The Tyler Loop Interview: Shirley McKellar, candidate for City Council District 3

Shirley McKellar makes her first attempt at a local elected seat in Tyler, after unsuccessfully running for U.S. Congress against Louie Gohmert four times. In an interview, she talks attracting new businesses to District 3, balancing growth between north and south, and northwest Tyler's greatest assets.

City Council District 3 Candidate Shirley McKellar. Photo by Yasmeen Khalifa

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 registered voters—and their plans for district and city improvement.

Here, we talk with Shirley McKellar, a U.S. Army veteran who served as an Army nurse for 18 years. McKellar launched her political career after retiring from the military and bringing attention to the poor treatment of service members and veterans in Veteran’s Administration hospitals. Having lived in Tyler her entire life, McKellar has served many local community and professional roles, including business owner and breast-cancer-awareness advocate. McKellar has also been a champion for people experiencing homelessness in Tyler, frequently volunteering with the Church Under a Bridge.

After unsuccessfully running for U.S. House District 1 against Louie Gohmert four times, McKellar has decided to run for local office in northwest Tyler. McKellar received 43 percent of the vote in the initial election for this seat.

The Tyler Loop has also interviewed McKellar’s opponent, Pamela Phoenix, who landed in Tyler 14 years ago after being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and now serves on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission. Phoenix received 33 percent of the vote before the runoff. (A runoff was called because no candidate earned more than 50 percent of the vote as required.) Read our conversation with Phoenix here.

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

We know that turnout was extremely low in the initial stage of this race. How are you campaigning to get the votes you’re going to need this week?

I pulled out all my paperwork for those that did vote to make certain that they go back to the polls to vote, and to tell them how important the runoff is. Every single time, you have to vote. We have 8,500 registered voters in northwest Tyler, so I’m reaching out to those that did not go to the polls to vote. We’re knocking on their doors and talking to people.

[District 3 voters] didn’t quite understand why there’s a runoff, because I got more votes than any of the other two candidates. They didn’t understand why we had to go again. I explained to them that Texas is a “50 percent plus one” vote. It’s not a winner-take-all, and that’s why we have to go back.

Let’s talk about endorsements. Who has endorsed you, and whose endorsement have mattered the most to you?

Endorsements are great, but I really want to be endorsed with your vote by the citizens of the northwest district.

I got an endorsement from Tracy Craig, the [newly elected] first African-American mayor in the history of Mount Pleasant, Texas. He is a retired U.S. Navy veteran, so I was honored to get endorsed by him, one veteran to another veteran. Darryl Bowdre also endorsed me.

When you think about Ed Moore’s legacy in this district, where do you believe he’s had the most impact, and where do you believe the most work remains to be done?

There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but I think you should probably ask Ed Moore what his legacy is. I like the Texas College district signs that were out there. And then of course I do know that he brought a business there on Gentry Parkway that employed five people, a drug-rehab place. He put decorations, flowers and things, out there on Gentry Parkway.

It’s been good, but it’s time for Tyler to go to the next level, and I’m the person that can take it to the next level.

If elected, how would you plan to listen to constituents in your district? What does outreach look like in your first six months in office?

I have already done [outreach]. I have hosted town hall meetings to ask the people. That’s why I know what the people in District 3 want. I’ve hosted several town hall meetings at Liberty Baptist Church, and we thank Pastor Hood for allowing us to host town hall meetings there. So, I know that they’re interested in having more money and economic growth in northwest Tyler.

What are the top three issues that you hear about over and over again?

The top three issues are, “I need to make more money so that I can buy my own car. I don’t want to ride on the bus. The bus is fine, but I don’t want to have to do that. I want to be able to get up and get in my car and leave when I get ready. I want my children to be able to go to the parks. I want them to swim. There’s no swimming pool in that area. I want restaurants.”

We have [those options] in South Tyler, and they always say that North Tyler does not look like South Tyler. I want my community to look the same, and I agree with them.

We’ve been seeing more development in south Tyler  for a long time. What is something you could do in your first six months in office that would be a small but meaningful step toward helping to create more balance in our community?

First of all, I think it is crucial that every city councilperson works together as a team, along with the mayor. I say this all the time that I cannot just be interested in northwest Tyler. But by the same token, I want other city councilmen, and the mayor, to be interested in northwest Tyler to make sure that we have growth.

I have established relationships around Texas and around the nation. I’m very involved. I’ve always been an activist since age 18. So, because of my relationships that I have established with people like Cory Booker and many other people who are in Washington D.C., I’m always there a couple times a year, talking to people already about how the rent’s cheap in East Texas. Come on down to Tyler, Texas, and bring some of your businesses here!

So, I’m going to work to see what businesses we can bring to northwest Tyler. People have already said, “I want a Chick-fil-A in North Tyler.” Chick-fil-A is very popular, and so those are some of the things I want to be able to do.

Let’s say we wanted to have a Chick-fil-A in North Tyler. How could you help make this happen as an elected representative of District 3?

I don’t believe that there’s any limitations. I’ve heard people say, “Well nobody wants to come to North Tyler to do business.” I don’t believe that. The land is here.

It’s a matter of working with economic development here in Tyler. To say, you know what, I want you to focus a little bit on this side of the city. You’ve focused on south Tyler; we’re growing almost to Jacksonville. I would sit down and talk to the economic-development people and say, “Let’s see what we can bring.” We don’t know until we ask somebody to come.

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

Yes, it is, and the reason being is that we don’t have enough women in office to hold these positions. Women bring something differently that men just don’t bring. No disrespect to the men, because we need the men as well, but there’s not a balance there. There’s not enough women at the table.

Barbara Jordan said if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu—and I don’t want to be on the menu. She also said if there’s not a seat there for you, bring your own chair. So, I’m going to bring my own chair.

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

Immediately when you say “I am a member of city council” or “I am an elected official,” people’s ears rise quicker than when you say “I’m an advocate” or “I’m an activist.”

Talk about your relationships with people already serving on  City Council. Who do you anticipate working closely with, and who are you looking forward to getting to know better?

I know each and every one of them, including the mayor. I’ve known them for a long time. I’ve been actively involved in the community. So, there’s no one person. It’s a team effort.

I want to make sure that they have the same interests in northwest Tyler as I do in other parts of the city. I’m going to work with all of them closely.

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

They lose out on my skills, my ability, and my relationships that I’ve already established with other people.

But I’m not planning for them to lose out on that because I am planning to win this seat. And that’s why I keep my boots on the ground out there, knocking on doors and talking to people to make certain. Because this is why I’m in this position right now. Fifty people came to me, set up a meeting, and asked me to run for this seat. That’s why I think I’ve got the bulk of the votes, and I think that the people in northwest Tyler really want me.

I was born and bred here. I know the nooks and crannies of East Texas better than anyone that has run against me for this City Council seat.

What do you think of as District 3’s greatest strengths and greatest assets?

I immediately think of Caldwell Zoo. We have no other zoo anywhere else [in Tyler], so if you want to come to the zoo in Tyler, Texas, you have to come north.

I think of the beautiful Gentry Parkway. Look at all the lanes that we have in Gentry Parkway. We don’t have that on Broadway. Broadway is jam-packed, bumper to bumper, every afternoon, every morning.

I think of Woldert Park. The amount of acreage that we have at Woldert Park. I think we should really be working to bring that park back up to the status where it was, and even better than it was when I was growing up here.

I know money is going to placed into another park [Gassaway Park] that nobody’s ever heard of. Everybody is calling me and asking, “Where is this park? I’ve never heard of it before. Why are we talking about this park?” It’s a hidden park that you have to walk around in the neighborhood [to access], whereas Woldert Park and Fun Forest are wide open where people can get to them.

What do you think of as District 3’s greatest challenge?

I think about the fact that people say, “Nobody wants to come to North Tyler.” I think about that all the time, and I say, “That’s not true.” It’s a beautiful area. We have all of the Loop, where all this land is just sitting there waiting for someone to develop it. I want to be the one to help make sure that that part of our town is developed.

So it’s a perception issue?

It’s the perception, absolutely. People have told me that nobody wants to come there.

What do you think is driving that perception?

You know, I’m not sure. I don’t know.

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?

I experience that in my home. I live in the Woodhaven addition, and last week I told my representative, Councilmen Moore, that when I turn my faucet in one of my bathrooms, it’s black until it runs through and runs out. 

No one else [has to live with] these things but the people in in north Tyler, and northwest Tyler in particular. We have to put in more resources, and we have to put more focus. When people come into Tyler, it’s a reflection on us, our city mothers and fathers, that one part of our city looks one way and another part looks another way. We cannot neglect any parts of our city. We have to make sure all of our city is up to a certain level.

What would you say to someone who said, “You tried for U.S. Congress several times, and you didn’t manage to capture it, so that’s why you’re focusing on local now?”

As I mentioned [earlier], 50 people invited me to come a meeting and said, “You have to run for this seat. You’ve already done the work.” One has nothing to do with the other, but by the same token, it’s still work in the community.

Running in the congressional [races] was work in this area. It expanded to 14 counties, but it was still in the area of Smith County, so it can do nothing but help me to have run for congress. But I never thought about running for City Council until the citizens who live in north Tyler and west Tyler pointed out that I should bring that knowledge to City Council. That’s why I am where I am.

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Yasmeen Khalifa, a Loop 2019 summer intern, is a Mass Communication and English student at the University of Texas at Tyler. She is the managing and lifestyle editor of The Patriot, a student-run newspaper investigating issues on- and off-campus, exploring the changing East Texas culture, and giving students a voice. Khalifa recently co-founded a new music series in The Patriot titled “Music in the Pines: Exploring Eclectic East Texas.” The series highlights local musicians, venues, concerts and other events as the music scene in East Texas evolves and thrives. Yasmeen also works as a lab technician in the Mass Communication department. Khalifa is the founding president of the Keep Tyler Beautiful Youth Advisory Committee, a group of students working together to encourage beautification, litter reduction and recycling in Tyler.
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.