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Business community sizing up Jackson mayoral contest

Jackson — The Capital City’s mayoral primary is months away, but the contest between incumbent Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. and challenger Frank Melton is already heating up.

Among the key issues: crime, education, housing and Jackson’s tax base.

“Crime is Johnny-on-the-minds of most citizens and will be discussed throughout the campaign, especially since the challenger will be selling what he can do to improve and reduce crime,” said Dr. Leslie McLemore, founding chair of Jackson State University’s political science department and a Jackson city councilman.

By press time, neither Johnson, who is serving his second consecutive term as the city’s first black mayor, nor Melton, a former TV commentator and executive who recently headed the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, had officially announced running for the job as the city’s CEO, but Melton has said he intends to announce his candidacy soon, and it is widely assumed that Johnson, buoyed by the recent approval of Jacksonians to build a convention center downtown, will seek re-election.

“Frank Melton is a very charismatic guy who is very outspoken and people like that in their politicians, but what concerns me about him is what would it do for the City of Jackson,” said Hayes Dent, managing partner of Southern Strategy Group of Mississippi. “Remember Clayton Williams in Houston who ran for governor of Texas? He was 30 points ahead in the poll, poised to beat Ann Richards. Williams, a fierce independent guy like Melton, started popping off left and right about things he planned to do. Ann Richards won because this guy couldn’t control himself in a public environment.
“In that respect, I’d characterize Melton as a show horse versus Johnson as a workhorse. It will be up to the voters to decide which one they want.”

Another challenger people have speculated might enter the mayoral contest is Hinds County supervisor Doug Anderson, said McLemore.

“People have talked in the past about friction between the mayor and county supervisors and there was talk about Doug running for mayor, but I doubt he’d be interested since he ran unopposed last time, plus he really has no incentive,” he said.

Melton indicated last spring that he would challenge Johnson as a Democrat in the May 3 primary election. But a local columnist hinted that Melton might run as a Republican or Independent to appear on the June 7 general election. Melton has vowed to finance his own campaign and has said that, if elected, he will serve only one term in office.

Jim Herring, chairman of state GOP party, said nobody has approached him for support in the mayor’s race. “Not yet,” he added. The qualifying deadline is March 4.

“Somebody coming in as another major candidate to fund a campaign will be difficult,” said McLemore.

Crime appears to be Melton’s biggest hook, said Dent. Even though some published reports show the crime rate is decreasing in Jackson, there had been 45 homicides in Jackson by mid-November, compared to 46 total in 2003.

“The mayor thinks crime is under control and everything’s A-OK,” said Al East, owner of East Ford in Jackson. “He also realizes that if you go to Highway 80 and Terry Road, that’s headquarters for the town’s prostitution and drug dealers. It’s a problem he knows about, but hasn’t done anything about. If Melton’s in the mayor’s office, we won’t have that problem. He’ll take care of it.”

Education will be a key issue, said East.

“Melton is a big proponent of educating kids and making an environment for them to learn in,” he said. “I’d expect the discipline in the schools to increase tremendously if he becomes mayor.”

Housing will be a hot topic, said McLemore, because it is an integral part of maintaining and stabilizing any city.
Infrastructure development — streets, bridges and drainage issues — will continue to be addressed throughout the campaign, said McLemore.

“It’s an expensive aspect of what a public official does, but it’s not sexy,” he said. “However, it’s basic and so essential to the development of a city. Every contest I’ve witnessed is about the largest potholes and where they are located.”

Because Johnson is a planner by trade, he takes a very deliberate, studied approach to every decision, sometimes to a fault, said Dent.

“He makes sure it’s studied properly and done correctly,” he said. “That’s a little bit foreign to the environment of which politics moves today, in 15- to 30-second sound bites of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately.”

For example, despite robust construction activity in downtown Jackson, some business leaders have been carrying on discreet conversations for years asking why development has taken so long, said McLemore.

“There are cranes in the air in downtown Jackson for the first time in a number of years,” he said. “Some people are asking why wasn’t it done five or 10 years ago? Why are things moving so slowly? What about this project and that one?”
East pointed out that Jackson “has lost a huge tax base with businesses moving or closing in every other section of Jackson.”

“We’re approaching a point where the city is going to have a helluva financial problem,” he said. “If the water treatment plant should go down, the city would be bankrupt. I don’t know the cost to replace it, but I’ve heard numbers in the $50-million range. That would be a hill the city couldn’t climb with the present tax base.”

The mayoral campaign is expected to “get nasty,” said McLemore.

“As usual, when money is spent, feelings are harsh and tempers are short,” he said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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