Going for It: Memphis Councilman JB Smiley Looks at Run for Governor

By Jackson Baker | Memphis Flyer

Surely it was but a coincidence, not an omen, but on Monday evening, at which time Memphis Councilman JB Smiley Jr.’s gubernatorial ambitions were becoming public, a double rainbow appeared in the western sky.

At the very least, each of these overlapping phenomena constituted solid proof that the unexpected can — and occasionally does — happen.

A first-term city councilman running for governor of Tennessee? Something like that hasn’t happened since — well, since first-term Memphis city Commissioner Bill Farris, a presumed unknown in state government, ran for governor in 1962.

Farris didn’t make it, but he ran a solid race, finishing third to then-former Governor Frank Clement and Chattanooga Mayor Rudy Olgiati and establishing himself as a major player in local, state, and even national politics for a couple of generations to come.

JB Smiley Jr., who hasn’t formally announced yet but has filed preliminary paperwork with the state for a governor’s race, is optimistic, but even he is somewhat dazzled by the uniqueness of it all.

“Is the state ready for a candidate like myself?” he mused out loud Monday night. “I’m Black, I’m unmarried, I’m from West Tennessee. …” Of course, that description, while arguably atypical of a serious statewide candidate, also fit Harold Ford Jr., the Memphis congressman who came within a handful of votes of winning a U.S. Senate race in 2006.

As it happens, Smiley has had conversations about running with Harold Ford Sr., who was in Congress before his son was and was the best-known political broker in these parts since the legendary E.H. Crump. “I’d like to have his support,” Smiley said, stating the obvious.

Like former Mayor A C Wharton, Smiley’s given name consists entirely of his initials, and he shares the name with his father, “an Army guy, a Bronze Star winner,” and a former military-recruitment official from whom, the junior Smiley says, he learned a lot about dedicated effort and about connecting with people.

Smiley has demonstrated his own possession of those traits during his Council term, where he has been a vocal exponent of racial equity and is currently co-sponsor of a preliminary city-county consolidation effort with white Councilman Chase Carlisle.

“I can broker deals and move issues,” says Smiley, who lists among those that he would take statewide the need for improving education and expanding Medicaid and broadband services, as well as easing state control over the prerogatives of local government.