Making of a Mayor | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Making of a Mayor

Photo by Trip Burns

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Chockwe Lumumba takes on the job of mayor in Jackson on July 1.

On the morning of the Democratic primary race on May 7, Jackson's political insiders in the mood for prognosticating might have positioned Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba as a long shot. The odds predicted a run-off--no one candidate had a strong enough following for a clear victory--but most believed incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. would be in the runoff two weeks later.

When the votes were counted, though, Jonathan Lee, a relative unknown in Jackson just a year before, emerged with 34.2 percent of the vote and Lumumba with 24.7 percent. Johnson came in third, garnering only 21 percent of the total vote.

Mississippi's primary system is easily manipulated. With voters not having to declare a party, anyone can vote in either party's primary, making it impossible to determine the political leanings of primary voters. In a Deep South city like Jackson where politics and race are inextricably entwined, African Americans--as elsewhere in the United States--are far more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than a Republican.

"If there's a way to racialize a black-on-black campaign, calling someone a Republican can definitely do that," said Byron D'Andra Orey, professor of political science at Jackson State University. Johnson attempted the tactic against Lee in the primary race to little avail. Still, Orey believes it did have an impact. Lee "did not move away from the stigma of being a Republican," he said.

In the face of the reality that no Republican is likely to win any citywide seat in Jackson--where more than 80 percent of voters are black--the Republican Party failed to put up a mayoral candidate.

In the primary race, Lee ran a fairly solid campaign against incumbent Johnson. He portrayed himself as the energetic young business owner, the potential unifier of the city and its surrounding suburbs. 
 In debates and interviews, Lee came out as ready to shift control of the city's resources to regional authorities, if necessary, as opposed to Johnson and Lumumba's insistence that maintaining control over the city's assets was key to its growth. Lee was the "you can be right, or you can be happy" candidate, in his own words.

The metro area's business community stood firmly behind Lee and his portrayal as the man who could get the city moving again. Lee's pro-business message resonated with Jackson's white minority, which continues to hold economic power in the city even as its voting power has declined. That constituency stuck with Lee even after news surfaced that his business acumen wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Two weeks before the primary, the Jackson Free Press broke the story that Lee's family business had several judgments against it, which the candidate couldn't adequately or consistently explain. He was never an owner of the business, he said then, even though his platform centered on his being a successful businessman.

Lee's Republican business support may have set off the well-honed skepticism of Jackson's African American community. Was Lee a DINO (Democrat-in-name-only)? Was he just a front man for the entrenched white Republican power structure?

"It was actually not true," Orey said, but when it came to the race between Lumumba and Lee, Lee was far closer to the right--the established white economic power structure.

"The point of departure for Lee is business, and the point of departure for Lumumba is going to be the regular folk," said Bob Wing, a veteran community organizer and writer based in North Carolina who spent eight days with the Lumumba campaign between the primary and runoff elections. "That doesn't mean the interest of regular folk can't also be in the interest of business. Sometimes they do have the same interests, but there are many times that they don't. ... I think that that's the biggest difference (between Lee and Lumumba)."

Lee has served as the moderator for the popular Friday Forums at Koinonia Coffee House, once sponsored by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce, for some time. The Chamber pulled its sponsorship after Lee announced his candidacy to protect its nonprofit status; however, Lee refused to step away from moderating the forums.

In the weeks between the primary and the Democratic runoff, Lee's campaign never seemed to shift gears from beating Johnson to running against Lumumba on the issues. Instead, it became strident and defensive, even desperate.

"The runoff campaign quickly got nasty, as Lee choked the airwaves with claims that Lumumba was an 'un-Christian' (read Muslim) 'militant' non-Democrat who would 'divide the city,'" Wing wrote in "From 'Mississippi Goddam' to 'Jackson Hell Yes" shortly after the election.

Lee's negative campaigning "certainly fired up white voters," Wing said, but it also made black voters less likely to vote for Lee, more likely to vote for Lumumba and more likely to vote in general. All of the election results point to the accuracy of Wing's analysis. More voters actually turned out in the runoff than in the primary, when historically, the opposite is true: Fewer voters turn out in successive elections for the same seat.

"In other words, a lot of voters who might not have bothered to vote, voted," Wing said, adding that it also fired up Lumumba's supporters and motivated them to work harder for him.

"When I first saw (Lee's ads), it made me cringe," Orey said. "I think it had a counter-effect. (Lee) didn't have to work to get the white vote; he already had the white vote. ... The problem was him trying to get the cross-over black votes.

"It was the most asinine thing to do at that stage where he was, in terms of how he was positioned."

The negative attacks were reminiscent of Republican assaults on President Barack Obama in both the 2008 and 2012 national campaigns, and probably went far to solidify Lee's alleged Republican connections in voters' minds--which translates to "white" in Mississippi.

It didn't help that, in debates, Lee couldn't compete with Lumumba and his elder civil-rights statesman's aura. Lumumba spanked young Lee with his depth of knowledge and rhetorical skills honed through years working for justice in and out of the courtroom. Lee came off as naive and belligerent, not ready to take the reins of Jackson's government.

"The buzz on the street was that (Lee) bombed the debate," Orey said. "... People saw Lumumba as having gravitas. It quelled people's concerns."

Meanwhile, Lumumba's campaign played up the meme of Lee's allegiance to Republicans. When U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, arguably the most powerful African American in Mississippi today, endorsed Lumumba, he solidified the connection.

"When I see Republicans from Rankin and Madison counties endorsing the other so-called Democrat, I know something is fishy," Thompson said in a Lumumba campaign ad, though he never specifically named Lee. 
 The Republicans supporting the other candidate are the same people who "opened their checkbooks last fall for Mitt Romney in an effort to kick President Obama out of the White House," the congressman added. Finally, Thompson advised voters not to fall for "old Republican tricks" and to "vote for the real Democrat."

"I think (Thompson) was alarmed by Lee," Wing said.

When Lumumba was on-message, he dismantled Lee's attacks with relative ease. He was "the Christian brother with an African name." Instead of promoting militancy, Lumumba's spoke about "promoting prosperity for all instead of protecting the business interests of a privileged few," Wing wrote.

Lumumba won the Democratic run-off on May 21 handily with 54 percent of the vote. In the general election, Lumumba won by an 87 percent landslide with no other serious contenders to challenge him.

"I think people connected with Lumumba because they are Lumumba," Orey said. They're familiar with the struggles of being black in the heart of Deep South. Although some black voters were uncomfortable with his rhetoric, they couldn't risk putting someone in charge who could be used against their interests, he added.

"One thing we have to realize is that campaigns are not governance," Orey said.

Despite any campaign promise, Lumumba will be mayor of the capital city of the poorest state in the union. His success will likely be measured by how well he's able to join the concerns of the city's people with the reality of those bitter economics.

"Often, there's a picture painted, all the way back to the '60s, where people who are a certain kind of militant, someone who could be called a nationalist, is somehow narrow-minded and doesn't understand anybody else," Wing said. "That's absolutely not true of this set of people. They are an extremely sophisticated, broad-minded set of folks. They are not the stereotype of: 'We are all about black people. Screw the rest of you.' That's not their point of view in the least."

What Lumumba and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement--which he co-founded in 1993--are about is civil rights and equal rights, but ideology doesn't fix roads and infrastructure and expand the tax base. That will take a lot of hard work, and the likelihood is that Lumumba won't be able to please everyone who voted for him.

"I think it's a horribly difficult job," Wing said.

See Also:

Growing Up Lumumba

Lumumba: Defining Success

The Lumumba Economy

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