In December 2013, with a new city council and a once-controversial mayor who was starting to win the hearts and minds of his detractors, things were looking up for the city of Jackson.
There was finally an opportunity for city leaders to fix streets and water pipes, the subjects of complaints that have provided the refrain for city elections for many years. Every member of the city council was spreading the gospel of the 1-percent sales tax referendum that would face voters in the city in January. Ward 5 Councilman Charles Tillman even campaigned in favor of the tax at a funeral he was attending, as City Hall legend has it.
Of course, the next 12 months would prove just how inexact a science it is to govern a city Jackson's size, but it would also showcase the capital's resiliency, said Ward 4 Councilman De'Keither Stamps.
"Between the tragedy that we couldn't control and lot of outside forces pushing back and forth, we still endured," Stamps told the Jackson Free Press on Christmas Eve.
Death of a Mayor
Tragedy struck early in the year and unexpectedly with the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba on Feb. 25, who had a change of heart on the sales tax and became a visible supporter, which helped its passage by more than 90 percent.
Not only had Jackson lost its leader less than one year after he took office—and one who was charming even conservatives—but Lumumba's death also threw city operations out of whack with employees not entirely sure from whom they should take orders.
As quickly as the spirit of unity that brought the city together on Lumumba's death came, it quickly dissipated in the face of a special mayoral election. That field would eventually include roughly half the members of the city council, as Melvin Priester Jr. of Ward 2, Tony Yarber of Ward 6 and Margaret Barrett-Simon of Ward 7 joined Chokwe A. Lumumba, the late mayor's son, former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and state Sen. John Horhn in the abbreviated campaign cycle.
The race saw every political cliche imaginable. The mud flew. Dirty laundry was aired. It was during the election that some of the city's troubles under Mayor Johnson with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Community Development Block Grant program came into clear focus. The federal housing agency wanted the city to repay $1.9 million that did not meet HUD guidelines.
Eventually, Yarber and Lumumba, the son, would make it to a runoff when age-old political tensions reemerged. With Yarber a known quantity around the city, particularly in his south Jackson ward, the candidates drew roughly equal support among African Americans. However, Yarber also got a boost from white voters in northeast Jackson with some help from several Republican firms his campaigned hired, including a polling firm and consulting firmed GOP strategist Hayes Dent owns.
In the meantime, Lumumba supporters, such as attorney Precious Martin, were busy trying to discredit Yarber by circulating racy videos of the then-councilman giving lessons to men on how to seduce their women in one video and imitating young female club-goers in another. Months later, Martin was killed in an ATV accident near his home in Madison County.
The anti-Yarber ads were not enough to help Lumumba to victory, and Yarber officially succeeded Lumumba in later April. A relatively quiet race for Yarber's former seat sent Tyrone Hendrix, who previously worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny Dupree and the mayoral run by businessman Jonathan Lee in 2013, to the city council; he defeated attorney Dennis Sweet IV.
Fighting for Hinds Voters
As normalcy settled into the city, and government operations resumed, the citizens of Jackson and Hinds County were about to play a major role in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, which pitted incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran, representing the mainstream wing of the party, against tea-party upstart state Sen. Chris McDaniel of Laurel.
The June 3 primary, the first that would use the state's new voter ID law, did not draw must interest among Democrats. The Republican primary, however, saw record turnout and forced a runoff two weeks later.
Cochran's strategy involved reaching out to African American voters who sat out the Democratic primary by rehashing his support for historically black colleges and universities, the Jackson Medical Mall and other programs. Leaders in the African American community that have supported Republicans in the past, such as New Horizon Church International Pastor Ronnie Crudup, came to Cochran's aid.
Crudup's political-action committee, All Citizens for Mississippi, ran pro-Cochran ads on Jackson-area radio stations and in local publications that have large black audiences (including this one), which led to accusations that Cochran was race-baiting.
Even though the Republican Senate primary did not disrupt city government operations, some leaders, such as Stamps, believed the race had a polarizing effect that cast a pall over the city.
"There was an outside force moving through Jackson," Stamps said.
As that force, which ended with Cochran's victory in both the Senate runoff and the November general election against former Congressman Travis Childers, was moving through Jackson, officials were working to finalize its annual budget.
The Challenge of Governing
In August, the city council approved a minimum-wage increase for city workers by a vote of 6 to 1. Previously, minimum wage for city employees mirrors the national minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Under the proposal, the wage would rise to $8.75 per hour within a year. The next year, it would go up to $9.70 and $10.65 after three years.
When Mayor Yarber signaled that he would balk on the city pay raises, saying the increases would be too costly, the council approved the budget with the caveat that Yarber had to figure out how to pay for the pay increases.
Hendrix, who developed the pay-raise proposal, called it his most significant achievement on the council.
"I think it's something that benefitted the lives of folks who work for the city, and their families for years to come," Hendrix said.
The council has moved closer to returning to full strength with Ashby Foote officially joining the body as Ward 1 Councilman. The founder of a financial services company, Foote recently won a special election over attorney Dorsey Carson to take over for Quentin Whitwell, who left the council in August, the third Ward 1 councilman in a row to resign before his last term ended.
With the council again at full strength, Stamps looks forward to next year when the city will continue to progress through adversity.
"What else can happen?" Stamps said of the events of the past year. "By us going through something together, you already know how Councilman Tillman is going to respond. You already know how Mayor Yarber is going to respond. So that gives you a comfort level to say we're going to figure this out together."
"We may push and pull, but that push and pull makes us better."