By Alan Lange
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton (D) has been an enigma throughout his career. While cobbling together an unlikely coalition of affluent white voters and inner city black voters both collectively tired of politics-as-usual, he was swept into office in 2005 with a clear mandate for change… to do it “Frank’s way”. To do this, Melton beat two-term Democratic incumbent Harvey Johnson, who banked on the fact that he could paint Melton, a Democrat, as a pawn of white business interests; and that the overwhelming majority African American population would sweep the populist to another term. Melton waltzed to a 30 point victory in the primary and swept in with nearly 90% of the vote in the general election.
On any given day in Jackson, Melton’s efforts regularly earn him 5-7 minutes at the top of the three major metro television station newscasts as well as 5-7 columns of newsprint in the papers of record. His political opponents and local media are vocal in their opposition to some of his brazen tactics, but little traction has been made to slow his momentum. Early in his campaign, he announced that he would make mistakes as mayor, but his heart would always be in the right place. True to form, he has made several missteps as mayor, but all of those times erring on the side of trying to live up to the promises he made as a candidate.
Upon his inauguration in July, he embarked on an ambitious campaign to affect immediately those issues closest to his heart: Crime, truancy, sub-standard housing, and those issues affecting the moral fiber of Jackson. Personally leading crime sweeps along with handpicked Chief of Police, Shirlene Anderson, he has made a rather immediate impact. Late in 2005, he made truancy sweeps that addressed dozens of local Jackson children that had fallen through the cracks to try and provide accountability to get them back to school. And as of April 15, murders in Jackson, historically three to five times the per capita rates nationally, are on pace to be down almost 1/3rd in 2006. That is an unprecidented decrease and due in large part to his nightly visibility throughout Jackson.
His staff have effectively shut down two apartment complexes whose condition hovered near third world conditions. While his opponents howled in disgust, it was the first real attempt to address a decade-old housing crisis in Jackson. He has also put pressure on adult oriented business operating in legal grey areas in an effort to improve the business climate in Jackson.
People in Jackson and even throughout Mississippi are asking, “Is Frank Melton crazy?” Yes… like a fox. Melton, a television station owner for over 20 years, is keenly aware that the cameras are rolling and that reporters are watching his every move. He uses that free media to control the debate and keep the attention squarely focused on the things that matter to him most… crime, the plight of at-risk urban youth, the distribution of narcotics, truancy, and quality-of-life issues that affect economic development.
Melton, for all his experience with the media, is surprisingly thin-skinned when it comes to the media. He manages with very little nuance, delivering his messages through the media more like a sledgehammer than a chisel.
While the verdict is still out, Melton has several things going for him as mayor. First, the city will be a recipient of a great deal of once-in-a-lifetime, tax-advantaged GoZone investment from Hurricane Katrina. Second, he has assembled arguably some of the most capable managers, and once empowered sufficiently, they will likely serve Melton well. Finally, Frank has boundless energy and is willing to put his money where his mouth is. From counseling and even raising at-risk youth to personally leading interdictions in some of the toughest urban neighborhoods around, Melton has automatic credibility that his political and media detractors could only dream of.
Melton’s main challenge is to stop the 1,000 people-per-year net population loss that Jackson has experienced for over two decades, due mainly to high crime, marginal public schools and a declining job base. Impact has been made in the City’s focus on crime. Those in Jackson’s core who are most affected by crime are finally seeing effort from the city, even if it is in the most unorthodox of forms. Ultimately, Melton will be judged by his ability to stem the loss of his tax base and reinvigorate the city. Though certainly not a job that can be accomplished overnight, he is certainly pressing on the issues closest to him with that sense of urgency.
His shotgun approach and frenetic pace lie in stark contrast to his predecesor, but it is the only way he knows.