Tupelo mayoral hopefuls push to the end of the race

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By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo voters will decide in just two days whether to promote the current City Council president and longtime businessman to the mayor’s office or go with a political newcomer to city government.
With the city showing little growth in the 2010 Census compared to surrounding communities with plenty of land to build new houses and with some older neighborhoods battling decline, Republican Fred Pitts, 70, and Democrat Jason Shelton, 37, agree on challenges Tupelo faces but not on who should lead the city for a new four-year term. The job pays $92,242 annually.
Candidates have debated about the role of government on the local level, how to improve the community and ways to seek out more accessibility and communication between City Hall and residents. Like other issues in the campaign, the candidates can’t agree on who is the most fiscally conservative or responsible in the race.
Pitts and Shelton also disagree on the importance of political party in local elections. A traditional Republican stronghold in state and national elections, Tupelo has had a Republican mayor all but four years since the 1970s. Pitts and the state GOP want to continue that trend, having state party leaders in Jackson visit to make endorsements.
Area residents soon will receive recorded phone calls from Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who visited Pitts’ campaign office recently to make calls on his behalf. Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn also have endorsed Pitts in trips to Tupelo.
Pitts has said Republicans in leadership roles in state government and Congress can help the city with a Republican mayor continuing to serve.
“I think being a Republican mayor helps attract business and jobs to our city,” he said.
During the campaign, Pitts has pointed out that Shelton attended President Barack Obama’s inaugurations this year and four years ago. Knowing he needs conservative support to win, Shelton has distanced himself from any national issues like abortion and gay marriage and tried to focus on city issues.
“I don’t know a Republican or Democratic way to fix a pothole,” Shelton has repeated in response to partisanship in the mayoral race.
With the mayoral election having full attention in city politics as the only contested race in Tuesday’s general election, Pitts has acknowledged a stronger challenge from his opponent than initially expected and isn’t ready to call himself the front-runner.
“We’ll have to see about that after the votes are counted,” he said.
Pitts has had his eye on succeeding Mayor Jack Reed Jr. ever since Reed announced in November his plans not to seek a second term. For the most part, Pitts has said his administration will be a de facto second term for Reed, looking to redevelop struggling neighborhoods with affordable housing to retain and attract more middle-class families. He also champions public investments made during his time leading the City Council, such as the new aquatic center under construction in east Tupelo and a plan to redevelop the area around West Jackson Street.
“This is a time when it’s hard to find developers to build,” he said. “We have to continue to use seed money to bring back these neighborhoods.”
Shelton said he tried to convince a dozen people to run for mayor before they convinced him to turn his passion for Tupelo into a campaign effort. He has served on the Mayor’s Quality of Life task force and believes the city needs a fresh face to help recruit younger people to the city. He also believes the city needs to loosen up on regulations and ordinances, which he believes has contributed to fewer residents moving here in recent years.
“If it’s too difficult to build a home in the city of Tupelo and other cities are providing a better option, we can’t be surprised if they don’t come here,” Shelton said during a campaign debate. “We have to make it easier to do business with City Hall.”
Pitts has supported plans for the city to provide down payment loans for residents looking to buy homes in the city in response to federal loans that do not require any down payments to buy houses in surrounding rural areas and smaller cities. However, he has changed his mind on the issue after getting pushback from residents, and now he says he’ll instead lobby the state’s congressional delegation to help change the federal program he sees as unfair to Tupelo.
“The first phone calls I will make in office will be to Senator (Roger) Wicker and Congressman (Alan) Nunnelee,” Pitts has said. “This seems to be a problem larger than city government.”
Pitts supporters tend to say they want a proven leader who knows how City Hall works and has experience to ensure Tupelo is successful in the future.
“Fred has more experience in leadership and city government,” said Ashley Prince, a Pitts campaign volunteer. “He and his wife haven’t gotten involved just during the campaign season.”
Many Shelton supporters say they like the idea of a bringing a younger view to lead the city, believing he’ll have more energy.
“I’m a strong Republican and support Mr. Shelton,” said Carolyn Mauldin, a former City Council member. “I like the way he speaks and connects to the younger groups.”
In the homestretch of the mayoral campaign, both candidates aren’t taking for granted areas they hope to win big on Tuesday. In recent days, Shelton has campaigned at businesses in east Tupelo, the area where he grew up, while Pitts campaigned in north Tupelo.
Stopping in Johnnie’s Drive In to pass out campaign information and ask for votes, Shelton received a warm reception.
“We need kind of a younger, fresher view of things,” Hank Bierman said while having a meal with a co-worker.
Walking along Lakeshire Drive knocking on doors on Friday, Pitts found many supporters and appeared optimistic even when he saw yard signs of his opponent.
“You never know when there might be a split marriage,” he said.
robbie.ward@journalinc.com