TUPELO – Just days before voters cast ballots to determine Tupelo’s next mayor, Democrat Jason Shelton has accused Republican Fred Pitts of running a campaign of “dirty, negative” politics.
In a campaign flier paid for by the Mississippi Republican Party that arrived in voters’ mailboxes on Thursday, an image showed Pitts and his wife, Carol, embracing, along with another image of their family together. Just above them, an unflattering photo shows a red-faced Shelton eating a cookie with his name on it.
The flier describes Shelton’s “qualifications” for the mayor’s office as having “given over $16,000 to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” It also stated that Shelton sued the city of Tupelo two days after qualifying for mayor and owes more than $22,000 in back property taxes.
Shelton, 37, an attorney, running for his first elective office, calls the accusations untrue.
“From reading my opponent’s campaign biography, it’s difficult to believe and surprising to see the manner in which he’s conducted his campaign,” Shelton said. “He spends more time talking about me than anything he says about the city of Tupelo.”
For his part, Pitts, 70, a longtime businessman, denies coordinating with the state GOP on the political flier, saying he wasn’t aware of it until seeing it arrive in the mail. Beyond that, he said he had no comment on the material.
While the state GOP defends information in the flier, some statements aren’t completely accurate. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions, Shelton gave a total of $1,825 to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2008 but nothing directly to President Obama’s political campaigns.
A state Republican Party spokesman said the $16,000 figure was derived from the total amount Shelton has given to “liberal Democratic candidates and causes,” including the Democratic National Committee.
Also, while Shelton’s law firm did file a lawsuit against the city days after he qualified to run for mayor, he didn’t file it. Another attorney in the firm continues to handle the case.
Additionally, while Shelton did owe back taxes, his back debt from Sept. 30, 2011, was $145. Shelton said he paid that on Friday, within hours after a Daily Journal reporter learned those 2011 taxes were owed.
As mentioned in the Republican flier, Shelton did owe just more than $22,000 in taxes on his properties, but for 2012, the current year being collected. He paid those taxes, which were due in February, on May 22.
Lee County Tax Collector Leroy Belk Jr., who stressed that he did not favor either candidate in the city election, said many “prominent citizens” delay paying taxes since penalties are often less than interest charged on loans they would take out to pay the taxes.
Records show that Shelton has a several-years pattern of paying taxes on his properties as much as six months beyond the February deadline but in time to avoid liens in most cases. Asked why he paid his 2012 taxes earlier than his normal pattern, Shelton said, “My opponent has sought to distract the city’s voters from issues. I wanted to eliminate any further distractions.”
State Republican Party officials say voters deserve to know these details about the Democratic candidate.
“Maybe Mr. Shelton should have used his $16,000 to pay most of his $22,000 in back property taxes on time instead of contributing to liberal candidates and causes that the majority of Tupelo voters have consistently rejected,” said J.D. Griffin, political director of the Mississippi Republican Party.
Shelton and Pitts face off in the general election on Tuesday. It’s the only competitive race on Tupelo’s ballot.
Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal