By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Most Mississippi cities are electing mayors this year, and party primaries Tuesday will narrow the fields of candidates.
Some of the toughest primaries will be in Jackson, Vicksburg and Madison, where incumbents are seeking re-election, and in Clarksdale, where the seat is open because the current mayor chose not to run.
Primary runoffs are May 21 and the general election is June 4. New four-year terms begin July 1.
Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. is seeking a fourth term. He faces nine other Democrats, including businessman Jonathan Lee, attorney Regina Quinn, City Council member and attorney Chokwe (pronounced SHOW-kway) Lumumba, and City Council member and former educator Frank Bluntson. The Democratic primary is likely to be decided in a runoff. No Republican is in the race, but the Democratic nominee will face three independents in the general election.
In Vicksburg, first-term Mayor Paul Winfield awaits an Aug. 5 trial on a federal bribery charge related to a city contract. He is challenged in the Democratic primary longtime state Rep. George Flaggs; businesswoman Linda Fondren, who has said she once co-owned a legal brothel in Nevada; and three other candidates. One independent is running in the general election.
In the Jackson suburb of Madison, Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler is seeking her ninth consecutive term and is telling voters that the city has high property values because of her insistence that businesses maintain a certain look, including small signs and neatly kept landscaping. She is challenged in the Republican primary by John Bell Crosby, a county supervisor who says the city is not business-friendly. Nobody else entered the race, so the winner Tuesday will serve in the coming term.
In Clarksdale, state Rep. Chuck Espy is trying to succeed his father, longtime Mayor Henry Espy. The younger Espy faces two Democrats, including attorney and blues club co-owner Bill Luckett, who unsuccessfully sought the party nomination for governor in 2011. One Republican and one independent are in the general election. One of the candidates who originally entered the race, Democrat Marco McMillian, was killed in late February, and a man has been charged with murder in his death.
In fast-growing Southaven, just south of Memphis, Tenn., six people are seeking the Republican nomination and the chance to challenge Mayor Greg Davis, who will be on the general election ballot as an independent. One Democrat is running. Davis awaits an Aug. 19 trial on state charges of embezzlement and false pretense. The state auditor has also demanded that Davis, now divorced, repay the city $70,000 for trips, shopping and marriage counseling that were charged to the city.
Other mayoral races around Mississippi are attracting attention because state lawmakers are on the Democratic primary ballot: Rep. Kelvin Buck in Holly Springs, Rep. Omeria Scott in Laurel and Rep. Billy Broomfield in Moss Point.
In Jackson, some residents said in interviews last week that they were undecided about the mayor’s race.
R.L. Horton Sr. has spent most of his 63 years in the capital city. At his car wash near the Jackson Medical Mall, Horton said he believes Jackson needs a new mayor who can provide strong leadership, yet he probably won’t vote. He said none of the candidates gives him confidence that they’ll make life better in a city with bone-jarring pot holes, dilapidated water and sewer system, and hundreds of abandoned homes.
“Definitely not Mr. Johnson,” Horton said.
Johnson made history when he became the first black mayor of the majority-black city in 1997. A former member of the state Tax Commission and longtime director of a group that aided development in Mississippi small towns, Johnson campaigned on using his business skills to advance Jackson, the largest city in the state.
He served two terms before losing in the 2005 Democratic primary to Frank Melton, a former TV executive who was briefly head of the state Bureau of Narcotics. Melton served one turbulent term that included a warrantless raid he led in 2006 on a duplex he called a crack house. Melton was tried twice on charges related to the raid — once in state court and once in federal court. He had heart problems and was hospitalized May 5, 2009, the day he placed third in the Democratic primary as he sought another term as mayor. He died two days later.
Johnson won the Democratic primary and the general election in 2009, and now says he wants to make Jackson a “destination city” by pushing for development of a hotel near the convention complex that opened four years ago.
“I promised Jackson four years ago we would get back on track,” said Johnson, 56. “We’re on track. We need to move to the next level.”
Lee, who is supported by several prominent local business people, said he wants to unify Jackson.
“We live in a community where there are two main groups. We have an African-American community with political power and a white community with economic power,” said Lee, 35. “What we haven’t had over the years is a leader that can coalesce those communities to move ahead with comprehensive action.”
Quinn, 52, said she’d focus on improving infrastructure, safety, education and economic development.
“We’ve got to clean Jackson up,” Quinn said. “There’s too much litter, there are too many abandoned houses, too many abandoned buildings.”
Lumumba, 65, points to his record as an attorney and says he has sought justice for a range of people. He persuaded then-Gov. Haley Barbour to release Jamie and Gladys Scott from prison in early 2011. The sisters served nearly 16 years for an armed robbery they said they didn’t commit.
“We are all fighting for the advancement of the population economically, and that means bar none,” Lumumba said. “We want everyone to participate in the growth and prosperity of the city of Jackson.”
Bluntson, 77, said he has learned the inner workings of government as a City Council member, teacher and youth detention center director.
“I can bring people together,” Bluntson said. “It’s not big ‘I’s’ and little ‘u’s’ and all that kind of stuff. It’s about the folks.”