I was born on October 27th, 1982 at St. Francis in Memphis, Tennessee. Early on, I learned to work with different backgrounds and look at many sides of issues. Half of my family was from Chicago, who moved to the beautiful city of Memphis in 1970. The other half of my family was from Missouri and Alabama. I grew up off of Riverdale and Shelby Drive, and I saw, first hand, what flight looked like. I saw people flee to Mississippi, and I saw people flee to the county and other surrounding areas. I watched my childhood hang out, the Hickory Ridge Mall, crumble. While it took time to find my passion, I knew I needed to do something to address the inequalities around me. Unfortunately, at the time, I did not have the education or the tools to do it.
With this in mind, I attended Southwest TN Community College, and a couple of wonderful professors, one on the Macon campus and one on the Union campus, believed in me. Because of this, they put me in charge of the Honor’s Society, the Young Dems, and the Diversity Club. I graduated from Southwest with Associate’s degrees in Political Science and Pre-Law. My grades merited a transfer scholarship, which paid for my classes and books at the University of Memphis. In 2005, I rebuilt and was the President of the University of Memphis College Democrats. Through that group, hundreds of students and I listened to and questioned elected officials from all levels of government. When my favorite local public servant, then-State Senator Steve Cohen, spoke with our group, I asked him if I should take part in the TN State Legislature’s internship program. He said not only should I take part in the program, but that I should work for him.
During that internship, I saw first hand what a true public servant looks like. I watched him as he took down legislation on constitutional grounds, and I witnessed him speak truth to power on numerous issues. Inspired by this, I went on to work for his 2006 campaign, where I volunteered between 60 to 80 hours a week of my free time, knocking on doors until my knuckles ached and putting up yard signs until my fingers bled. My hard work and loyalty led me to being his Field Director in 2008 and 2010, and from there, his Campaign Manager in 2012 and 2014.
In 2007, I completed my B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Liberal Arts and Legal Thought. Upon graduation, I received the John W. Burgess Community Service Award from the University of Memphis Political Science Department for my volunteer work on multiple projects and multiple campaigns. I then went on to become the first graduate from the University of Memphis’ J.D./M.A. dual program, completing my law degree in 2010 and my Masters in Political Science with a concentration in American government and public law in 2011. While completing my law degree, I was fortunate to extern under Linda Seeley at Memphis Area Legal Services. There, I worked on issues for the poor involving debt and Miller Trusts, and I saw first hand how people try to take advantage of the elderly in nursing homes. I will never forget seeing a man try to convince a woman with dementia that he was her husband and not her ex. That seems to be a common theme in our world-just as the lion targets the injured antelope, the predators of our world prey on the weak.
After passing the Tennessee Bar Exam, my first job as an attorney was with the City of Memphis from 2011-2012. There, I conducted the research that was used to temporarily allow library cards to be used as voter IDs. While the City of Memphis successfully used this and other research to win their case in the Tennessee Supreme Court, the state legislature met and changed the law.
In 2012, the Memphis Flyer put me in their “20 < 30 cover issue” for my leadership and vision of Memphis. Soon after, I accepted a position Downtown at Congressman Cohen’s district office. It further exposed me to stories of people who need help in our community. I learned how to help people find answers and navigate them through our terrifying bureaucracy. It was an eye opening experience to hear the stories from disabled veterans and people with other various issues. Injustice was in my face and I was proud to work with the dedicated staff in his office.
This also happened to be the same year that former state representative, school board member at the time, and lifelong public servant Mike Kernell brought me onto the Memphis Bridge: The Memphis Street Paper. He told me some Rhodes College students were trying to produce a newspaper for homeless people to sell for an income. So I figured, “why not Memphis?” knowing similar papers were successful in Nashville and D.C. I volunteered as much legal services and advice as I could. Those brilliant young students created a beautiful non-profit that now serves our community. In 2013, I joined the Board of Directors of the Memphis Bridge, and I continue to do everything I can for that organization.
In 2014, I was sworn in to serve on the Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, where I became the first person in Memphis to call for body cameras on all Memphis police officers. They protect the police, they protect the public, and they protect your taxpayer dollars. I had read about the effectiveness of body cameras in Rialto, CA in 2013, but everyone dismissed the idea as too expensive when I suggested it then. In the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore, they listened, and Memphis now has body cams on over 2,000 police officers. Now I am focused on increasing the Review Board’s powers in order to help rebuild relationships between the public and police. By reading this, you already know where I grew up. I know we need our police, and I am also well aware of their perception by some of my friends and neighbors. We cannot live in a safe community without rebuilding our trust. Body cameras provide the transparency we need, and the Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, if given teeth, can start rebuilding that trust. I love my city, and I do not want it to become the next national headline.
After Congressman Cohen’s 2014 race, a 2 to 1 victory, I temporarily moved out to Denver as the Deputy Director for DSCF (Democratic Senate Campaign Fund). In that role, I worked directly with the Director. We ran a $2.5 million budget. While we helped each other in all areas of the campaign, he focused more on fundraising while I was running the ground game. During our battles, one of our opponents retweeted a white supremacist web site. None of the local press picked up the story at all. Because I grew up in an African American neighborhood and city, I was infuriated to see that a man seeking public office would have the nerve to tweet such hateful rhetoric about a group of people he never lived with or knew. I spent countless hours sending out the screenshot and supporting materials to multiple national and local sources. That caused national news to expose him. Because of this and the strength of his opponent, Colorado now has a state senator from the Western Slopes who believes in diversity and equality. We were not supposed to win her race.
After living in Colorado, I stood in awe of the progressive state and the beautiful mountains and views within it. I wondered if it was home. While at a Halloween party at Cervantes in Five Points, I looked around at the crowd. While I should have been enjoying Zoogma and the wonderful craft beer the venue had, I could not help but realize that I was not home. I had over a thousand people around me, but I somehow felt alone. The one thing that cheered me up was noticing my friend running the light show wearing a Memphis t-shirt. That was the moment when I decided I needed to go home, and I did the day after my contract ended.
Returning home, I began practicing criminal defense law, and, through other incredible board members on the Bridge, I became a member of the Memphis Rotary Club where I had hoped and still hope to secure funding for Housing First in Memphis as a means of reducing costs to the city and helping the most vulnerable in our communities.
After unsuccessfully running for Memphis City Council District 5 in 2015, I learned two things: 1) the top of the ticket controls turnout, and 2) I needed to earn more wealth in order to support the candidates and policies I want to push. In 2016, I invested in multiple business ventures. Out of all of them, two ended up being successful. While I am only a passive investor in the local tech start-up I invested in, I am one of the managers and the second largest shareholder of Dune Valley Farms, LLC. Dune Valley Farms is a licensed and legally operated wholesale cannabis cultivation company that now supplies dispensaries and product manufacturers all over the state of Colorado.
I have been a supporter of cannabis law reform since high school, back when the issue was still taboo and only supported by a little over 30% of the population. Waiting for an issue to become popular before conveniently changing a view is what opportunists do. Public servants fight for what is right before it is popular. That is why I was so proud to work for my mentor, Congressman Steve Cohen. He spoke truth to power on issues in the 1980s that mainstream politicians did not come around on until around 2010. We have a lot of opportunists, who only look out for their own careers, representing us at all levels of government and in both parties. I never became a full-time political consultant because I only want to work for people and causes I believe in.
My one big complaint about cannabis law reform is that it too often benefits already wealthy people and not the folks who felt the brunt of misguided laws and a backwards criminal justice system. That is why, right before announcing another run at District 5, I wanted to announce the creation of Dignity PAC.
Here is the announcement video for Dignity PAC:
Practicing criminal defense law has taught me that we need to focus more on D.A. and judicial elections since they directly affect our residents, arguably more than most legislators. I have no plans to run for D.A. or judge, but I hope to back and provide support for candidates that I perceive as having a criminal justice reform mindset. People who realize that imprisoning more people than China and Russia make us not as free as some may believe we are. We live in a 65% AA city, yet our D.A. and many of our judges represent an old worldview that has led to mass incarceration and the destruction of many families, primarily poor minority families in Memphis. That is why I am announcing the creation of Dignity PAC, and, by 2022, I hope to personally contribute a portion of what I make from my current business venture to making sure we have a fair and just criminal justice system; not one based off of win/loss records. Dignity PAC may not have anything to do with this year’s city elections, but, it is part of my story and part of who I am. It will be my political focus over the next few years.
Starting in late 2018, after volunteering (as I did in 2008) for instant runoff voting (IRV), I began to consider making another run for Memphis City Council District 5. I could not believe my eyes, when I watched the Memphis City Council overwhelmingly vote to waste $40,000 of taxpayer money on a misleading and failed campaign against IRV. They were so afraid of removing the wasteful runoffs that protect incumbents that they were willing to take a big and negative political risk. I am furious with most of the current city council. They failed us miserably on the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, which has been rendered useless by city government, and they failed us on IRV.
I spoke to many of my friends and advisers, and I was told that other people were considering making a run for district 5. While I still continued to consider it, because of my responsibilities to my growing business and the prospect of others jumping into the council race, I assumed I likely would not make the plunge this time. Then, one after another, the prospective candidates began to announce they were not running. Because of this, I wrote an article for the Memphis Flyer calling for a progressive to run in district 5 this year (2019) hoping to encourage someone else to run:
Article link: https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/thoughts-about-how-to-win-memphis-council-district-5/Content?oid=19071300
District 5 is a purple district; however, many are convinced it is red because of the makeup of the turnout in 2015. It also has an incumbent with the ability to raise unlimited funding from his family, who own one of the largest wealth management and capital market firms not headquartered on Wall Street. As the deadline approached, no one stepped up.
Post-2015, I had no plans on running for office again until I could properly self-finance, but I cannot allow a conservative to have district 5 for free. Worth Morgan opposed instant runoff voting even though it was supported by over 70% of Memphis voters in 2008 and even though it passed again overwhelmingly last year. Voters have now demanded IRV twice, yet scared incumbents and partisan state actors have delayed implementation. I am one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit fighting for implementation of IRV, and I look forward to seeing that case through. Worth Morgan also abstained from the decriminalization of cannabis vote, which I lobbied for, and it barely passed with 7 votes. Unfortunately, state actors, who claim to support small government, dismantled it.
Again, we live in a 65% African American city, yet we have a city council that is controlled by wealthy conservative interests. Even some of our so-called progressives on the council vote with the 1%, when their puppet strings are pulled. I have no issue with an individual’s ability to earn money and become wealthy; however, I do have a problem with the wealthy rigging our system and having a disproportionate voice in government. On the local level, this is mainly done with the use of super districts and runoffs, which favor wealthy candidates and which allot 25% of our city’s population 50% of the super district seats and many single member districts. The city council you elect this year will redraw the city council districts in 2022. We need to elect candidates who support 13 or more single member districts and oppose runoffs. If we re-elect the current crop back to city council, you can expect more of the same super districts and other incumbent protection measures like runoffs.
I provide you an option you would not have otherwise had this year. An option of progress with qualifications over the status quo country club mentality that currently grasps city government. Early voting starts September 13th, and it ends on September 28th. Election day is October 3rd. The current city council has let Memphis down. The city council we elect this year will redraw the districts for the next ten years. This year’s city elections are crucial. This October, vote for change; vote Marek for Memphis.
Critical Year Video: