LLOYD GRAY: Big margin, many factors

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

When the results of an election are as decisive as the Tupelo mayor’s race, multiple factors are usually at work. That certainly seems the case in Jason Shelton’s surprisingly comfortable win over Fred Pitts.
Shelton’s voters can’t be pigeonholed. Precinct results showed support from a broad spectrum of the city, including significant inroads in affluent and staunchly Republican areas.
Everybody who voted for him had their own reasons, but surely these were among the most common:
• The generational factor. Many of his age peers found it an exciting prospect to have a 37-year-old in the mayor’s office, and some older voters probably felt it was time to give the younger folks a shot at leading the city.
• Policy differences. Shelton portrayed himself as the more fiscally conservative candidate, and his disagreement with some of the expenditures proposed by Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and supported by Pitts to reverse Tupelo’s middle-class erosion resonated with some otherwise conservative Republican voters.
• Party. Aside from the politically tone-deaf intervention of the Mississippi Republican Party and its attack-mode playbook, which fired up Shelton’s base, Democrats in Tupelo were highly motivated to see one of their own as mayor. These included not only Tupelo’s black voters, who make up more than a quarter of the city’s electorate and vote overwhelmingly Democratic, but the 10 to 20 percent or so of white voters who lean Democrat.
• A web of personal connections. As Pitts said during the campaign, he has lived in Tupelo longer than Shelton has been alive. But Shelton was born and reared in the city and that no doubt was helpful in getting support not only from his own age group but from teachers, parents of friends and other older Tupeloans who had watched him grow up.
• East Tupelo/anti-establishment sentiment. That Shelton hails from a part of the city that has considered itself left out through the years offered a chance for residents there to do something tangible with those feelings. And Pitts’ identification with the Community Development Foundation and the Tupelo “establishment” in general gave those who wanted to take a poke at the old leadership an opportunity to vote for someone outside that group.
• Annexation – While Tupelo filed and pursued its annexation case in court before Pitts was elected to the City Council, many new city voters in annexed areas had a way to voice their displeasure by voting against a representative of the current city government.
• Personalities. Shelton was simply a more effective campaigner and was perceived by many as more approachable than Pitts.
The combination of these factors, along with an artfully conceived and executed Shelton campaign strategy guided by former congressional candidate Brad Morris, brought a result that virtually no one – surely not even Shelton himself – could have foreseen just a few months ago: a landslide victory for a Democrat in a town that has had only one single-term Democratic mayor in the past 40 years.
Shelton managed to both energize those who want a new kind of leadership in Tupelo while signaling that he understands the nature of Tupelo’s historic success. Many conservatives who might have been inclined to think him dangerous – he’s a Democrat trial lawyer, after all! – were reassured by a calm, non-combative approach and his careful tip-of-the-hat to Tupelo’s history of cooperative consensus-building.
His supporters all have their different expectations of what Shelton will do as mayor. A primary challenge he will face will be negotiating those sometimes competing expectations.
But he certainly will take office with the political winds at his back, and that’s a signal accomplishment in itself.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.