Tupelo voters bucked history with election of Democrat Jason Shelton

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By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Just what led voters in a Republican stronghold to select as the city’s first Democratic mayor in 28 years a 37-year-old trial lawyer who has financially supported regional and national Democratic candidates?
Mayor-elect Jason Shelton didn’t hesitate when asked this the day after winning the general election against Republican Fred Pitts, City Council president and business owner, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.
“It’s the result of running a positive, issue-oriented campaign and working as hard as you possibly can in the community and actually talking to people,” he said.
Shelton said he believed his chances to win increased when Pitts never released a detailed policy platform and then injected partisanship into the campaign.
“When he attacked me, he let the city know that he knew I could win,” Shelton said.
Pitts, who called Shelton on Wednesday to congratulate him, declined the day after the election to elaborate on what led to the election outcome. Tuesday evening, accepting the voters’ verdict, he said, “I think some people didn’t always seek out all of the truth and didn’t look down the road.”
However, some local political observers say Pitts and the state Republican Party may have broken an unwritten political rule in the city – don’t speak ill of your opponent. Community leaders call this part of what is described as the “Tupelo Spirit.”
Incumbent Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and previous Republican mayors never put much emphasis on theirs or their opponents’ party affiliation in their campaigns.
Pitts first brought partisanship into the race at a campaign fundraiser, pointing out that Shelton had attended President Barack Obama’s inaugurations and suggesting he would appoint “liberals” to the school board.
During the election, some voters received negative phone push polls and e-mails against Shelton. Pitts said his campaign wasn’t responsible and knew nothing about them.
During the final days of the election, the state Republican Party mailed fliers with negative and partially inaccurate information about Shelton. Further, party leaders including Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, state House Speaker Philip Gunn and U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee made appearances in support of Pitts.
This election season, state GOP chairman Joe Nosef identified mayoral elections in Tupelo, Starkville, Meridian and Ocean Springs as top party priorities and invested resources in each of them. Each race went for the Democratic candidate.
University of Mississippi assistant professor of political science Marvin P. King Jr., whose research includes examining party politics and voting patterns, said he’s sure the state Republican Party will learn from this experience. He said party identification is important to a degree on the local level, but level of organization within individual candidates’ campaigns and their local political parties are also key, as is the specific candidate’s qualifications.
“A lot of people are looking for competent administration,” he said. “They’re not looking for ideology.”
Shelton embraced a self-styled identity as a fiscal conservative, in spite of Pitts’ response that it wasn’t likely that a person could be both a Democrat and fiscally conservative.
As for campaign organization, Brad Morris of Oxford was chief strategist for his old Tupelo High School buddy Shelton. Morris was involved in Travis Childers’ successful race for Congress in 2008, later served as his chief of staff and unsuccessfully challenged Nunnelee in the 2012 1st District race.
“He’s the most brilliant political strategist in the state of Mississippi,” Shelton said of Morris.
Morris declined to be interviewed for this story.
Asked about the election outcome, GOP state chairman Nosef said he respects the wishes of Tupelo voters, believes the city is a great place and looks forward to visiting soon. He also pointed out that GOP candidates fared well in southern and central parts of the state and made inroads in traditional Democratic strongholds in Northeast Mississippi.
“Of the 15 most populated cities in the state, nine will be led by Republicans,” Nosef said.
Shelton, who said during the campaign that he would work to recruit and retain more working families to Tupelo, said his age could have also been an asset. His campaign slogan, “Traditional spirit – new energy” could be interpreted as a subtle reference to the age difference between him and the 70-year-old Pitts, as well as other older, established Tupelo leaders.
Brandon Presley, Northern District commissioner for the Mississippi Public Service Commission and a Democrat, said he believes many factors contributed to the Democrat winning in Tupelo.
“I think voters looked at the candidates and voted for tomorrow over yesterday,” said Presley, who was elected mayor of Nettleton at 23. “Trying to make these races about some national issue is probably an insult to the voters’ intelligence.”
robbie.ward@journalinc.com