Carnita Atwater

Carnita Atwater

Carnita Atwater is an American politician who ran unsuccessful campaigns for Mayor of Memphis in 2023 and for Governor of Tennessee as a Democrat in 2022. Though she did not win election to public office, her campaigns shed light on important issues in Tennessee politics.

This article will provide an overview of Atwater’s background, her recent political campaigns, her policy positions and priorities if elected, and the legacy she leaves behind in Tennessee politics.

Early Life and Education

Carnita Atwater was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in the early 1970s. Her family later moved to Memphis, Tennessee where Atwater attended Frayser High School.

After graduating from high school, Atwater earned a bachelor’s degree in community health education and nursing from Murray State University in 1996. She went on to complete a graduate degree in gerontology, public health administration, and psychology from Austin Peay State University in 1998.

In 2003, Atwater obtained her doctorate in public health administration and education from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Her educational background played a key role in shaping her priorities around healthcare and public health policy.

Professional Background

Before running for office, Atwater gained extensive professional experience in the fields of healthcare, education, counseling, and community organizing.

Some of her work experience includes serving as a nurse, teacher, academic dean, drug abuse counselor, and founding the Kukutana African-American History and Culture Museum of Memphis.

Atwater has been actively involved with numerous organizations over the years, including the National Association of Professional Women, Sierra Club, Operation PUSH Coalition, and the American Heart Association. Her diverse professional background gave her unique expertise to bring to the table as a political candidate.

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2023 Memphis Mayoral Campaign

In 2023, Atwater decided to run for Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee. The open seat attracted 15 candidates overall in the nonpartisan general election held on October 5, 2023.

Despite her strong professional background, Atwater received just 0.1% of the vote, placing 10th out of 15 candidates. The winner of the mayoral race was Paul Young with 27.7% of the vote.

While she gained valuable campaign experience, Atwater’s long-shot bid for Memphis mayor fell very short. Her lack of name recognition in the crowded field proved to be a major challenge.

2022 Tennessee Gubernatorial Campaign

Not discouraged by her mayoral defeat, Atwater set her sights higher in 2022 by running for Governor of Tennessee. She campaigned in the Democratic primary against two main opponents, Jason Martin and JB Smiley Jr.

In the August 4 primary, Atwater came in third place with 21.8% of the vote. Martin won the nomination with 39.4% of the vote and went on to face incumbent Republican Governor Bill Lee in the general election.

Despite her primary loss, Atwater’s gubernatorial campaign focused public attention on education, jobs, healthcare, and the environment. She positioned herself as a progressive champion, though some critiqued her lack of political experience.

Political Views and Priorities

Throughout her gubernatorial campaign, Atwater emphasized her passion for education, healthcare, environmental protection, and social justice. She expressed admiration for figures like Nelson Mandela who fought oppression and inequality.

If elected governor, Atwater vowed to improve Tennessee’s public school system, expand Medicaid, increase infrastructure spending, and combat climate change through renewable energy. She also wanted to reform the criminal justice system and reduce gun violence.

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Atwater argued the core duty of a governor is listening to the people and improving their lives. She hoped to leave a legacy of prosperity, opportunity, and community in Tennessee.

Support and Endorsements

Though she fell short in the 2022 Democratic primary, Atwater’s gubernatorial campaign did attract some notable support. She was endorsed by state senator Brenda Gilmore, county commissioner Reginald Milton, former NAACP president Gloria Sweet-Love, and other local officials.

The campaign also won backing from organizations like Moms Demand Action, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Tennessee Education Association. However, Atwater lacked the high-profile endorsements that some of her primary opponents received.

Controversies and Critiques

While running for governor, Atwater faced criticisms about her lack of political experience and vague policy platform. Some felt she did not provide enough details on major issues like healthcare and education reform.

She also drew scrutiny for claiming a doctoral degree from the University of Bristol, as the school does not provide doctoral degrees. This exaggeration on her resume raised questions about Atwater’s credibility as a candidate.

On fiscal issues, critics characterized Atwater as too far left with an unrealistic agenda. Her opponents argued that her spending proposals were financially impractical for Tennessee.

Personal Life

Outside of politics, Atwater has resided in Memphis with her husband and two daughters. She is an active member of her church and spends time mentoring youth in the community.

Atwater considers figures like Nelson Mandela, Harriet Tubman, and Susan B. Anthony as inspirations for their courage and leadership on human rights issues. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and listening to jazz music.

Legacy and Impact

Though she did not ultimately get elected to office, Carnita Atwater left her mark on local politics in Memphis and across Tennessee. As one of few female African-American gubernatorial candidates in the state’s history, she helped pave the way for future minority politicians.

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Her campaigns focused valuable attention on education, healthcare, and the environment as top policy priorities for Tennessee. Atwater gave a platform to progressive solutions for some of the state’s biggest challenges.

In the future, her gubernatorial run could position Atwater for another statewide campaign or a role in a new administration. Regardless, her political career demonstrates the growing diversity and dynamism of politics in Tennessee.


In summary, Carnita Atwater brought passion, vision, and valuable experience to her campaigns for Memphis mayor in 2023 and Tennessee governor in 2022. Though ultimately unsuccessful, she spotlighted important policy issues and represented the rising voice of progressive candidates in the state.

Atwater’s background in nursing, education, and community service informed her priorities of improving healthcare, schools, and economic opportunities for Tennesseans. While critiqued as inexperienced and unrealistic by opponents, she provided a unique perspective as a reform-minded African-American woman seeking higher office.

The full impact of Atwater’s political career remains to be seen. With continued activism and engagement, she has potential to influence Tennessee’s political landscape for years to come.


What campaigns did Carnita Atwater run in?

Atwater ran unsuccessful campaigns for Mayor of Memphis in 2023 and for Governor of Tennessee as a Democrat in 2022.

What were some of Atwater’s key policy positions?

Atwater campaigned on progressive policies like Medicaid expansion, education reform, infrastructure investment, renewable energy, criminal justice reform, and gun safety measures.

What critiques did Atwater face as a candidate?

She was criticized for exaggerating her educational credentials, lacking political experience, and proposing an unrealistic progressive agenda.

Who endorsed Atwater’s 2022 gubernatorial campaign?

She won endorsements from state senator Brenda Gilmore, county commissioner Reginald Milton, and organizations like Moms Demand Action.

What legacy did Atwater leave on Tennessee politics?

She helped spotlight issues like healthcare and education access. As a black female candidate, she also diversified the political landscape.

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