This mayoral race has always been about whether or not the voters want to fire Mayor Johnson. My assessment has always been that while they are contemplating doing so, they first want to see what and who their alternatives are. Voters are essentially conservative by nature (not necessarily by politics), and the incumbent they know will often be preferable to an exciting or intriguing but ultimately unproven replacement ( See Mayor Melton). Usually, things have to be pretty bad for voters to make that decision to fire the incumbent. Statistically, at the federal level congressional incumbents get reelected at a 90% rate, and nationally the municipal rate is near 80%. As a study of incumbency in municipal elections in the United States puts it: “It is virtually always better to be an incumbent than a challenger in American elections.”
Yet there is a point at which incumbency becomes a weight that drags the incumbent down, a millstone made up of a thousand minor slights. The constituent who believes they weren’t heard, or in some way not treated well, and who tells a friend, who tells a friend. The developer who didn’t get what they wanted from the elected official, and who tells everyone they know that he or she is “anti-business”. The small businessman who thinks the elected official only listens to the big businessman. The supporter who feels neglected or double crossed on a particular issue or promise and vows to take the incumbent down. And finally, the slow, inexorable passage of time. Things break, roads get potholed, municipal employees ask for raises, things like gas and oil and asphalt cost more. Taxes go up. And who’s to blame? The incumbent.
So, given that those are all things that apply in this race, Mayor Johnson is asking the voters for something extremely rare: to be given 4 more years in office after serving 12 previously (of course with the 4-year disruption that was the Melton administration). Sixteen years is a long time; someone who was graduating from college when the mayor was first elected has by now probably put on a bit of weight, got some grey in their hair, and is now nearing 40. In politics, where things change quickly and events move at hyperspeed, it’s a lifetime.
And that’s a third theme I’ve observed in this campaign, a generation gap. There is a younger generation of potential leaders in the city who feel they are ready to take over and move the city in a new direction, and that the older generation has had its time and chance and should now step aside, or they will be pushed aside if necessary. There is certainly a generational divide in the municipal elections; of the 5 major mayoral candidates only Mr. Lee is under 40 years old. Ms. Quinn is over 50, Mayor Johnson and Councilman Lumumba over 60, and Councilman Bluntson over 70. Many of the bright new faces in the ward races are in their late thirties or early forties, and in the end they may have the most effect on the city’s future.
Mr. Lee’s campaign has stressed two things: his business and civic experience and that the city can do better by electing him (It’s our time for greatness), and has assumed that the majority of the voters have already decided it’s time for change and new leadership. My sense is that his campaign is banking on voters deciding that more than all the other candidates he represents change and newness, if only in style. Like the other candidates who are challenging the mayor, he is adept at pointing out what’s wrong with the city and why it’s the fault of the mayor, but he and his campaign has been short on real or innovative solutions to the problems. After attending near all the mayoral debates, I’m still not sure how he would pay for some of the additional services he would like to provide (which can be said for all the challengers).
The recent news regarding the lawsuits and judgments against Mississippi Products (MPI), and Mr. Lee’s management involvement in them, as well as he and his campaign’s public response give me pause. Most candidates that run as “business candidates” point to extraordinary results, or an innovative product or service, or growth from a startup to a thriving business, as reason for why they would make a good chief executive, and they usually cite their ability to manage finances, crisises and people. I’ve never quite understood the Lee campaign’s emphasis on their candidate’s business acumen, even before the lawsuit news was made public. I’m sure that had any of us looked that we could have found a number of small businesspersons in the city whose company’s revenue was near or just above $1 million, which is approximately what the revenue of Mississippi Products is. So it is clear to me that Mr. Lee was chosen and groomed by a group of supporters well in advance of this election, and that remains a nagging suspicion about him, that he is a creation of moneyed interests and Republicans (which I stress because this is a Democratic primary he is running in). If he were to be elected that talk will only grow louder, and could prove to be an impediment to an independent Lee administration.
What cannot be disputed is his campaign’s extraordinary fundraising prowess. As of this writing, between his reported campaign contributions and contributions from the Team 20/20 PAC he will have raised and spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000. I think we’d all agree that’s an expensive neighborhood. And that total will probably rise once the final fundraising numbers are in. But I am troubled by the $140,000 contribution Mr. Lee made to his own campaign. It would be puzzling enough that a relatively young man with a young family would invest that much money into his campaign, though I have no way of knowing Mr. Lee’s or his family’s financial resources. What is more worrisome is that he using that money for his campaign while his company, or his family’s company, has judgments against it for similar amounts, and that he and his campaign do not understand how bad that looks. We will soon know if the voters think it is important.
Ms. Quinn and her campaign never seemed to me to define her adequately enough for voters to see her as a possible replacement for the mayor. What I think most defined her campaign was her sex; she was “not Harvey” and a woman mayoral candidate. Beyond that, like the other candidates she was adept at pointing out the city’s problems and the mayor’s flaws in debates. But even her own website exposes her lack of real and implementable solutions to the city’s problems; she sees many great things happening in Jackson or to Jackson, but provides little sense of how she would make them happen. I think she will be a good candidate in 4 years if she decides to run again, or would be a tremendous asset to any administration. She was able to raise a significant amount of money, and in four years, she will be that much further from her bankruptcies, which she has already dealt with publicly.
With all due respect, on a serious political and civic level I cannot understand the rationale behind Councilman Bluntson’s campaign. And I’ve tried. Enough said.
Councilman Lumumba is the most fascinating of all the candidates, though that is not always a positive attribute for a politician. He’s a thoughtful and intelligent man who has spent his life as an attorney and as an outsider, someone who is outside the established halls of power. It takes a lot of guts, courage and fortitude, both intestinal and intellectual, to be the person who is fighting the powers that be (what used to be called the establishment). How those experiences now inform and color Mr. Lumumba’s ideas of how he might govern are unclear. Will his themes of grass roots democracy and people’s power resonate with this electorate, or prove to be a vision from the past. He and his campaign have been working hard for the last year and a half, canvassing and holding “people’s assemblies”, and my sense is that they will turn out their vote. To my ears he is a voice from another time, and speaks a language that does not resonate with the average present-day Jackson voter. I don’t see him pulling in support from undecided voters, and in a race against almost any of the other candidates he would be the second choice and would lose in a runoff.
It is also fascinating to me that though he has spent his life as a lawyer, and more importantly as a trial lawyer, he is not very good at communicating a sharp and effective message to his audience. At the debates I never got the sense that Mr. Lumumba was connecting, except with those who already supported him, and given numerous chances to distill his message so that it would appeal to a broad audience he chose to stick with the rhetoric that had informed his life and legal career. Had he been willing or able to do so I believe he would have had a much better chance at making the runoff.
Which brings me, finally, to Mayor Johnson. Lest we forget, he has run for mayor in the last six elections, a period of 20 years spanning 1993 to 2013. One would think that he knows how to do this by now, and do it successfully. Still, he has been easily outpaced by the Lee campaign in fundraising, a sure sign that the big contributors and businesses (often the same people) are restless. While he is not a natural politician, in my estimation he performed well in the debates, if only because he seems, well, mayoral, but he and his campaign never seemed to settle on a theme for the campaign, almost as if they were afraid to. His commercials finally seemed to settle on “fighting for you” or “fighting for Jackson”, which is a strange theme for an incumbent mayor. Fighting who? Certainly not City Hall. Fighting those whose power and money seems to be at odds with the needs of the voter? Perhaps.
In the end I never felt that the mayor confronted his opponent’s charges and criticisms of his management of the city. In the last debate he seemed to bristle at hearing, yet again, the complaints about the roads and the potholes, and the condition of the city’s infrastructure, and the morale of the police, and the pervasiveness of crime, and how people are imprisoned in their homes, and finally lashed out at both Lee and Lumumba in uncharacteristic, at least for him, fashion. That kind of passion, whether real or for effect, could have been used more effectively and more often in the campaign.
I’m not much for predictions. In my posts I’ve tried to provide some context and insight into how campaigns work and make decisions. My sense is that the mayor will make it into the runoff, against either Mr. Lee or Councilman Lumumba, and then the real campaign will begin. And end in 2 weeks. And whomever you support, I urge you to get out and vote!