By Robbie Ward and Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Jason Shelton took a decisive victory Tuesday to win election as Tupelo’s first Democratic mayor in 28 years.
Shelton, 37, an attorney, defeated Republican Ward 2 Councilman Fred Pitts, 70, by capturing nearly 60 percent of the vote and overcoming a concerted effort by the state Republican Party to hold on to the mayor’s office in a GOP stronghold.
Shelton won 10 of the city’s 13 voting precincts, resulting in leads in six of Tupelo’s seven wards, including Pitts’ Ward 2. He’ll succeed Jack Reed Jr., who did not seek re-election to a second four-year term.
City Clerk Kim Hanna said minor glitches in the election led some voters to vote by affidavit, which will be counted this morning. However, nothing related to the election would overturn Shelton’s hefty margin of victory.
Throughout the race, Shelton faced partisan barbs from Pitts, along with negative, anonymous phone push polls and emails attacking him for his occupation as a trial attorney and his contributions to national Democratic candidates and causes. In the final days of the campaign, state Republican leaders visited Tupelo to endorse Pitts and the state party sent negative mailers to Tupelo voters.
Pitts distanced himself from the push polls and state party mailers, saying he had nothing to do with them.
Shelton described the attacks as untrue and unbecoming to a Tupelo campaign. He continued to tout his policy platform ranging in topics from urban renewal to openness in government to low taxes.
“The citizens of Tupelo have sent a message to Jackson and every other outside group that they can leave their ugly politics elsewhere because we don’t do it here,” Shelton said at his victory party at Romie’s Grocery.
“Let’s have some fun tonight, and let’s do some great things in Tupelo, Miss., for the next four years,” he said.
Considered a longshot at winning the mayor’s race when he qualified to run during the final week to register in March, by the end of the race, Shelton was considered the frontrunner.
He styled himself as the fiscal conservative in the race, agreeing with Reed on some issues but disagreeing with some of the spending policies pursued by Reed and supported by Pitts.
Shelton’s primary focus of his campaign involved attracting more younger, middle-income families back to Tupelo, a city that saw limited growth in the recent census while some surrounding communities in Lee County grew at a significantly larger rate.
A traditionally reliable GOP stronghold, Tupelo’s mayoral election raised eyebrows all the way to Jackson, where the state Republican Party identified the municipal election as among the top four priorities during this year’s election cycle.
Tupelo isn’t the only sore spot for the Mississippi Republican Party. Each of its other priorities – Meridian, Starkville and Ocean Springs – was won by Democratic candidates.
A spokesman with the state GOP did not return a request for comment late Tuesday night.
Pitts shared tears, hugs and handshakes with about 100 supporters at The Icehouse in downtown Tupelo after conceding the mayor’s race Tuesday.
“The voters have spoken,” he said, clearly emotional after speaking to the crowd. “I hope our mayor and city council will continue to work together.”
Pitts also said he would help in any way and would continue to be involved in the community.
He said he had no more political aspirations after his defeat.
“I’ve served my time; I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for this community,” he said.
Asked if he felt the race became more about personalities than issues, Pitts said, “I think some people didn’t always seek out all the truth and didn’t look down the road.”
He also said he would not have changed how he ran his campaign.
“We ran a good, clean campaign. ... if I had to start over, I wouldn’t do anything different.”
Pitts said he’ll take some time off for a vacation, “then July 1 it’s back to work.”