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. It was hard to understand a city that had somehow elected, in succession, two such dissimilar men: Harvey Johnson, then Frank Melton, then Johnson again, all by substantial majorities. It seemed as if there was some kind of collective community schizophrenia at work, or a contagion which reappeared and infected the populace every four years, and which caused the city to oscillate between vastly different leadership.
In the ensuing years I hope that I’ve come to understand the city and its people better, and gained insight into why Jackson is the way it is, and how someone like Frank Melton could have been initially selected by the political and business “ruling class” and then subsequently elected by the voters to lift the city out of its decline and lead it to higher ground. And as I studied the history and politics of the city and the state, and met those who have lived here much or all of their lives (and more importantly, much longer than I), what came into clearer focus was that there were and there are intrinsic tectonic-like forces that grind away just under the surface of the city’s politics.
And we who live in Jackson and around it all know what those forces are, even while we refrain from talking about them, because it is not easy or comfortable to do so. On one side is the minority white population of about 20%, holder of much of the wealth and economic power in the city, which knows that for the foreseeable future Jackson’s mayor and its elected officials and political leadership will be African American. On the other is an African American electorate of nearly 80%, which has seen little change or improvement in the city in the past 20 years, regardless of who they elect, black or white, and which holds by their sheer numbers formidable political power.
And so these two sides compete: for wealth, for contracts, for attention and of course for power. The list of requests is endless. And the recipient of all of those demands? The mayor, the chief executive of the city, confronted daily by an endless gauntlet of difficult and close decisions guaranteed to nearly always make something close to a majority unhappy. More development. More jobs. Tax breaks. Lower taxes. Better schools. Lower taxes. More police. Less crime. More services. Lower taxes.
As the years passed I came to see Mayor Johnson as a man irrevocably caught between those two opposing forces, destined at best to mediate between them and at worst to be ground up by them. I will leave it to the readers to decide for themselves which of those roles he played most often, and to assess his own culpability or effectiveness, for most of you have observed him, his public service and the politics of the city for much longer than I have. But in these past few years the idea that for me will not go away is a man whose greatest political goal was stasis. And that is a condition which can offer to some a calming and comforting equilibrium (“I don’t want things to change too fast”) but to others can reek of stagnation, inertia and ineffectiveness (“Why aren’t things changing fast enough?”).
So for the 12 years he was in office, especially the last 4, the mayor was the ultimate man in the middle, a man who by his nature and personality is a mediator, an assessor of stakeholders and their interests, a cataloger of the intricate details of the machinery of government, a man who many would say is an unrepentant micromanager. And being the man in the middle is not an easy role to play, this day taking on the developer whose deal offers the city a short term gain and a long term deficit, that day listening to unhappy constituents complain about flooding or crime, or roads that need repaving, and asking for answers and solutions.
And at the end of any one of those days, unable to report anything more than some incremental progress, you realize that you have satisfied no one. And then take that experience and repeat it throughout the day, and then go through a month of days like that, and a year of months like that, and then 4 years, until a term is finished and it’s time to run again. Provided that you still want to serve. Perhaps it’s a wonder anyone wants to serve.
Yet, as the Democratic primary election proved, there were 9 who did want to and who did run. And last Tuesday, confronted with this multitude of choices in the mayoral election, the somewhat divided electorate made an interesting and ultimately momentous choice. They removed the man in the middle.
Who shall replace him?
Next: Final post before the mayoral election