By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Just before they enjoyed a catfish dinner at a recent campaign fundraiser, Republican mayoral candidate Fred Pitts dropped the “L” word on his opponent. And it sure wasn’t love.
Pitts, 70, used the word liberal against his Democratic opponent Jason Shelton, 36, a local attorney, in the June 4 election for mayor.
“This is a guy who went to Obama’s inauguration in Washington,” Pitts said.
A solid GOP supporter, Pitts stressed the importance keeping a Republican in City Hall, emphasizing the mayor’s responsibility of recommending commission and board member appointments.
“Just think about your school board,” Pitts told the crowd of about 150 people at the fundraiser. “Do you want a liberal on your school board?”
While the mayor nominates individuals for these positions, the majority of the City Council must approve them.
Coincidentally, the same night local businessman Pitts associated his opponent with liberalism, Tupelo residents throughout the city received phone calls thinly veiled as a “survey” that attacked Shelton.
Placed from numbers outside of Northeast Mississippi, the automated phone calls made false claims against the Tupelo attorney but also described him as a “trial attorney” who “defends criminals” and made references to his associations with “liberal” causes such as contributing to political campaigns of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Since 2008, Shelton has donated more than $12,000 to Democratic candidates, including former 1st District U.S. Rep. Travis Childers. He also attended President Barack Obama’s presidential inaugurations, receiving invitations from Childers in 2009 and from U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican, this year.
Friday on his online Facebook campaign page, Pitts denounced the phone attacks on Shelton, distancing himself and his campaign from the push poll.
Local and state Republican Party officials have also denied association with the phone attacks.
Shelton said he sees the attacks as a sign that his grassroots campaign has gained traction and will continue focusing on building support.
“I don’t see how any of that’s relevant to any issues facing the city of Tupelo,” he said. “If they want to attack me by engaging in politics of personal destruction and by distracting the citizens of Tupelo, I can’t control that.”
While Pitts distanced himself from the phone attacks, he stood behind his comments about political party affiliation. With the mayor’s race as the sole race in the general election, Pitts said party association and political ideology are valid reasons to decide how to vote.
Partisan politics is the norm in state and national elections, but it has managed to stay away from Tupelo city politics in recent memory. Four years ago, now-incumbent Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and Doyce Deas, a Republican and Democrat, rarely mentioned political party affiliation.
Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University, said local politics in Mississippi has tended to rely less on political parties and more on friendships and other personal connections. More so, Wiseman notes that Tupelo politics in particular have generally been less confrontational than other communities.
“It’s going to make for a very dicey and political race in Tupelo,” he said.
Party politics isn’t lost on Shelton, either. He has already received Republican endorsements from residents, including unsuccessful 2009 mayoral candidate James Presley, and has attempted to fashion himself as the fiscal conservative in the race.
In the Democrat’s campaign headquarters on West Main Street, a potted plant on a shelf has special significance. He said it was sent from “Republicans for Shelton.”
While the two candidates have similar positions on a number of local issues, they continue to find distinctions. Shelton says he will bring “new energy” into City Hall. Pitts and others have seen that as a subtle nudge to the age difference between the men. Pitts counters by saying he has the most experience, having served a term on the City Council, while Shelton has yet to serve in elected public office.
“We have a young, inexperienced president, and where has that gotten us?” Pitts said.