Jackson’s mayor and all but one member of the city council are Democrats. Each of the top legislative leaders and all but one of Mississippi’s statewide elected officials is a Republican.
So suffice it to say, the relationship between the capital city and the state is often strained.
Even though Jackson’s May 2 Democratic mayoral primary is shaping up to be a referendum on potholes and crime, it is also an opportunity to reboot the long rocky relationship between leaders of the capital city and state government.
Three of the top candidates in the race tout years of experience working with the Legislature on economic development and other projects as evidence of why the Jackson-state relationship would improve under their administration.
Tony Yarber, the incumbent mayor who is running for reelection, called the relationship dysfunctional when he represented south Jackson as councilman from 2009 to 2014.
When he took office following a special election prompted by the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba — whom Yarber credits with improving the city’s relationship with the state — Yarber said he met with state leaders including Gov. Phil Bryant, Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn.
“There was a great deal of distrust,” of Jackson’s fiscal management as far as the leadership was concerned. “(They said) we don’t want to write Jackson a blank check that would disappear into its general fund.”
The budget struggle for Jackson has been real. In 2016, the Jackson City Council passed a budget that included deep cuts, layoffs, the closure of a city-owned golf course and a property tax increase, according to The Clarion-Ledger. Those cuts came amidst a series of negative reports from credit ratings agencies, many of which cited the city’s mounting infrastructure needs in the face of falling revenues.
Yarber cites an April 26 report from Moody’s that cites the passage of legislation that would provide infrastructure funding for parts of Jackson as evidence that his administration has the city on the right track. Now, Yarber believes the capitol complex could be a vehicle for future investment by the state.
The sitting mayor isn’t the only candidate taking credit for the success of the capitol complex bill.
Sen. John Horhn, who has served in the Legislature since 1993, and twice run for the Jackson’s mayor’s chair, points to the capitol complex as just the latest in a series of bills he helped negotiate to benefit Jackson despite the Republican-ruled Legislature.
Others include a bill to allow Jackson to vote whether to impose an additional sales tax on certain purposes to raise cash for infrastructure repairs.
Still, Horhn criticizes past Jackson mayors for lacking urgency in putting into action the legislation he helped write. For example, the referendum on the 1-percent sales tax did not take place until early 2014, under the Lumumba administration, even though the bill passed in 2009. Horhn also said he helped secure funding for a roads project in west Jackson in 1995 that took a decade for the city to construct.
The slow rate of progress has made it difficult to advocate for the city in legislative talks and creates friction that he believes he alone can alleviate.
“It’s not been an easy task to get legislation passed that people perceive to be a benefit to the city of Jackson. We’ve been successful, mind you, but it hasn’t been an easy row to hoe.”
Failure to communicate
All of the candidates running for mayor say that over the years, the mayor of Jackson and state leaders simply haven’t spent enough time talking to one another.
“There are missed opportunities because I don’t think the present administration has communicated with the state or the legislators,” said Hinds County Supervisor Robert Graham, referring to Yarber. “Every January when the Legislature comes to town, that should be a time for Jackson to shine. I don’t think that has happened because I don’t see the evidence of that.”
Yarber rejects the assertion, saying his administration was in frequent contact with legislative leadership, particularly Speaker Philip Gunn’s chief of staff, Nathan Wells.
“We went to the leadership early and often. They were engaged from the beginning,” Yarber said.
Graham, who was the spokesman for the Jackson Police Department before joining the county board and runs an emergency-services training firm, said he wants to build on his relationships with Gunn, Reeves and Bryant that he said paved the way for a $50 million Westin hotel development in downtown Jackson and helped land the $1.45 billion Continental Tire plant in western Hinds County.
“We contributed money to that project. We developed a supersite on I-20 — something that people didn’t believe we could get done. We beat out a lot of people because of the relationships we had with the state of Mississippi and Clinton School District,” Graham said.
Chokwe A. Lumumba, who goes by Antar to differentiate himself from his father, the late mayor, said those relationships haven’t led to greater trust of Jackson, however. He points to the controversial oversight commission that must sign off on projects Jackson wants to take on with proceeds from the 1-percent sales tax funds as well as the ongoing fight over control of the Jackson airport board.
“If relationships that people purport to have are so great then those relationships would have been strong enough not to have our airport stolen. Those relationships would be strong enough there would not always be an effort to put a commission on every single thing that Jackson does,” Lumumba asks.
Ronnie Crudup Jr., executive director of New Horizon Ministries, the development arm of New Horizon Church International, where his politically powerful father is pastor, did not respond to interview requests but quipped during a recent debate that Graham’s and Horhn’s successes are reasons they should remain on the county board and in the state Senate, respectively.
“I’m a relationships guy. Relationships matter. We’ve got to have better relationships with all of our people across this state and this city and we can do that under a Crudup administration,” Crudup said, amid laughter from the audience.
A two-way relationship
Even though candidates agree that Jackson could do more to improve its relationship with the state, some candidates say the state isn’t completely blameless.
Lumumba said it’s a fair critique to question the breakdown in city-state communications and that he would keep the lines of communication open. At the same time, Lumumba said he would not stake the city’s economic prosperity on the state’s charity.
“Turning Jackson down for resources won’t be on account of a failure to ask or a failure to make our needs clear. However, we’re not going to limit our approach to just the city of Jackson. We’re going to use national and international resources sources to build the city,” said Lumumba, who traveled to Spain and met with officials about partnerships.
“We’re trying to build a global city and if there is a resistance for whatever reason to help build Jackson then we’re going to explore other alternatives. That’s what we talked about things such as cooperative businesses. That’s why we talked about incubators that helped establish small, homegrown businesses so that we can help with our own economic development.”
In some ways, Yarber agrees.
“What needs to happen is the state needs to realize is that when the state helps Jackson, it’s not doing Jackson a favor. What the state is doing is actually increasing its ability to thrive and prosper and look good as well,” Yarber said.
Ten candidates are seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor in Jackson, which will likely determine the outcome of the election. Visit the Secretary of State’s website to find your polling location.