Newly elected Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba continues to prove — above all else — that he will be the face of social change in the city his father once fought with and then for.
The son of late Mayor Chokwe and Nubia Lumumba, Antar Lumumba — as his friends call him — said he made the decision to run for mayor shortly after his father died of heart-related problems on Feb. 25, 2014. Lumumba lost his first run for office to serve out the remainder of his father’s term but roared back during the regular municipal elections this year.
Lumumba took office in July with an overwhelming mandate from Jackson voters after beating out a field of 16 candidates. He won the Democratic nomination in May without a runoff in a nine-person race that included incumbent Mayor Tony Yarber. He clinched the general election in the Democratic stronghold city in June with a convincing 93 percent of the vote.
For the new mayor, it was a watershed moment. For the city of Jackson, the decision now reverberates down every broken road and into every resident’s home.
Since, Lumumba has gotten national exposure for his embrace of progressive political ideals and emphasis on self-determination, striking if only for Jackson’s location smack dab in the middle of a solidly red state and region. While a left-leaning Democratic mayor is nothing new to Jackson, Lumumba’s own words laid claim to a new kind of mayoral administration.
Rather than shy away from being called a radical, Lumumba embraced it and, shortly after his election, declared that under his leadership Jackson was going to be “the most radical city on the planet.”
The new mayor also hasn’t shied away from social activism, a key reason he garnered as much support as he did in the mayoral elections with his promise to hold people’s forums. To some, Lumumba isn’t expected to merely disrupt the status quo. He’s expected to shatter it.
In his first 100 days, the new mayor has voiced support for union workers during a pivotal Southern showdown at the Nissan plant in Canton. While Nissan workers ultimately voted against a bid to unionize, Lumumba gave insight into his vision for Jackson.
“We live in a world where you have so many with so little and so few with so much,” Lumumba said. “And so, we’re trying to change that dynamic right here. We want to change the order of the world.”
In the case of JPS, Lumumba was at his most animated, asserting the state superintendent of education, Carey Wright, was working behind the scenes to scuttle efforts to stave off a takeover. The mayor has repeatedly said a strategy to keep Jackson schools in local hands is in the works, but until Gov. Phil Bryant makes a decision, he is keeping details close to the vest.
Ronnie Crudup Jr., who ran against Lumumba in the Democratic primary, said he stands behind the mayor’s efforts to keep Jackson Public Schools in local control.
Lumumba has also released statements in defense of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival recipients, and offered condolences to the family of Heather Heyer, who fell victim to a confrontation between white supremacists and their protesters at a Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstration.
“These events led by white supremacists and alt-right groups are crimes against humanity and we must do everything in our power to dismantle and disavow such hatred and oppression,” Lumumba said in a statement.
As the mayor gets settled into the actual business of running a city, the 34-year-old will have to climb a mountain if he wants to live up to the lofty vision he laid out during the mayoral campaign.
“We will fix our infrastructure. We will improve our education. We will decrease crime. We will do it together,” Lumumba said in a campaign video.
How to do any of those things, let alone all of them, is a tough challenge if history is a guide.
In large measure, the city remains stuck between a confluence of needs clamoring to be addressed. As City Council Vice President Melvin Priester Jr. has said, how do you improve the roads to attract business and raise taxes to fix the roads at the same time?
Since Lumumba took office after the 2017 legislative session, Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, said he looks forward to working with the mayor and the Jackson delegation when they meet after Thanksgiving.
“I think the most important thing is for the Jackson delegation to be on the same page,” Blount said. “They’ve been able to do that the last couple of years, but that’s the first thing, to be on the same page.”
The new mayor has thought outside the box with his cabinet picks, favoring candidates with success in fields not normally associated with city government.
Four were plucked from the academic world — three of them having served at Jackson State University and one being a triple graduate of the highly regarded Ivy League Cornell University.
Council reaction (or lack of one) to the mayor’s confirmation picks suggests a willingness — for now — to bend to his will on subjects under heavy scrutiny in the capital city, such as administrative pay.
The council confirmed two key players in the Lumumba orbit despite an increase in pay for both of them. Robert Blaine is the city’s chief administrative officer and earns a larger salary than anyone before him, while Director of Administration Charles Hatcher also out earns his predecessor.
Lumumba has promised a shakeup in the administrative structure of the city, reverting to a system similar to the one his father implemented, with Blaine serving more as a chief financial officer and Hatcher as chief administrative officer.
Two weeks ago, the council approved Robert Miller, the mayor’s selection to head up the city’s beleaguered Public Works Department.
Lumumba convinced the EPA-touted Miller to leave his deputy director post in New Orleans and move to Jackson inspite of all its infrastructure concerns.
The two will have their hands full with Jackson’s dilapidated and antiquated water and sewer system, not to mention crumbling roads and infrastructure. Lumumba inherits a department facing a $400 million federal consent decree, which mandates the city make upgrades to its wastewater treatment facilities to prevent the discharge of untreated wastewater into the Pearl River.
The city is also engaged in a $90 million contract with Siemens to update the city’s water meters. Lumumba told the council that because of faulty water meters the city only sees about 78 percent of its water revenue.
Residents across the city have complained they don’t receive monthly water bills, only to get a large lump sum bill all at once. Amidst concerns, CAO Blaine promised to have the billing issue fixed by January.
Behind the budget
In the budget, a majority of the council approved a property tax increase for Jackson residents, with half the revenue going to infrastructure. The mayor ended the city’s furlough program, which he campaigned against.
In council chambers, the mayor’s demeanor has largely been deliberative. The general rule is he is respectful of the democratic process in council meetings, allowing members to have their say before responding. He listens. Iin fact some say it’s one of his best attributes.
“I look at his body language when I’m talking to him, and you know he’s listening to every word you say,” Ben Allen, president of the Downtown Jackson Partners, said. “You can tell when someone isn’t really listening, not him. He’s a lot like his dad in that way.”
Lumumba’s philosophy on city government can best be described as progressive, or a rising tide lifts all boats. His stance on union workers has spilled over into City Hall meetings on the budget, where he has often compared treatment of city workers to basic human and civil rights issues. The mayor believes a chunk of Jackson’s revenue shortage is partly the result of the city not investing in its workers, whom the mayor refers to in a familial way.
“When you invest in your workers, the revenue will come. If they have it, they’ll spend their money in the city. You cannot support human rights if you’re not prepared to support workers’ rights,” he said.
Council members — in particular Ward 6 Councilman Aaron Banks — share the mayor’s approach to local economic development over “foreign” contractors from outside Jackson or the state. When outside contractors are used, the city is looking at raising a requirement for local work based, in part, on economic income.
“We’re trying to find a way through legislation that will require foreign contractors to employ a certain percentage of local citizens,” Banks said.
Modeled after legislation the city of Cleveland, Ohio, implemented, Banks said the aim is to mandate outside contractors to hire at least 35 percent of its workforce from the Jackson area.
Where do we go from here?
One hundred days in, there are still many questions. Will the mayor’s social activism inhibit his role as mayor or will it complement it? How will he deal with the typically slow pace of government bureaucracy, especially as it relates to infrastructure?
Ward 1 Councilman Ashby Foote, the lone Republican of the body, cautioned that the mayor and council’s support for issues outside the city agenda — such as discussion of city control of JPS — has the potential to give short shrift to actual city business, of which there’s a lot.
“I think he’s still getting settled in,” Banks said of the mayor’s first 100 days. “I’m impressed with the vision he has for the city. But I believe it takes time. He’s still laying the groundwork.”
Said Crudup: “I think he’s doing a good job. As long as he stays committed to the people and is willing to work alongside the other council members, he’ll be in good shape.”
Content courtesy of Justin Vicory and The Clarion-Ledger.