'Hope' and 'Change' Define Mayoral Campaigns | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

'Hope' and 'Change' Define Mayoral Campaigns

Before Jonathan Lee (right) arrived to his election night party at the Penguin restaurant in west Jackson, local stations were already declaring him the victor in the Democratic primary race for the next mayor of Jackson over second-place runner up Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba (center) and three-term incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. (left), who finished third.

Before Jonathan Lee (right) arrived to his election night party at the Penguin restaurant in west Jackson, local stations were already declaring him the victor in the Democratic primary race for the next mayor of Jackson over second-place runner up Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba (center) and three-term incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. (left), who finished third. Photo by Trip Burns

Before Jonathan Lee arrived to his election night party at the Penguin restaurant in west Jackson, local stations were already declaring him the victor in the Democratic primary race for the next mayor of Jackson over second-place runner up Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba and three-term incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., who finished third.

Lee received 35 percent of the 34,126 votes cast. Now, Lee—a pro-business candidate—will face Lumumba—a historically anti-establishment defense attorney—in a Democratic runoff that takes place May 21.

Slimmed down and wearing a brown suit, Lee, 35, proclaimed the election evidence of "a city where there's hope" and promised to bring unlikely voices to a larger negotiating table.

"We know that Jacksonians want a mayor for everyone. It's important that no matter where you live, whether it's Ward 6 or Virden Addition, whether it's Brown Bottom or Bel Air, you deserve a seat at the table," Lee told the crowd.

Sweat beaded Lee's brow as he bounced from television camera to television camera. Before last night, Lee's perspiration was warranted. In the weeks leading up to election day, a number of legal disputes involving contractors and Lee's family business, Mississippi Products Inc., came to light.

At the time, Lee blamed a rival campaign seeking to impede his campaign's momentum. But it in the end, Lee, who enjoyed support from young professionals, Democrats as well as Republicans who typically lack direct representation in Jackson government, seemed to have a tight coalition that turned out to the polls on Election Day.

"We had a pretty young coalition, a lot of young folks who had experience working in campaigns--Democratic campaigns mostly--and it's been a great deal of fun," Lee told the Jackson Free Press after his victory speech.

Lee said the campaign employed social media in ways that had not been tried in previous Jackson mayoral races.

Tyrone Hendrix, Lee's 30-year-old campaign manager, said building grassroots support with social media had been the strategy since the beginning of the campaign.

Hendrix declined to discuss how the campaign would retool its strategy going into the runoff against Lumumba.

"We're just trying to enjoy the night," Hendrix said.

The second-place finisher, Ward 2 Councilman Chokwe Lumumba, carried a quarter of Jackson voters despite being outspent five-to-one by frontrunner Lee.

The mood at the Lumumba election party began as cautiously optimistic, but campaign volunteer Macy Russell called the results from the start of the night: It was going to be a Lee-Lumumba runoff, she said, and she barely wavered throughout the night.

When Evelyn Reed announced that Lumumba was in the lead early in the evening, it brought a smattering of cheers and applause from the growing crowd. The one word that seemed to be on everyone's lips in the Lumumba camp was "change." Voters here said they were fed up with waiting for promises to be fulfilled, and they saw Lumumba as their change-agent-in-charge. Supporters talked about efforts to revitalize inner-city neighborhoods and about Johnson's inability to get languishing development projects completed.

Mary DeVaul-Levy, of northeast Jackson, said 12 years is plenty of time to get Farish Street back to its former glory, for example. The former center of African American culture in the city has been a thorn in the side of the city's voters for decades. She added that she believes Lumumba can pull former Johnson supporters to his side.

When the long-awaited candidate arrived, Lumumba quickly took the mantle of experience from Johnson, saying that he has been in business longer than opponent Lee has been alive.

Lumumba, 65, has been a polarizing figure in Jackson. He has been a civil-rights activist since the 1960s. Last night, he seemed impatient to put that image behind him.

"Some people are afraid to talk honestly across racial lines," he said, something that he has never been. Later, Lumumba called conversations about his militant past "irrelevant" and added that there's nothing wrong with it.

"I love the people of Jackson," Lumumba said. He emphasized his own multi-racial background as well as his legal work on behalf of women, and also touched on his achievements as a one-term councilman.

"I'm the man that got the pay raises for the people," he said. "... I'm the one who saved JATRAN."

Lumumba supporter Bill Chandler of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, said his candidate could win the race by doing more of what he has already done—take the race directly to the people through "shoe leather" and "knocking on doors."

"We know it works," Chandler said.

The incumbent's election party at Fondren Hall near Harvey Johnson, Jr.'s campaign headquarters was a raucous scene at 7:30 p.m., with 100 to 150 people dancing, laughing, eating and glad-handing the mayor, who was seeking his fourth term as leader of Jackson.

Then the mayor left to watch election results come in, and the tone changed drastically.

The music switched from Kool and the Gang and the Rebirth Brass Band to light jazz, and the crowd dwindled to a handful of supporters who stuck around, standing in small groups talking quietly.

By the time the three-term mayor returned to the scene to concede the election around 10 p.m., the only people left, besides the staff and family who stood behind him as he spoke, were a couple of TV news crews.

"We are disappointed in the results of the election," Johnson said. "But this is the American way. We have to respect the democratic process and we'll do that and we'll move forward."

After his statement, the mayor took a couple of questions, the first of which focused on what mistakes he made during the campaign.

"I'm not looking at mistakes right now, I'm looking at accomplishments," he told reporters. "I'm looking at a legacy, and I'm fairly sure that whoever assumes the office of the mayor over the next four years is going to have to build on the foundation that we created during three terms."

But why did he lose?

"Obviously the reason is I didn't get enough votes," he deadpanned. "... We can second-guess this process all we want, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to move forward and make sure that I continue to try to make this city the best it can be. Whatever talents I have to make that happen, I'm going to use them to do that.

Johnson declined to talk about an endorsement for either of the two winners in the runoff election, saying it was "too early for that."

Since his accomplishments were on his mind, one reporter asked what stood out in his mind as some of his biggest achievements that will define his legacy.

"I think it's very important to look back over the accomplishments and where we've come," Johnson said. "Not only in terms of building the community, building downtown, building around town, creating jobs and dealing with infrastructure. Perhaps we did not make that point strong enough, but we spent a lot of time and effort trying to improve water system and trying to make our streets better.

"Those are the things someone else is going to have to worry about going forward, but we have had some accomplishments in the city of Jackson and we're proud of those."

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