Some advice for Jackson's new mayor

So now Jackson will have yet another mayor. Let’s pray he’s a good one.

Incumbent Mayor Tony Yarber only received five percent of the vote. Ouch. Apparently unfilled potholes, cronyism and sexual harassment lawsuits don’t sit well with Jackson voters.

Like Yarber, our likely new mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, will come to office with practically zero experience in running a city. That does not bode well.

What Lumumba does have is an amazingly impressive political victory, beating nine candidates without even a runoff. Wow!

Lumumba is quite charismatic. He is a talented speaker and seems to be a natural politician.

Listening to his post-election victory speech, Lumumba seemed to say something really significant without saying much of anything specific and offending no one. He strung together a bunch of vague buzzwords that both appealed to his base and calmed down his detractors. You can’t teach that. You’re just born with that kind of talent.

The negative spin on the younger Lumumba was that he was riding the coattails of his father. Now it looks like the opposite may have been true. Give credit where credit is due.

That being said, a great political victory among the Jackson electorate does not guarantee success. Former Mayor Frank Melton was a political phenomenon but a disaster in office.  Yarber was a flop. Harvey Johnson got voted out of the job twice, the second time failing, like Yarber, to get more than five percent of the vote.

The takeaway for Lumumba should be that Jackson voters want results and are quick to switch horses if they don’t see immediate progress. Tough bill to fill.

Lumumba will take office facing a mountain of problems: eroding tax base, massive infrastructure costs, disgruntled workforce, corrupt contractors and a dearth of managerial competence.

Then there is the impending threat of a state takeover of Jackson. The airport takeover and the new capitol improvement district laid the groundwork for that. The clock is ticking.

If Lumumba succeeds in turning Jackson around, the sky is the limit for his political ambitions. He can keep the rhetoric flowing, but it has to be backed up with true managerial competence.

As an observer and commentator through five Jackson mayoral administrations, I have some recommendations for the young Lumumba:

 • When you start believing your own PR, you are doomed. It’s great to talk about the “people’s platform,” “restoring vision,” “social empowerment” etc. Great campaign slogans. But the campaign is over. Now it’s time to fix the potholes, lay down some asphalt, balance the budget, fix the water department billing system and hire some competent department heads. It’s all about management from here on.

• Do a nationwide search and hire the most competent chief administrative officer in the country. Use a top-notch professional headhunting team. You need someone who has years of real experience turning around and managing a city the size of Jackson. If you do this one thing, you have a decent chance at success. If you don’t, it will be a tough row to hoe.

Whatever you do, don’t put a political hack in charge of running the city. It will doom you. Face it, you know practically nothing about running an organization with 2,500 employees engaged in the delivery of public services as diverse as water, sewer, police, fire, parks, roads and so on. It’s OK. You’re the politician. You’re the face man. Realize that and hire a competent manager to do the technical stuff. Delegate wisely.

• Fix what you can fix and give speeches about the rest. By hiring the right people, you can fix the water department billing mess. You can implement a road maintenance plan. You can pave streets. You can fill potholes. In fact, if you just pave 100 miles of streets and fix the water bills, you will be lauded at as a miracle worker.

But you cannot change the world, not yet. You cannot fix social and economic inequality. You cannot magically turn Jackson into a high-tech job growth mecca. You cannot eradicate racism. Focus on doing the things you can do first, then you will one day have a shot at the bigger picture. You are young.

• Reassure the powers that be. Get them on your side. That means engaging the business community and the state Legislature. Every community has movers and shakers. Find out who they are and seek their guidance and counsel. You are now the leader of the entire city. You can’t do it without their support. If you engage these people, they will freely offer the direction and expertise you will desperately need to succeed.

• Engage the media. Don’t underestimate its power to make or break your reputation. This was one of Yarber’s critical mistakes. He thought he could ignore criticism in the media if he just kept his head down and worked through it. Wrong. It doesn’t work that way. Opinion leaders shape opinion. It’s their job and they’re good at it. Cultivate personal relationships with all the key reporters, editors, newscasters and bloggers. They can make or break you. Respond to every negative article or editorial with a letter to the editor or a personal post. Don’t let any criticism go uncontested. Speak up. Be transparent. Respond swiftly to media inquiries and let your staff talk directly with them. Attempting to control the flow of information will backfire badly.

• This is not a payday. It is a public service job. If you use the office to get rich, the people will eventually discover your real motivation. Don’t steer contracts to your cronies. Scrupulously avoid conflicts of interest. Insist on open bids for public work. Enlist the advice of the new Mississippi Public Procurement Review Board to help set up best practice policies for city contracts. Your honesty will be rewarded, and you will go on to higher office.

• You have a beautiful, charming, intelligent wife. Power is an aphrodisiac. Be careful. Don’t screw it up. And, watch out for alcohol and all the other vices. You wouldn’t be the first nor the last.

• Get the state on your side. They have the big money. Now they have shown a willingness to invest in Jackson. Embrace them. Don’t make it a power play. They need you. You need them. Mississippi will never get anywhere without a great capital city. Make it so.

• Keep it simple. Don’t get sucked into wasting millions on professional and engineering fees. They’ll turn a simple $200,000 street resurfacing into a $30 million mega-project. It’s not that complicated. Pave the worst high-traffic streets. Asphalt is cheap. Engineering studies are expensive.

• Stay true to Christ. That one bit of advice takes precedence over all the rest. Good luck and God bless. The whole city is rooting for you.

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