Natchez — The new mayor of Natchez, Phillip West, has an obvious devotion to the community and people. He was born there 57 years ago and has lived there all his life. Public service has been the norm for him.
He was on the Adams County Board of Supervisors for 17 1/2 years and was the first African-American to serve as board president. He also was minority caucus chairman of the Mississippi Association of Supervisors. For the past seven years, he has been state representative from District 94 representing Adams, Jefferson and Franklin counties and was chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. But the call went out again to change the focus of his service.
“I had not planned to run for mayor and had no interest in it, but I answered the call from the community to run,” West said.
He was one of five Democrats running in the primary and faced Republican and Independent opposition in the runoff for the four-year term. He took office on July 1 to become the first African-American mayor of Natchez since Reconstruction.
Firsts come easy for West and it’s not something he dwells on, preferring to think of the task at hand which he sees as improving the economic condition of all the citizens of Natchez.
“My number one priority is trying to unify the community and acquire quality jobs,” he said. “We’ve lost 4,000 quality-paying jobs during the past 30 years, and there’s nothing to fill that void. I hope to turn that around.”
Only in office two weeks, the new mayor says he’s trying to educate himself on the inner workings of city government. He wants to be supportive of ongoing projects and fit in where he can help. He knows all six city council members, and says the experience he’s had working with them on community projects when he was a supervisor and state representative will shorten his learning curve.
“I want to help have a more united community,” he said. “Let’s see what all of us can do to bring people together. I want to bridge that divisiveness that’s been in existence for many years.”
The racial composition of Natchez is 52% black and 48% white with a 50/50-percentage breakdown of the voting age, he said of the 18,500 population. The population of Adams County is 33,000 with Natchez the only municipality. West feels the races have been divided along racial and political lines. He’s ready to be the leader to move beyond that division.
“I want to move us beyond that and make everyone more in tune,” he said.
The city is ready for West’s leadership and has been moving toward improved racial relationships, says Walter Tipton, executive director of the Natchez Convention and Visitors Bureau. He points out that local boards — including tourism, chamber, city council, public schools and hospitals — are balanced in a way that reflects the community’s population.
“I think Mayor West’s election changes the tone of our community to be seen as balanced, but in reality Natchez has great balance on boards and councils,” Tipton said. “There’s a very good racial makeup down the line and every meeting that I’ve attended has had a spirit of cooperation.”
He views West’s election as a good thing, and says that’s what he’s hearing all over town.
“We have such an opportunity to promote Natchez, and his election brings a positive focus on our town,” he added. “I think things will go great with this administration.”
In the latest development of the city’s important tourism industry, Tipton revealed that a tentative date of May 18, 2005, has been set for the ribbon cutting on completed sections of the Natchez Trace Parkway. In the works for the past 70 years, the opening of 10 miles near Jackson and eight miles leading into Natchez will complete the 240-mile national parkway.
West is supportive of tourism but says he will cast far and wide to expand the area’s economic base.
“I’m looking for any kind of industry that’s safe and pays good wages,” he said. “There’s been a misconception in the past, an attitude that perhaps we didn’t need anything but tourism. It does have a positive impact, and we want it to continue to grow as we also search for other industries.”
Laura Godfrey, executive director of the Natchez Chamber of Commerce, is also enthusiastic about the new mayor.
“We’re looking forward to working with him and his administration for the next four years,” she said. “I feel we have an opportunity to come together as never before, and I’m excited to have his leadership. I know good things will happen in Natchez.”
West and his wife, the former Carolyn Mosby, are the parents of four children and have seven grandchildren.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at firstname.lastname@example.org.