Election notebook: The mystery survey

By Robbie Ward/NEMS Daily Journal

During political campaigns, candidates and their backers often use surveys to gauge the public’s views on issues.
As some of you know, local folks have received automated phone surveys related to Tupelo’s mayor’s race. Survey questions include topics about citizen satisfaction with city services, how the current City Council has cooperated and whether the age of the mayoral candidates is a factor for voters.
I found the age question interesting. After all, the age gap between Republican Fred Pitts, 70, and Democrat Jason Shelton, 36, seems much wider than their stances on the issues.
A few weeks ago, I first asked Shelton, a local attorney and first-time candidate, about his age. He seemed ready for the question, telling me that he had the experience and “wisdom” necessary to run City Hall.
For many first-time candidates who aren’t members of AARP, they can often feel vulnerable to the inexperience accusations. For people who have known Shelton for a while, they’re not surprised the precocious guy who finished his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in 2 1/2 years and then graduated from Ole Miss law school to become the youngest practicing attorney in the state at the time.
When I asked Pitts about his age, not surprisingly he informed me that 70 is the new 50.
With both candidates having potential political vulnerabilities related to age, I wondered who was responsible for the survey. I called Pitts and then leaders with the state and local GOP. No offense, but I assumed Democrats in Mississippi wouldn’t be organized enough on the local level to conduct a phone survey.
Pitts and the GOP denied any involvement. So, I sent Shelton a text message asking if he or the Democratic Party was responsible for it.
“Not that I am aware of,” Shelton replied. “I assume it is Mr. Pitts.”
Covering my bases, I contacted the chairman of the state Democratic Party and received another denial.
With both candidates and their political parties denying involvement, I wondered even more who was behind the survey.
On a hunch, I called political consultant and former congressional candidate Brad Morris, an Oxford attorney. Morris and Shelton attended Tupelo High School together.
I recalled chatting with him at Shelton’s campaign headquarters grand opening. So, I asked Morris if he was behind the surveys.
(Long pause.)
“If I was, I wouldn’t say,” he said.
And then he informed me that in a post-Citizens United world that “anybody with an interest in the race has the ability to step in and get involved.”
Morris then informed me that Shelton served as best man in his wedding.
So, then I called Shelton back and asked if he knew about Morris conducting the survey on his behalf.
“I haven’t paid for a survey,” Shelton said. “But I certainly would like to know the results.”
ROBBIE WARD covers Tupelo and Lee County government for the Daily Journal and can be reached at robbie.ward@journalinc.com.

Click video to hear audio