Mayor-elect Tony Yarber: Risk Leads to Reward | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mayor-elect Tony Yarber: Risk Leads to Reward

A former executive assistant to Mayor Tony Yarber has sued him for sexual harassment and for firing her when she discontinued sexual relations with him. He says she is a "disgruntled" ex-employee.

A former executive assistant to Mayor Tony Yarber has sued him for sexual harassment and for firing her when she discontinued sexual relations with him. He says she is a "disgruntled" ex-employee. Photo by Trip Burns.

Election night update: Ward 6 Councilman Tony Yarber defeated Chokwe A. Lumumba tonight in the special-election run-off by 54 percent to 46 percent. The JFP will have a full report Wednesday; here is our most recent profile of Yarber. He will take the oath of office Wednesday.

Mayoral hopeful Tony Yarber bounces from person to person, hugging matronly women, receiving firm handshakes of support from old men and listening as people talk about their connections to him.

On a recent Sunday, at a crawfish boil at Forest Hill Park, Yarber and a man, still dressed in church clothes, figured out that their kids had played on the same Pee Wee Football team. At two recent weekend events, Yarber seemed more like the guest-of-honor at a graduation celebration than a candidate for the mayor of Jackson. The previous day, Saturday, his campaign hosted a fish fry at campaign headquarters on State Street, and Yarber played host, at one point taking control of the food serving line, directing elders to the front.

The conventional thinking on campaigning holds that Yarber's spending six precious hours of daylight with people who will vote for him anyway would be like Barack Obama spending significant time kissing babies on Chicago's South Side. But the converse is just as risky, Yarber said.

"Etiquette plays into it. If you've got people coming to an event to see you, it just doesn't make sense to leave and go somewhere else," he told the Jackson Free Press as aluminum bats clinked on nearby baseball fields at Forest Hill Park.

Yarber is counting on these supporters, who knew his family when he was growing up, attended church with him, sang in the Forest Hill High School gospel choir with him, had kids who attended Marshall Elementary School where Yarber was principal, call him while he's in the barber's chair to complain about nuisance potholes.

The Ward 6 councilman is counting on what he calls the "everyday people" who sent him to the city council twice—once in 2009 and then again last year—to vote him into the mayor's office on April 22.

On paper, the case for Yarber is compelling. At age 36, he has been on the city council for five years, serving a stint as council president and as chairman of several committees. He grew up in Jackson's Sub 2 neighborhood, near Wiggins Road and U.S. 80, and graduated from Forest Hill High School in 1996. Yarber attended the University of Southern Mississippi on an education scholarship named for former Mississippi Gov. William Winter and, later, completed his master's degree in education administration at Jackson State in 2004.

Yarber wanted to become a doctor and majored in biology at USM when, at an aunt's urging, he talked to a college adviser and changed his major to elementary education in part because of the paucity of black men teaching in elementary schools.

He first became interested in politics during a 2005 debate in which then-Ward 6 Councilman Marshand Crisler participated. When 2009 rolled around, and Crisler jumped in the mayor's race, a friend of Yarber's considered running for city council but his neighborhood became part of what is now Byram. "The platform that we ran off of was kind of a platform that could be perceived as being naive. We kind of had a real hippy ideology about changing the city one street, one house, one neighborhood at a time," Yarber told the JFP in 2012.

In a recent interview with JFP editors, Yarber described that naivete as hopefulness, especially in regard to helping defunct and dormant neighborhood associations get going again. In mostly residential Ward 6, Yarber said he has worked with neighborhood associations to expand community watch efforts and generate more interest in community-oriented police (COPS) meetings.

"We came onto the council and were able to grow the number of people in the room on those Thursday nights at those COPS meetings," Yarber said, which resulted in a 90 percent drop in crime in the Creston Hills neighborhood (see page 9). "We did that because we engaged folks. We engaged every day, regular ol' people," he added.

When he decided to run for council, Yarber was the principal at Marshall Elementary in south Jackson when he decided to run for the Ward 6 City Council seat in 2009. Yarber, who founded Relevant Empowerment Church with his wife, Rosalind, in 2002, and serves as pastor, told the JFP in March that God called him away from JPS to minister full-time. Yarber said he wanted to set the record straight about his departure from the school system because a popular narrative links his resignation to his marital infidelity, which he writes about in a book titled "Man Tips: What She Wants You to Know," published in 2012.

That episode, and the inevitability of those issues coming up during the campaign, led him to agonize over the decision of whether to run for mayor after Chokwe Lumumba died Feb. 25. "We had some personal things we had to go through as a family, and did I want to put my family back through having to relive that? Did I really want to put my folks through that?" Yarber told JFP editors.

For a week, Yarber says he didn't sleep or eat much; he lost 10 pounds. In the end, he believed God was calling him to run for the city's top job. Since his announcement at City Hall, there has been a whiff of inevitability among Yarber loyalists.

Once asked about speculation of whether he was the pick of the business community—which in Jackson is a euphemism for white people—Yarber enumerated his community involvement, which includes coaching Little League and karate.

"I'm upset if white folks, if business folks, if whoever, don't support me. I'm offended by that," Yarber said. "I'm offended if black folks don't support me, because I've represented this city well. I've sat on that council, I've not embarrassed this city. I've represented this city and this council all over the country. So as it relates to who's picking me, I need everybody to pick me."

To ensure he is that pick, Yarber has put together the most sophisticated campaign apparatus of any candidate. While his fundraising committee did not lead the money race going into the 13-person April 8 special election, Yarber is not skimping on paid, experienced campaign staff. That team consists of Aaron Banks, a veteran operator who managed Sheriff Tyrone Lewis' bid to become Hinds County's first black sheriff in 2011 and guided relative unknown attorney Regina Quinn to a fourth-place finish in the 2013 Democratic primary. Theresa G. Kennedy is also working as an aide to Yarber and drew just over $5,000 in salary before the special election. Pam Confer, a communications consultant and R & B singer, is handling media relations, for which the campaign has paid her about $1,500.

The campaign has dispersed just over $3,000 to Yarber himself in salary. Confer, his communications director, told the JFP that Yarber has taken a leave from his consulting job to seek the office, and the campaign committee pays him a salary like other staffers for which Yarber will receive a 1099 form to file income taxes. Yarber works as a part-time consultant with Bailey Kirkland Education Group LLC and as a motivational speaker. As Relevant Empowerment Church's pastor, he draws no salary, but does receive what he called a small housing allowance.

By contrast, Yarber's opponent, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, whose campaign committee raised the most money, has directed most of his expenses toward advertising.

In addition to being on the city council, Yarber has gained notoriety from his participation in several high-profile public demonstrations such as a "hoodie rally" in 2012 before the Sanford, Fla., police charged Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, with a second-degree murder.

Yarber says he considers the elder Lumumba one of his heroes, a list he says also includes his mother and late father, who died when Yarber was in his early 20s, his wife and Forrest County civil-rights leader Vernon Dahmer. But when Lumumba proposed a large water-and-sewer rate increases to help pay for repairs that could total as much as $400 million, Yarber said he thought the move would ensure Lumumba would not hold more than one term even though Yarber himself voted for the rate hike.

"I voted for that," Yarber said, "but my reservation was, why couldn't we move it incrementally? We're here now. It's something that we're going to have to look at."

Yarber told the JFP that his administration might look back to roll back some of the water-rate increases if the city can also cut spending in the budget. Lumumba had proposed offering assistance to help low-income Jacksonians burdened with higher water bills, but Yarber said the proposal is in legal limbo and may not be viable. "I've heard that every day I've been out here (campaigning) for the last week. It's crazy. At our house, we just got $380-something water bill. And my mama had a $500-something water bill not long ago," Yarber said.

Yarber also described his leadership style as differing from the late mayor's.

"What I'll be doing is looking for people who can inform me best. ... I am looking for the most qualified, most experienced people we can get in those positions," Yarber said, echoing an often-repeated critique of several Lumumba appointments of longtime friends and loyal allies.

"I don't know that there's necessarily a point of disagreement that I have with (the elder) Mr. Lumumba but I do know the way I'll assemble a team will look differently."

In the final week before the election, each candidate will likely attempt to draw contrasts between their visions for Jackson and city government—even if both have promised not to engage in personal attacks.

Clearly, the strategy Yarber is taking into the debates and the runoff is to paint Lumumba as a question mark and himself as the answer to a question. ("Let's not risk our city on unproven leadership," states one bright orange Yarber campaign handbill.)

At the Forest Hill crawfish boil, Yarber took the microphone and echoed a certitude about his own destiny. "We are not running a campaign," Yarber told the crowd. "We are running a crusade."

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