Special to the Jackson Free Press…Breaking News…Dose of Reality? Got word late today that all of the mayoral candidates meeting this afternoon to consider offers from competing reality shows, and are feverishly negotiating to strike a deal by end of day. All have agreed that winner of show will decide primary race. Shows in competition are America’s Next Top Mayor, Survivor, The Amazing (Primary) Race and Debating With The Stars …Trump, You’re Fired: Sources say mayor has nixed consideration of The Apprentice. …Political Reality: Jackson Free Press sponsoring debate later in month with theme So You Think You Can Govern? …Kumbaya Moment? Candidates have agreed to pool all campaign money raised and share it equally with each other, donating any leftover funds to Quinn non-profit, which will become watchdog for campaign finance reporting in future elections.
Campaigns at their heart are moments in time. The successful campaign will seize on a feeling in the air, the candidate and his or her supporters will walk the streets and gather intelligence on what’s being discussed in the barbershops and beauty shops and salons and supermarkets and churches. Then, having figured out what the people think is important, and what they think needs to be changed or improved or eliminated, the campaign will take that grass roots intelligence and fashion it into a rationale for their candidate, will create a memorable campaign slogan and set of reasonable and somewhat bland priorities packaged into a 4- or 5- or 6-point plan. (4 seems to be the number this year in the mayoral race). And to most people, that will be the “campaign” that they see.
I came to Jackson in 2007, and thus my introduction to the politics of the city was the spectacular flameout and slow death spiral that was the last half and ignominious end of the Melton administration. As I was absent during the years of his very public ascent and eventual election, it was difficult if not impossible for me to comprehend how this community could see in such a flawed man the capacity to lead. Jackson seemed like some sort of Bizarro world, a city called Noskcaj, where everything was inverted or backwards.
In any professional political campaign, ones that raise money, hire campaign staff and build a grass roots operation, there is a meeting that usually happens at the beginning of the campaign, before the candidate has even announced his or her candidacy, which is critical to the success of the campaign. The candidate, the campaign manager and sometimes one or two advisers will sit down in a room, close the door, and then someone in the room, usually the campaign manager, will ask the candidate a difficult but necessary question. “Is there anything we don’t know about you that could have an impact on the campaign?” Or if they are really direct they might just say “tell me about every skeleton you have in your closet. And don’t leave anything out. I want to know if you cheated on your second grade penmanship exam!”
This primary election has been fascinating on many levels. In my last post I argued that the election hinged on two universal political rules: 1) Challengers must convince the electorate to fire the incumbent in order to have a chance at success, and 2) Incumbents wear out their welcome over time and are rarely given the chance at 3, 4 or more terms (except for those who achieve one-name status, like Mayor Mary). As I analyzed the campaign it was my sense that the challengers had not made a strong enough argument against the mayor, but neither had the mayor settled on a simple message that explained to voters why he was needed for another 4 years, and that led me to conclude that the mayor would just barely make the runoff.
But I also began to think that this election had the feel of a generational change, with the younger (30-40) African American professional class and civic leadership declaring their right to take the reins of government from an older generation, now in its sixties, that has governed for the last 20 years, and that this feeling was most notable in Mr. Lee’s campaign. His original campaign slogan “It’s our time for greatness!” functioned on a number of levels, and one was that it communicated a sense of “out with the old and in with the new” (leaders).
Still, it’s taken me a week to digest last week’s results, and what they mean. My pre-primary analysis was that while Mayor Johnson was weakened, and was fending off challenges from both the left (Lumumba) and the right (Lee), and perhaps even from the middle (Quinn), he would still be able to garner 25-28% of the vote, which I thought would get him into the runoff. I was right about that figure being enough to get into the runoff, but instead of Mayor Johnson it was Councilman Lumumba who achieved that threshold. Mayor Johnson had been down this road before; in 2009 he ran a close primary race with then councilman Marshand Crisler, and then beat him easily in the runoff. It’s as if he saw the primary as a time trial; run just fast enough to get into the finals. But that strategy depends in large part on knowing exactly how good the competition is; there’s always the risk that a newcomer will come out of nowhere and smoke you in your heat. And then you’re out.
In the last week leading up to the primary I heard chatter that the mayor was losing ground, and that Mr. Lee was leading in the polling. It was all anecdotal, and I never saw any poll data to verify that, though in hindsight that polling proved accurate. Given the massive advantage Lee had in fundraising and spending (approximately 4:1 over Johnson and perhaps near double that over Lumumba), and factoring in the television blitz that the Lee campaign aired the last few weeks of the campaign, I thought he had a good ...
Since the somewhat surprising victory of Councilman Chokwe Lumumba in the Jackson mayoral runoff, and his subsequent victory in the general election, I’ve been thinking about what his ascension to the mayor’s office will mean for Jackson and eventually, for the state itself. As the new mayor’s inaugural events begin to take place in the next week, perhaps it is time, as we approach the 50-year anniversary of so many of the momentous events of the civil rights era, to both contemplate and attempt to calibrate just how far we’ve come.
What will the election of new Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba mean for our somewhat besieged city and the communities that surround it? (anyone who lives in the Jackson metro area and who doesn’t believe that as Jackson goes so goes the metro area is being both short-sighted and provincial). How will he choose to govern the city, and how will his lifetime of civil rights activism and his career as a defense lawyer influence his decision making and term as mayor?
Whatever the result of the election, and I think we will all be up late tonight, my observation is that regardless of who wins, Jackson will be setting a new course, much different from the one Mayor Johnson had charted during his terms. The old center has not held, and the voters have already expressed their eagerness to forge a new one. The tectonic plates, having ground against each other for these many years, are shifting, and by tomorrow morning we shall read in the results which one is ascendant and which is descendant.
This mayoral race has always been about whether or not the voters want to fire Mayor Johnson. My assessment has always been that while they are contemplating doing so, they first want to see what and who their alternatives are. Voters are essentially conservative by nature (not necessarily by politics), and the incumbent they know will often be preferable to an exciting or intriguing but ultimately unproven replacement ( See Mayor Melton). Usually, things have to be pretty bad for voters to make that decision to fire the incumbent. Statistically, at the federal level congressional incumbents get reelected at a 90% rate, and nationally the municipal rate is near 80%. As a study of incumbency in municipal elections in the United States puts it: “It is virtually always better to be an incumbent than a challenger in American elections.”
I've been to most of the debates during this mayoral election season, and to be perfectly honest, they have not shed a great deal of light on the candidates and their positions. Here's the question I think most voters would say needs to be asked of each candidate.
As for the debate, with all due respect to the candidates, it had the feel of a spring training baseball game, the established veterans just looking to getting in shape for opening day, the long-shots looking to do something spectacular to stand out so that they don’t get cut, and the high draft choices doing just enough, trying to gauge where they stood in the race to make the final cut.
And perhaps that’s the whole point of the event, to look like one thing while actually being something close to the exact opposite of the thing. It’s a contrivance, as real and unscripted as a reality show, with much the same intent: to appear to be something it is not while selling a message or product.