By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Democrat Jason Shelton wasn’t even his own first choice for Tupelo’s next mayor. But after more than two months of campaigning, he has generated so much support that even the state Republican Party has taken notice.
Shelton, 37, a Tupelo native who joined his family law practice, said he tried to convince a dozen people – all Republicans – to run for mayor. Instead, Shelton said they convinced him – a relatively young professional who cares about the community – to seek the office that a Democrat hasn’t held in nearly three decades.
In the June 4 general election for mayor, Shelton will face longtime Tupelo business owner and current City Council President Fred Pitts, 70, a Republican, for the four-year term in a job that pays $92,242 annually. Incumbent Jack Reed Jr. did not seek re-election and has not publicly endorsed a successor.
Given Tupelo’s reputation as a GOP stronghold, Shelton knows he’ll need plenty of support from city residents who cast ballots for Gov. Phil Bryant and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, but he isn’t too worried about them crossing the party line.
“About 80 percent of my friends here are Republicans,” Shelton said. “I don’t think there’s a Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole.”
Along with a law firm, Shelton also owns a liquor store and rental property.
With a record of supporting local, regional and national Democratic candidates, Shelton has tried to shore up Republican votes and less partisan voters by promoting his message as a fiscal conservative not interested in changing the area’s political culture.
“The party isn’t important – it’s the person you’re electing,” Shelton told a crowd at a recent campaign event trying to woo Republican support. “I’m passionate about our city.”
Worried about the election, the state Republican Party has even identified Tupelo’s mayor’s race as one of its top four priorities in this year’s municipal elections. Shelton’s Republican supporters give credence to the GOP anxiety. Many local Republicans supporting Pitts grumble about their friends voting for a Democrat.
“I feel like he’s got my children’s best interest at heart,” said Kelly Kenney, who has known Shelton for about a decade and leans Republican. “He loves Tupelo more than anybody I know.”
The Tupelo attorney has said repeatedly that his top priority is retaining and attracting middle-class families in the city. He also said he would make a goal of having the most open and accessible administration in city history.
“Some people in the city feel like their voices aren’t heard,” Shelton said. “The city needs a mayor who is friendly and open enough you can talk with.”
A precocious fellow from a young age, Shelton graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in two and a half years, the same amount of time it took for him to finish law school at Ole Miss and become, at age 23, the youngest practicing attorney in the state at the time.
Those who have known Shelton through the years aren’t surprised to see him seeking elective office. Retired MSU political science and public administration professor Ed Clynch recalls his former student’s positive attributes that made him successful academically and professionally.
Clynch recalls Shelton as a bright student, the kind who engages and cares about history, politics and government. Observing Shelton’s political campaign from afar, Clynch believes he’d make a quality leader for Tupelo.
“He seems well-organized and has a lot of interpersonal skills,” said Clynch, an expert in public budgeting. “These are very important for a person to run the city.”
A first-time candidate for public office, Shelton isn’t a novice to winning elections. His first winning campaign dates to Lawhon School when he was elected homeroom president in the sixth grade. He held elected school positions through law school.
Since he’s never been in elective public office, Shelton points out his time as board attorney for the town of Plantersville and his current role as town prosecutor there.
“He’s knowledgable of ordinances,” said Plantersville Mayor Gloria Holland. “You have to rely on your board attorney.”
Shelton also represented Plantersville in the legal battle against the city of Tupelo seeking to annex additional area and residents.
While Shelton has focused on trying to convince conservative-minded voters to support him, many Democrats say he can also count on their vote. City Councilwoman Nettie Davis of Ward 4, a Democrat and retired teacher, said she and many other members of the black community will support him.
“I taught him and he’s a very smart, capable young man,” Davis said. “I think he’s doing an excellent job.”
While many of Shelton’s supporters describe him as “honorable” and having strong character, the Tupelo attorney’s family has experienced problems. Disbarred from practicing law in Mississippi in 2004, Shelton’s father, Jimmy Doug Shelton, 75, pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges in 2002 related to an alleged charity bingo skimming operation.
Jimmy Doug Shelton served nine months in federal prison and now sells used cars and manages his rental property.
Jason Shelton’s mother, Judy Woods, a retired administrator at Itawamba Community College, who has been married to Buck Woods for 20 years, said legal problems related to Jason’s father forced him into tough situations. However, Woods said his response to the situation revealed his tenacity and strong character.
Jason Shelton was one of the attorneys who represented his father in federal court related to the criminal charges and later assumed control of the family law firm, which he still operates. Woods believes voters should judge her son for his actions, not those of his father.
“Anyone who has survived what he has been through can certainly be an outstanding mayor,” she said.
Shelton’s legal work has also raised fodder for critics. Having decided to run for mayor the week of the qualifying deadline left Shelton with another political concern. After he formally announced his mayoral candidacy, his law firm filed suit against the city of Tupelo related to a young girl falling and bruising herself at a city park.
Shelton acknowledges the poor timing but said it was hard to avoid.
“I haven’t spent the last four years of my life trying to run for mayor,” he said. “It was a case that an attorney at my law firm had accepted and the deadline passed after I qualified for mayor.”
In spite of these issues, Shelton is running a formidable campaign. Friends and supporters say he’s the man for the job.
“It’s really about the person,” said Robert Thornton, a Tupelo dentist who voted for Mitt Romney and plans to vote Democrat in the mayor’s race.
Jason Shelton, Democrat
INFO: (662) 842-5051 email@example.com
FAMILY: Mother, Dr. Judy S. Woods; stepfather, Buck Woods; father, Jimmy D. Shelton; brother, Jonathan D. Shelton.
EDUCATION: University of Mississippi School of Law; B.A. in Political Science, Mississippi State University.
OCCUPATION: Attorney, businessman, Tupelo; city attorney/prosecutor,
town of Plantersville, 2001-present.
COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES: Lee County Young Lawyers Bar Association,
president, 2002 to 2003; vice president, 2002; secretarytreasurer,
2001; Tupelo Quality of Life Task Force; Mississippi Bar
Association “Lawyers in the Classroom Program” volunteer; Tupelo
High School “Mock Trial” coach; East Heights Baptist
Church; member; former youth baseball coach; Tupelo Police
Athletic League board member; Tupelo Community Theatre;
Community Development Foundation; Tupelo Young Professionals;
Elvis Presley Heights Neighborhood Association; East Main
Project Action Committee (EMPAC).