The Johnson Legacy | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Johnson Legacy


Managing Editor Ronni Mott

Voters have an interesting choice as they head to polls for the second time May 21 to cast ballots for the Democratic Party runoffs. To some, it may be "interesting" in that Chinese curse sort of way: "May you live in interesting times."

Whomever Jacksonians put into the mayor's office, change is sure to come. The choice of change agent, though, may never be more dramatic.

Young Jonathan Lee is all about working the system, the status quo, for all it's worth. He's about finding the right businesses to boost Jackson's economy, making the right connections, maybe greasing the right palm. Lee's been a politician-in-training since at least his college days, which doesn't inspire me to support him. His uneven record as a business owner might make some voters leery, while others seem to be happy ignoring it--perhaps to their detriment.

Our other choice is the voice of experience--straight from the black freedom struggle. It would be a stretch to find someone more different from Lee than Chokwe Lumumba. Steeped in the language of black nationalism and militant resistance to everything "the system" represents, Lumumba wants to bring a new era of participatory democracy to Jackson. Decision only by committee? Late governments? (As with his campaign-finance reports.) Well, maybe.

Forgotten in all the noise, Harvey Johnson Jr.'s time as mayor of Jackson has likely come to an end. Despite numerous endorsements from organizations around the city--including this paper and The Clarion-Ledger--Johnson could not pull a fourth rabbit out of his hat. This is no ignoble end for the three-time mayor. Johnson leaves behind a strong legacy of achievement.

In a city where African Americans have gone from a minority to being the population's majority since the 1960s, he became the first African American mayor in 1997, breaking ground for others to follow while forever making enemies, almost without trying, in the prevailing white economic power structure. The urban planner's determination made possible downtown development, and the alliances to get it done, whether through the gleam of a modern new convention center or the brick-and-mortar of the Amtrak train station.

The long timeline of development projects, not to mention the unsexy slog toward improved infrastructure, stuck in voters' craws, though. The fact that Farish Street is still unfinished and in its second decade of unfulfilled promises makes for an easy political sledgehammer, as do the city's many street and water problems and the lack of a convention-center hotel. Many of those issues didn't begin with Johnson, and the nation's economy exacerbated them. But even as he was an early advocate for tackling the infrastructure crisis years ago--back when crime was more the easy thing for opponents to attack him on--he didn't resolve them, though it's unclear anyone really could under the same circumstances, especially with so little willingness on the part of the state to help a predominately Democratic capital city.

The mayor presided over a drop in violent crime, both during his first two terms and his last term, when the city recovered from Frank Melton's promise of crime reduction that quickly turned into crime increases, including by Melton and JPD officers. The reality was that violent crime numbers in most categories--murder, rape, aggravated assaults and so forth--climbed steadily during the Melton years, as did property crimes with the exception of car thefts. Johnson also got the city a few steps closer to the magic count of 500 police officers and pushed for officer promotions.

Johnson's techno-geek side emerged during his last tenure, when, after reviewing the city's systems, he brought the city's 3-1-1 system online. His administration made into reality online payments for some fines and fees, and he spearheaded new time and record-keeping systems and a brand new water billing system.

That side of Johnson--the guy who loves to study and tinker--is both his strength and a weakness. As an administrator, the approach means the projects he brings to fruition are usually going to be solid. But, as a candidate, Johnson fails to meet his constituents where they live. And it was the folks who looked the people in their eyes and felt their pain who won this most recent election, as well as the election he lost to Melton eight years ago--the candidates who showed up at the debates, even the dinky ones. His professorial, aloof nature has always been his Achilles' heel as a politician, and this year was no exception.

Johnson also is well known in political circles for refusing to "go negative" on his opponents; this year, with a few last-minute exceptions, he stuck to that ethos, and it probably helped solidify his third-place finish. He may be able to sleep at night, but it will soon be as an everyday citizen, not a public servant.

Still, Johnson's cautious and judicious use of public funds ushered the city through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression with a balanced budget. Under his exacting management, the city saw an increase in tax revenues while other U.S. cities collapsed under the weight of previous boom years' borrowing and spending sprees. Johnson looked for grant opportunities in unlikely places when the federal well began holding more dust that money, and then handed improvement grants to local businesses. He barely responded when big-box retailers did what they're good at--move on.

The mayor also brought Jackson back from the litigious reign of Melton, a loose rhetorical cannon with no love for the hard work of managing a city, and who reveled in making promises he had no idea how to pay for. In contrast, Johnson's knowledge of the city's minutiae is positively epic. He knows exactly what makes Jackson work--or grind to a halt.

In the end, Johnson's careful, precise management is no match for high-energy, high-visibility speechifying. The comparison can make Johnson look like a tired and plodding plow horse in competition with a high-strung, fleet-footed racer.

That dynamic played out in 2005, when Melton's over-the-top bluster convinced voters that "Frank" was the better choice and really might be able to solve Jackson's crime in 90 days. Four years later, dismayed by the antics of their choice, voters decided that safe actually was a good deal better than sorry.

Whether the same dynamic will play out for this year's voter choice is a question for the future. Check this space in four years, or maybe two, to find out the verdict.

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