LLOYD GRAY: Where were Tupelo’s voters?

By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal

Tupelo is at a crossroads. That has been clear for two and a half years since the 2010 Census revealed stalled population growth and median income in the city.
And the signs were evident long before that. It’s just that nobody paid much attention.
Beginning in early 2011, discussions began in earnest about ways to counter these trends. A citizen task force proposed policy solutions, Mayor Jack Reed Jr. pushed several initiatives and the City Council balked at anything bold or politically risky.
But while opinions on solutions differed, all agreed that there was much to be done to get Tupelo back on track as a growing, prosperous and pace-setting community.
Against this backdrop, the turnout in Tuesday’s city primary elections can only be described as disappointing. About 3,800 people voted, 2,050 less than in the 2009 primaries. Only 3,441 of those votes were cast in competitive primaries for City Council, and that’s after the city added about 2,500 new residents through annexation.
The turnout represented 18 percent of the 22,000 eligible voters in Tupelo, which doesn’t indicate a high level of citizen engagement in the challenges facing the city. City Clerk Kim Hanna told a Daily Journal reporter that it’s the lowest primary turnout she can recall.
It’s true that no competitive mayor’s race was on the primary ballots, as there were in both the Democratic and Republican primaries four years ago. Interest at the top of the ballot always helps generate turnout.
But the last time the city had party primaries with no mayor’s race involved was 2001, and the vote was more than 4,700 in the competitive council races. Not great, but much better than in 2013 when there is much wider acknowledgment of the stakes.
A competent and progressive city government isn’t the answer to all of Tupelo’s problems, but it’s an essential component to charting a successful future for the community. Certainly poor leadership in city government can be a drag on community progress.
The council races are settled. Now the exclusive focus is on the mayor’s race between Republican Fred Pitts and Democrat Jason Shelton, neither of whom had party primary opposition. Interest in the race appears high. There’s a lot of talk around town about it. But the question remains: Will that interest translate into voter participation?
The mayor sets the tone in city government. It could be argued that the council actually has the greater direct impact since it decides policy questions, but the mayor’s priorities can drive the discussion – as is the case in any executive-legislative setup at the local, state or federal level.
Low voter turnout in city elections isn’t unique to Tupelo, of course. But with so much discussion and debate, and a consensus on this being a critical time in the history of the community, a higher level of participation in choosing city leaders would be an encouraging sign.
Pitts and Shelton offer contrasts in leadership style, approach, experience and age, and as the campaign progresses, some differences in policy positions are likely to emerge. Journal reporter Robbie Ward is keeping close track of the candidates, reporting regularly on the race. He’ll have updates this week and next Sunday will provide lengthy profiles of each candidate along with their answers to a Journal questionnaire.
Tupelo needs a good, honest, straightforward debate on the direction the city should take and who’s best suited to lead. It needs to be conducted on a high level in the remaining three and a half weeks of the campaign.
And if Tupelo citizens care about the future of their community, they need to demonstrate it by showing up at the polls in greater numbers on June 4.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.