Last night's mayoral forum/debate/"job interview" seemed to have been born of a desire to shake things up, to breathe new life into the stodgy, old question-and-answer-from-a-fixed-podium-style debates of yore. For that effort in thinking out of the box, the organizers at Leadership Jackson probably deserve a cookie.
A small cookie, made of shortbread and perhaps with a bit of mint flavor given the clumsy execution of the event. It began with a Jeopardy-style quiz game designed to test the candidates' knowledge of such trivial matters as how many city council members does it take to sue the mayor and how many bond referendums voters have rejected in the past 30 years (answers: one and zero, respectively)
Organizers didn't have a clear understanding of how much time each of the candidates was supposed to have to answer, or even how long the thing was supposed to last. At the end, one moderator invited closing remarks while another moderator (who works with one of the campaigns) insisted on continuing to ask questions.
However bizarre, there were a few takeaways from the forum that featured Democratic runoff candidates Councilman Chokwe Lumumba and businessman Jonathan Lee--both of whom seemed agitated by the debate format--and an independent named Richard Williams who goes by "Chip."
First, and most strikingly, is that Councilman Lumumba needs to get up to speed on Jackson Public Schools. While Lumumba aced questions relating to the city council, where he stumbled was on questions about the composition of JPS' budget. Although the city has no hand in running the schools, the mayor does appoint members to the JPS Board of Trustees, and the city provides local funding for schools through property taxes.
Second, there isn't much room between Lee and Lumumba when it comes to some personnel issues, mainly whether department heads should be required to live in the city of Jackson. Lumumba added that because his administration would "encourage" property owners to live inside the city, having his department heads live in the city would set a good example.
Third, Lee is staying on message that he is a "second-generation operator of a small business." In the weeks leading up to the Democratic primary on May 7, news that the company Lee's father started was being sued by several companies came to light. When the Jackson Free Press asked Lee about the default judgments during an interview at JFP HQ, Lee said that the problems occurred after he stepped away from running the company as its president although questions remained about what he knew and when. Since Lee went on to finish in first place in the election, Lee clearly thinks the ensuing maelstrom didn't hurt his chances, so he's staying on message.
Fourth, judging by the crowd response, Lumumba's supporters are a little more fired up than Lee's polite backers. In winning the primary, Lee arguably had the most cohesive coalition of young African Americans and whites, pockets of west Jacksonians--the Koinonia Crowd, I call them because of Lee's support among people likely to attend the coffee shop's weekly forums that Lee moderates--and Republicans in northeast Jackson. Lumumba won the most African American precincts in the city.
Whether Lee can muster support beyond the folks he already has on his side, and build inroads into the more densely African American parts of the city, will be critical. For Lumumba, attracting supporters from the other top candidates--fellow attorney Regina Quinn, who captured 15 percent of the vote, has already pledged her support for Lumumba--and then getting those folks out to the polls could mean the ballgame.