Note: This story has been updated with a total donation figure that Lee's backers gave to federal Republican candidates since 2008. The new paragraph is bolded down below.
In the WAPT-Clarion-Ledger debate, Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. alluded to the fact that he is a real Democrat when he unloaded on opponent Jonathan Lee in his closing statement. This is clearly a continuation of some Jacksonians' belief that Lee is a "Rankin County Republican," a meme we've heard off and on for months now.
We have factchecked both parts of that allegation to the best of our ability and will address them both below.
First, Rankin County
Lee's campaign materials make him sound like a life-long Jacksonian. His website states:
Jonathan was born, grew up and lives in Jackson. Jonathan was born and raised in Jackson into a family with deep ties throughout the community. The son of two Lanier graduates and part of a family whose roots span three generations in Jackson’s Georgetown community, Jonathan learned early what it meant to be proud of one’s city.
Jonathan called all of Jackson home – from growing up on Meadow Lane to getting picked up by his grandmother (“Big Mama”) after school who lived in Georgetown. After graduating from high school, Jonathan attended Mississippi State University, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing and a Master’s in Business Administration.
The part that is left out of that description is that Lee's family moved to Rankin County in 1988 when he was 11. He later graduated from Northwest Rankin High School and did not live in Jackson again until 2009 when records show that Lee and his wife moved into Jackson from Rankin County. When asked, he does not deny that he has lived less than four years in Jackson as an adult.
Lee, who is 35 now, took over as president of his father's company when he was 24, according to his campaign materials. He told the Jackson Free Press that he stepped down from the company, which he never owned, in December 2011, meaning that he ran it for about 10 years.
Candidate Lee ran into a Rankin-related controversy last year after a commenter posted on the Jackson Free Press site that he was still driving a Maroon SUV with a Rankin County plate. In response to an Aug. 10, 2012, query about it, Lee emailed the Jackson Free Press:
This particular rumor has been shopped around various media outlets all week. The vehicle I assume that they are referring to is my company vehicle. My personal vehicle is registered in Hinds County, a fact easily verified.
MPI is owned by an entity chartered and located in Rankin County. It was where our distribution company was originally located. In fact, MPI has only been located in Jackson for 19 years. For those 19 years MPI has paid property taxes, inventory taxes, and school taxes in Jackson, Miss. The parent company is still located in Rankin county today and my company car is owned, titled and registered to the parent company.
This is the secretary of state's entry for Mississippi Products Inc. It does not indicate a parent company in Rankin County, and he did not mention a parent company in his recent interview about MPI with the JFP. We have emailed him requesting more information about it.
County license-plate records show that Lee moved the license plate for his company GMC into Hinds County, where car tags cost more, on Aug. 13, 2012, three days after the JFP asked him about it last year. Records show that the car (purchased in 2011) is registered to his mother, Ruby Jean Lee, listing Mississippi Products' Valley Street address in Jackson. We are still unsure if there was a "parent company" in Rankin County unless he is speaking of his mother; we can locate no company in Rankin County registered to either Jonathan or Jean Lee, other than MPI Laundry Services LLC, which was registered to Lee at his home in Brandon. That company was dissolved, however, in 2007 and did not exist when the GMC was purchased in 2011.
Lee a Republican?
Lee is running for Jackson mayor as a Democrat, and there is no evidence that he is currently a Republican. His campaign's finance director Jeff Good told the JFP: "I can help here. My friend Jonathan Lee is no Republican. He is a Precinct Delegate for Hinds County Democratic Party. Precinct 37. Serves with Mayor Johnson and his wife, Kathy."
Indeed, records indicate that Lee has voted numerous times as a Democrat. The first time he voted in Hinds County was 29 months ago in November 2010. The last time he voted in Rankin County was Nov. 4, 2008, in Brandon.
His record in Rankin County showed that, when party is indicated, he voted two times as a Democrat there and two times as a Republican since 2002. One of those times was in the Aug. 8, 2007, Republican primary when Haley Barbour was at the top of the GOP primary ticket.
In his JFP endorsement interview, Lee said he voted Republican once in Rankin County—for his neighbor, a Republican who was on the ballot. (He could not recall his name.) Lee might have counted both Republican votes as one time; the second GOP vote Lee cast was in the run-off in that primary.
In that interview, Lee also offered information to the JFP that Harvey Johnson is the only one of the top five candidates who has never voted Republican—presumably meaning that he, Chokwe Lumumba, Regina Quinn and Frank Bluntson have. We have not confirmed that allegation, which has also been promulgated by Hinds County Sheriff Department spokesman Othor Cain, who seems to support Lee.
That information, which Lee told to the JFP, matches information compiled and reported by NGP VAN. Its reports show those Lee Republican votes, a Republican vote by Lumumba in the 2000 Republican primary, another by Quinn in the Republican runoff in 2008 (but, oddly, Democratic in the primary that preceding it), and four primary GOP votes by Bluntson from 1993 to 2003.
Quinn vehemently denied it in email that she has ever voted Republican, calling it a database error:
"That’s ridiculous. Whoever put that information into 'databases' is playing the same 'old political gam' ” they always play during the waning days of a campaign season. I assure you that if you ask for backup documentation to support that allegation, you will receive none. I have been the most transparent candidate in this race, Ms. Ladd. I told the voters that I filed for bankruptcy and successfully completed the bankruptcy plan to turn my financial life around. Likewise, if I were a Republican, I would proudly say so. Voters should not trust any candidate who would lie to them about who they are. …"
Quinn added: "After you satisfy yourself that I am telling the truth just like I did when I was attacked in this fashion the first time, I would suggest that you research the party affiliation of the candidate that Mr. Cain is supporting because this allegation is obviously a diversion from his own candidate. Let me be clear, I am and have always been a Democrat and voted consistently that way, albeit I can and do work with people of all persuasion."
Lumumba said in a candidate forum Sunday, in response to a question by Cain, that he has never voted Republican as Lee told us. "I don't think ANYONE confuses me as a Republican," Lumumba said, bringing a lot of laughs. We have not asked Bluntson yet about his Republican votes, but he does share a Republican donor with Lee: Leland Speed gave him $2,000 in addition to his donations to the Lee campaign committee and the Jackson 20/20 PAC that paid Lee's campaign advisers in 2012.
Regardless of his voting record, Lee has plenty of Republican and even ultra-conservative support. An analysis of Lee's 2012 campaign-finance report, as well as the Jackson 20/20 PAC (which, to date, has given thousands of dollars to Lee's campaign advisers), shows that many of the donors are heavy Republican supporters.
An analysis using OpenSecrets.org for campaign donation information shows that contributors to Lee's campaign and the Jackson 20/20 PAC in 2012 and 2013, also gave$1.23 million to federal GOP candidates and committees in federal races, far outpacing the amount contributed to Democrats. That figure does not include Republicans in state and local races. The recipients include a long list of Republicans including Mitt Romney, John Boehner, Rick Perry and even the uber-controversial Richard Mourdock (who infamously said that pregnancy during a rape "is something that God intended to happen"). In Mississippi federal races, Lee's backers contributed to all GOP congressional delegation members.
One of the donors to Lee, for instance, is a dentist from Flora, Dr. Gregory Tharp. I remember Tharp from Facebook encounters during the presidential election last fall, in which his comments were extremely radical right—he calls Democrats the "Fascist party," for instance—and disturbed me so much that I wrote a column about it.
I mention this donor, who only gave $250, because when someone with those views show up as a contributor to a black Democratic candidate for mayor, it feels like something people should know. I in no way believe Lee subscribes to those views and probably didn't even know about Tharp's myriad of similar postings.
So, the ultimate factcheck conclusion about Lee as a "Rankin County Republican"? He does not live in Rankin County, and he is currently a Democrat. But a lot of Republicans in and outside Jackson want him to be elected and are willing to write checks to help make it happen. That part cannot be disputed.
Following are some of the larger donors to Lee and examples of Republicans they've also contributed to in recent years?
Leland Speed 61,550 Harper, Nunnelee, Wicker, RNC, Romney, Giuliani, Haley's PAC, Cochran, McCain
James Creekmore 134,050 RNC, Wicker, Harper, Nunnelee, Palazzo, McCain, Haley's PAC, Cochran
Gloria Walker 125,300 Wicker, Haley PAC, RNC, McCain, Romney
Robbie Hughes 113,495 RNC, Harper, Wicker, Nunnelee, Perry, Romney, Gingrich
([Read details about Lee's Top 10 donors here.])
A large chunk of Lee's campaign war chest went to the Southern Research Group:
Southern Research Group is a Jackson-based marketing research and consulting firm. SRG and its president, Dan C. Davis, have given more than $15,000 to Republicans in state political races since 1999. Recipients include Tate Reeves, Phil Bryant, former Gov. Haley Barbour and the Mississippi Republican Party. In 2008, Davis also contributed to the federal election campaigns of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker and U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, both Republicans. In that timeframe, Davis and SRG did not give to any Democratic candidates, records show.