazing women of color who have taken power in the country. She’s held 45 of her “Pull Up a Chair” events since April, where she sits down with a small group of people using a red folding chair, answering their questions and telling them why she’s running. It’s modeled on the famous quote by Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Sawyer wasn’t even sure if she wanted to run for mayor this cycle, figuring maybe she’d run in 2023. But that changed after she heard Stacey Abrams’ TED Talk about lessons she learned after running for governor of Georgia in 2018.
“I’m a plus-sized black woman, and she’s a plus-sized black woman. There’s not always a space for us, or our credibility is not always given to us that easily. I thought she was bold and powerful and brilliant. Just seeing her on the national scene like that was so inspiring,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer said she’s also taken inspiration from lawmakers like Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and other progressive women of color elected in 2018.
“Watching them get into power, stay in the power and own the conversation this past year when people tried to shut them up left and right keeps me going,” she said.