The Tyler Loop Interview: Pamela Phoenix, candidate for City Council District 3

Pamela Phoenix is running to represent northwest Tyler. She talks about water issues, the power of neighborhood associations, and how seeing Tyler's segregation made her "heart hurt" after landing here from New Orleans after Katrina.

With the runoff election for the District 3 city council seat coming up on Friday, and early voting already underway, The Tyler Loop sat down with both remaining candidates. We wanted to hear about their get-out-the-vote strategies—under 600 people voted in the first leg of this race, in a district with 8,500 eligible voters—and their plans for district and city improvement.

Here, we talk with Pamela Phoenix, who landed in Tyler 14 years ago from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and earned 33 percent of the vote earlier in this race. Phoenix, who serves as a member of the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission Board, has also served on the Smith County Appraisal Review Board. She is a local agent for Nationwide Eviction, and she and her husband co-own several local food businesses, including Phoenix Special Cakes.

The Tyler Loop also interviewed Phoenix’s opponent, Shirley McKellar, who ran unsuccessfully four times against Louie Gohmert for U.S. House District 1, and earned 43 percent of the vote earlier in this race. (A runoff was called because no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote as required.) Both women are running for their first local office in Tyler.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length. Interview by Tasneem Raja. Research and production by Claire Wallace.

How are you campaigning to get the votes that you need, and reaching people who historically have not felt engaged by the political process? We know that turnout was extremely low in the initial leg of this race.

One of the things we’re really trying to engage people with is the understanding that their votes count. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m not worried about going to vote because it doesn’t mean anything, or the folks that are in power are going to do what they want to do anyway.” That’s not true. Your vote counts. The only way to get individuals like me into office that can promote change is to come out and actually cast your vote. That’s your power. You empower the individuals that you want to see in office by casting your vote.

We are doing a lot of community engagement in people’s homes. Naturally, we’re also campaigning by block-walking. We’re reaching out to individuals by telephone, asking them on a continual base to come out and vote, and checking in with them.

Who has endorsed you, and whose endorsements matter the most to you?

The current city councilman, Councilman Ed Moore, has endorsed me. The previous city councilman, Reverend Ralph Caraway, has endorsed me. Rabbi Neal Katz has endorsed me. The Tyler Organization of Men has endorsed me.

The one that has meant the most, although the councilmen are prestigious, is the Tyler Organization of Men. Being an organization of various men of diverse economic, education, and environment [backgrounds], for them to select me as the best candidate, really spoke volumes.

When you think about Ed Moore’s legacy in this district, where has he had the most impact? Where does the most work remain?

That’s a hard one. You’ll get individuals who will say, “Ed Moore was a great councilman, he did a lot for the community.” Others state that Ed Moore didn’t do anything. Individuals feel that their city councilman is God, that whatever they need to be done can be done by their city councilman. That’s not necessarily true.

There are some things that the community wants that the City Council doesn’t have jurisdiction over. And anything that passes through City Council needs four votes. That’s one of the reasons why, when I am elected, I’ll be having community meetings in order to engage the community and really let them know how it works.

Ed Moore had a lot of impact in the Texas College area. He did a lot with getting sidewalks for T.J. Austin. He was instrumental in the firehouse that’s being built. He’s been fighting for Martin Luther King Boulevard to be fixed. Really, in a variety of areas in District 3, Ed did a lot.

What’s one thing you would want to accomplish within the first six months in office?

An atmosphere of unity with our district, first and foremost. We won’t be able to get anything accomplished unless we’re united.

One gentleman said to me, “Oh, you’re from the outside. There’s nothing you can do.” I have seen that individuals have a mindset of “This is how it has been, and this is how it will always be.” At the same time, I speak to other folks and they say we’re past due for a change. One thing we need to do is to unite on mindsets.

I really love what Butler College has in place with their association. One of the things I intend to implement in District 3 is an organization of associations. I live in the Club Lake subdivision across from Orr Elementary. That could be the “Club Lake Association.” Over on Northridge, that would be the Northridge Association. Those little segmented associations can have their meetings separate from me, and when we all come together at the City Council meeting, we can talk about issues, priories, and things we want to tackle.

We all know that Tyler has seen a lot of south-side development over the past 25 years. You’re campaigning to bring new businesses and jobs to north Tyler. In your view, what’s the first step toward making that happen?

Unite. My platform is, “Engage, partner, and build.” Once we’re united, we have to engage. I don’t use the word “educate,” because we have educated our community members.

So now, in order to promote business growth in the community, we need to go to the source: the Economic Development Council. Economic Development’s role is to grow the city. That’s how they’re doing it on Earl Campbell, on the south side, and other different regions that have available property. So we would look to Economic Development and have them help identify areas that we can start growing.

We also need to individuals who want to be entrepreneurs, or who know other individuals somewhere else who would want to have their business in north Tyler.

Tell me about your relationship with [outgoing District 3 representative] Ed Moore.

Ed and I have known each other since our Total Healthcare days. Total Healthcare was the first Federally Qualified Healthcare Center in the city of Tyler, and we sat on the board together. That was my first time meeting Ed.

I really admired him. I learned that he did a lot of union work. He’s known in the community. He’s a historian. I had hopes of running for City Council when Reverend Caraway’s term was up, but I missed the filing deadline. Ed ran and won, and after that, I didn’t want to run against Ed. Once his term was over, we spoke, and he believed I was the person to do it. I spoke to my family, and to my husband, and we said, “Ok, we’ll go for it.”

Every candidate for this seat in this current race has been a woman of color. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, what does that mean to you?

I had a meeting yesterday with Dalila Reynoso [the third candidate for this race, who did not make it to the runoff], and she is endorsing me now. She is coming on board and supporting me. We’re really going to engage the Hispanic community for their support.

As I told her yesterday, although our district is primarily Hispanic, Latino, and African American, there are some Anglos in there as well. I don’t look at people as color, I look at people as people. I love people unconditionally. When I say I want District 3 to prosper, I want all of us to prosper. That means the Hispanics, Latinos, African Americans, and the whites.

It just so happens that every candidate was a woman of color, and we depict the makeup of District 3. I believe that was advantageous because our district should be representative of who the population is.

You’ve served in many community and professional roles in this area. What’s something that you can only accomplish as an elected official?

Without being in office, I would not have the exposure to the various leadership departments of the city. That interpersonal working relationship with them, in order to be able to identify programs and services the community can really utilize, and that I can help the community members navigate through successfully, I don’t think I could do that not being on the city council.

Just being a person off the street, if I want to meet with the Chief of Police every month? The Chief is nice, but he doesn’t have that kind of time. If every community member wanted to do that, he couldn’t get any work done! As a city council person, I think I could have his ear.

What will the district lose out on if you aren’t elected?

They’d lose out on the expertise that I have gained as a result of already having city and county experience. I already know the ins-and-outs of how the city works as a result of being on Planning and Zoning, and a major part of the county when it comes to the Smith County Appraisal District. I can engage and inform individuals when it comes to those specific entities. My opponent can’t do that.

I know government. I have a legal background; I’ve been in legal for over 20 years. I understand the intricate details and workings of the city and how you go about getting projects accomplished and developed.

I am a very analytical person, and I’ve done strategic planning for the last 20 years. I have the skill set that’s needed. That would be a missing component that I don’t believe my opponent has.

I’m also a team player. They would be really missing out if I don’t get elected.

We know that North Tyler has been dealing with severe water issues. In the past few years, we’ve had the EPA fine, and we’ve seen several raw sewage spills in Black Fork Creek. Why, in your view, do we keep seeing these problems?

We are working all over the city to try and eat an elephant. The only way you can do it is one bite at a time.

One of the things I have been educated on, and Ed really schooled me on this, is that in north Tyler, when the subdivisions were built, it was the developers’ responsibility to [install] curb and gutters. They would approach individuals [prospective homeowners] and say, “If I do this, it will be so many thousand dollars extra. You can either have it, or you can pay less.” Naturally, we always want to play less, not understanding the detriment of not having that.

Now we have a lot of streets on the northwest side where every time you look around, it’s flooding because there’s no drainage. Again, that elephant has to be eaten. How? To be determined. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how we can have streets that have no drainage nearby. We just need to understand that if a drain needs to be here, why can’t we put it in?

You came to Tyler 14 years ago after Hurricane Katrina. What surprised you the most about Tyler when you first got here?

The segmentation of the north side versus the south side. It’s sad to say, but it’s so very apparent. That kind of hurt my heart. Ever since then, I said that we can orchestrate change and we can grow, but we have to do it from an internal perspective first.

One of the things I’ll be encouraging is entrepreneurship. If Ms. Bertha Sue makes a cake that you would kill your mom for, then we need to have Ms. Sue in a storefront! Rather than driving to the south side for cake, we get a cake from Ms. Bertha Sue.

When you first moved here, what did people say to you when you asked them to explain the segregation in Tyler?

That it’s always been like that. They said that Tyler was and oil-and-gas city. Money is congruent to power. As a result of that, wealthy families established Tyler.

Just this year, I found this was actually the [original] white community. When desegregation came in, it just started to transition south, as a result of schools and all of that. That’s how the separation came into play.

Any last words?

Get out and vote. You have to use your voice. That’s the only way. Please use your voice to state what you want to see at the local level so it can at least have a domino effect to the national level. Or you can’t complain.

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Claire Wallace, a Loop 2019 summer intern, is a senior in the Mass Communication department at The University of Texas at Tyler; she graduates in December 2019. She attends the university as part of the Honors Program. Wallace is Editor-in-Chief of Patriot Student Media Products, which houses The Patriot, U.T. Tyler's student-run newspaper, as well as other broadcast and multimedia avenues. Wallace has lead the recent revitalization of The Patriot and built it to be a digital-first platform by creating a new website, using social media news-reporting, and adding new aspects such as podcasts. Wallace works at the university as a lab technician in the Mass Communication department and is the social media advisor for the Communications Club. Wallace hopes to one day work as an investigative journalist. She believes to be a journalist, it is important to be curious, passionate, and dedicated, and that journalism is an integral aspect of creating change and informing the public. Wallace looks forward to expanding her abilities with The Tyler Loop.
Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.