In the days after the primary election (which Jonathan Lee won with 35% of the vote) I thought I would go back and reread the work of Dr. Byron Orey, a Jackson native and professor of Political Science at Jackson State. I thought it would be interesting to see if he could provide any guidance or insight into the dynamics of this last primary election. Dr. Orey wrote his dissertation on Jackson mayoral politics, and I wanted in particular to reread a piece he wrote which examined Mayor Johnson’s unsuccessful run for mayor in 1993 and his successful run in 1997, entitled Deracialization or Racialization: The Making of a Black Mayor in Jackson, MS, especially because I thought it might help me understand the political forces at work here.
Orey concluded in his introduction that “Johnson ran a deracialized campaign in 1993 and a racialized campaign in 1997. The deracialized campaign failed to attract white votes and attenuated his black support. In 1997 he was able to almost double his support from black voters. This increase can be attributed in part to his racialized campaign strategy.” As the C-L (readers know it as the paper that shall not be named) explained in an editorial the day after the 1997 primary, “The racial aspect of the race cannot be ignored…Johnson targeted the black community. Racially polarized voting is a political reality. His campaign recognized that and played to it.”
Allow me a moment of explanation of these terms for the benefit of the reader. Orey and other political scientists define a deracialized African American candidate or campaign as one that projects a non-threatening or universal message that does not alienate white voters, and which stresses issues that appeal across racial lines while avoiding racial issues. In contrast, a racialized candidate or campaign makes explicit and direct public appeals to the black electorate, publicly and effectively mobilizes in the African American community, and does not compromise or moderate their message to appeal to white voters.
This idea of African American candidates, in 2013, having to choose which side of the electorate to appeal to or play to was foreign to me, yet fascinated me. With the electorate overwhelmingly African American, it seemed unlikely to me that the minority white vote could have anything more than a minor impact on choosing the eventual winner. But what I also realized, of course, is that much of this white vote is a normally Republican vote, and due to Mississippi’s voting rules they (Republicans) were able to essentially transform the Democratic primary into the general election. I don’t know if it was organized that way (my suspicion is it probably was) but politically it was very smart. Mr. Lee came out of Wards 1 and 7, the two wards with the highest white population, with a nearly 5,000 vote lead over the next closest primary candidate (Johnson). In an essentially 4 person primary race where each of the candidates had significant support, that was always going to be hard to beat.
But it’s today’s contest which is more important, and it’s a totally different race than the one that was just run. In many ways the primary, especially when there a number of viable candidates, takes on the attributes of a time trial. Run fast enough to get into the final race, save your energy for the finals, and don’t give away your race strategy. So we heard a lot of Mr. Lee railing against the mayor’s lack of leadership, or of failing to work with other municipal leaders, or city employees, or some of the very people who already supported him (Lee). And we heard Councilman Lumumba talk about his ability to organize people, to organize his ward, of people’s assemblies, and his lifetime of defending the rights of others. None of this, when heard at the debates, was particularly striking or compelling. At times I wondered if Lumumba really could have been a trial lawyer, as I could not envision him delivering a rousing closing argument. And I wondered what Lee would do without the mayor as his foil, and with Lumumba as opponent.
While I was mildly surprised that the mayor had not made it to the primary, it did not surprise me that Lee and Lumumba had, for I thought that if Johnson were to lose it would be caused by the voters tiring of his middle way, and choosing a new way, in effect charting a new course for the city. In the political spectrum, they represented the two starkest choices, with Lee representing the center right and Lumumba the center to far left. (see Exit The Man In The Middle). In some ways it was hard not to see Lee and Lumumba as the 2013 versions of Johnson and civil rights activist and former state senator Henry Kirksey, the deracialized candidate (Lee) and the racialized candidate (Lumumba). (To point out the obvious, a major difference between Lee and Johnson in the ‘93 race is that Lee’s vote is built upon a foundation of white support.)
Yet what is troubling, upon examining the precinct totals of two weeks ago, is how the vote, twenty years later, still seems to be dramatically skewed along racial lines, and by extension, one would have to think, racial issues. Twenty years later the candidate who appears to have the bloc support of the white community, Mr. Lee, received upwards of 80 % in the precincts with overwhelmingly white populations (those in Wards 1 and 7), while in those very same precincts Councilman Lumumba received only 1-4% of the vote. (see JFP article) Conversely, in almost all of the predominantly African American precincts, Mr. Lee’s vote ranged from 20-25%, meaning that more than 75% of the vote went to the other four (also African American) candidates.
Last week’s debate showed all of Lee’s weaknesses and most of Lumumba’s strengths. Televised on WAPT, it lasted 1 hour, and in hindsight the Lee campaign perhaps should have lobbied for it to be even shorter. Anyone scoring the debate fairly would not have given Mr. Lee a round; at the most, charitably, they might have a called a round or two even. This format, one on one, with the moderators appearing to decide early on that they were going to let the two candidates go at it, played to all of Mr. Lumumba’s strengths and drew on the skills he has honed throughout his career as a lawyer and activist. He displayed an easiness and charm absent from the other debates, often disarmingly calling Mr. Lee “my brother”. It is a sophisticated skill that successful candidates must learn, attacking your opponent while seeming to praise and humor him, and only the very best do so with any skill.
In comparison, Lee seemed nervous at the beginning, and increasingly flustered by the turn the debate took. Mr. Lee’s campaign and rhetoric has always seemed to me to be a bit canned and formulaic, especially in the earlier debates, and this time his attacks, I thought, fell flat, as Lumumba would parry and then counter them, often to devastating effect. There is a sense of disconnection to Lee sometimes, he can seem to be adhering too closely to his set of talking points or attack lines, of not changing his delivery or rhetoric to better fit the moment. It is one thing to be prepared with a strategy: it is another to be able to change on the fly in the heat of battle. Councilman Lumumba pointed this out early in the debate: he noticed that Lee had replaced his attacks on “the mayor” with a new attack on “elected officials”, most notably the one on the stage with him.
And Mr. Lee continually engaged Mr. Lumumba in what seemed to be a fruitless battle over why he (Lumumba) hadn’t done enough for his ward, with Mr. Lumumba patiently explaining to Lee that councilpersons do not make the ultimate operational decisions about their wards. At times there is a youthful arrogance to Mr. Lee that, while it does not seem personally spiteful, can seem ill-mannered and disrespectful, especially when leveled at someone who is older than him and in many ways more accomplished. Standing on that stage with Mr. Lumumba did not enhance Mr. Lee’s qualities, rather, it seemed to diminish him in a way that the other debates had not. One cannot fault Mr. Lee for the absence of a lengthy record of service in the civil rights movement; it is purely a product of his youth. In comparison, Mr. Lumumba is a man whose life’s work, whether you agree with him or like him, has resulted in him defending controversial African American clients in publicized cases over the past 30 years, and accepting the burdens, struggles and obstacles that his professional choices produced. In that comparison Mr. Lee’s criticisms of Mr. Lumumba for not doing enough for his constituents can come off as ultimately self-serving, and not grounded in reality and history.
Finally, it is my observation that in elections most voters, if they are at all undecided or unsure, first make a determination on the character and authenticity of the candidates. Voters realize that campaigns are marketed and packaged, and seek out the opportunity to see the candidate in the flesh and in real situations, so that they can make that subliminal assessment. And debates often are the only chance for a large number of voters to do so, even if the debates have their limitations. And this televised debate, I think, did two things. It softened Mr. Lumumba, and countered the notion that he is somehow this radical ideologue, or not at all like the people that he is running to represent. And it hardened or sharpened Mr. Lee, made him seem angrier or more confrontational than he really is. And the result of that dissonance, I think, will be to make Mr. Lumumba more palatable to the average undecided voter and Mr. Lee less palatable, because they will deduce that in one case the man and the candidate are the same, and in the other the two are not.
As I submit this for posting, there are reports showing that a new WAPT poll has the race within the margin of error, with Lumumba surging, in part as a result of his debate performance, and Lee’s numbers declining. Whatever the result of the election, and I think we will all be up late tonight, my observation is that regardless of who wins, Jackson will be setting a new course, much different from the one Mayor Johnson had charted during his terms. The old center has not held, and the voters have already expressed their eagerness to forge a new one. The tectonic plates, having ground against each other for these many years, are shifting, and by tomorrow morning we shall read in the results which one is ascendant and which is descendant.
It has been my privilege to write about this election, and I hope you have enjoyed my posts as much as I have writing them. I urge all of you to get out and vote today, and then, tomorrow, trust that we will all join hands regardless of the result and work to make this city a better place. Whoever wins, they’ll need all the help they can get. Governing is hard.