When Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr. sees a problem, he’s often prompted to solve it.
It’s the reason the Memphis native said he’s now running for governor of Tennessee, and it’s in part the motivation behind his political career.
At 34 years old, with less than two years as an elected official, Smiley moves with the ease and assuredness of a veteran politician.
This confidence has helped him garner a growing list of local supporters as he seeks to win the Democratic gubernatorial primary Aug. 4, 2022. The general election is Nov. 8, 2022.
Others have criticized the freshman councilman for seeking a gubernatorial run without a “seasoned” political resume.
Smiley has ignored the naysayers, announcing his candidacy for governor on his 34th birthday, Sept 8. He noted that he’s running because “we have too many gun shots, not enough COVID shots given and too few shots for our young people to reach their potential.”
Currently, Tennessee is considered one of the states with the highest number of COVID-19 cases and the death rate has recently increased, making the state No. 11 in the nation in deaths caused by the virus.
Smiley, who is pro-vaccination and pro-mask mandates, said the role of government is to do what’s best for the general welfare of all Tennesseans, even if some disagree.
“These things should not be political,” Smiley asserted. “We should listen to the experts and do what’s best for the greater good; and be sure we give the municipalities all of the resources they need to be productive.”
COVID-19 isn’t the only issue high on the state’s list of problems.
Tennessee has the third-highest violent crime rate and the ninth-highest property crime rate in the nation. Many of the communities in Memphis, where Smiley serves, have seen increasingly high numbers of crime.
These are all matters Smiley said he’s ready to tackle – because in the words of his father, JB Smiley Sr. who he often credits – “if you have a problem, put on your working boots and do something about it.”
Smiley said he’s accepted his father’s charge since being elected to the City Council, putting on his “boots” to address the concerns of his constituents.
“I remember one of my colleagues telling me when I was elected that the wheels of government move slowly,” he recalled.
Despite the well-intended counsel, Smiley said he knew he had to work on implementing change swiftly.
So, he got to work.
During his first month in office, he assisted in the passing of an ordinance, adding an amendment that allowed a slight increase to customers’ monthly Memphis, Light, Gas and Water Division bill.
His reasoning was that a small surge would allow MLGW to update its infrastructure, providing better service for residents, especially those in marginalized communities.
A stark champion for racial equity, Smiley also fought for transparency in the Memphis Police Department, calling for a portal that highlighted complaints against police, including excessive force and the misuse or lack of dash cams.
Subsequently, the city launched “Reimagining Policing in Memphis” Inspections Services Bureau portal, where the public easily can now access the findings.
Smiley’s work in a succinct period of time has caught the attention of local and national leaders. Less than two months since announcing his candidacy for the state’s highest office, he has an endorsement from one of Tennessee’s most reputable politicians, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Memphis).
“Councilman Smiley is smart, energetic and in touch with the needs of working people. Having a governor who understands the needs and importance of the cities as well as the towns is of importance for benefits to be extended equitably,” Cohen wrote in an official endorsement statement.
Smiley and his team plan to announce more endorsements in coming days.
“We’re getting a lot of support,” he said. “I’m feeling really good about it.”
His optimism is not clouded with naivete. He acknowledged that the odds will be stacked against him if he receives the Democratic nomination and faces incumbent Republican Gov. Bill Lee.
Smiley has other competitors in the Democratic primary, including Nashville physician Dr. Jason Martin, North Memphis activist Carnita Atwater and Casey Nicholson, a Presbyterian minister from Greeneville.
Tennessee has been a solid Republican stronghold in statewide federal elections. Lee won the Tennessee gubernatorial seat in 2018 and Republicans have held the office since 2012.
Not easily deterred, Smiley is hopeful that Tennesseans are ready for a change.