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Upcoming primary has three times the mayoral experience

NATCHEZ — It’s the game of the year, the decade, the century even.

The All-Star players are bouncing, fist pumping and yelling for support on the sidelines. The fans are in the arena, sporting team colors and fully focused — mentally and emotionally — on center court.

Tipoff is Tuesday, and the championship is on the line.

“These are like the past giants going at it, the Lakers, Celtics and Bulls all going at it,” unopposed Natchez Alderman Ernest “Tony” Fields said with enthusiasm in his voice.

“They are all on the same playing field — age-wise and experience — and I think the fans are really in it.”

That can’t happen, can it? The Lakers, Celtics and Bulls have never met on the basketball court all at once.

But it’s happening Tuesday in Natchez.

Three men, each with storied political careers, each that have answered to the title Natchez mayor, are vying for the title again, opposing one another.

Is it the match-up of the century?

Well, it’s certainly rare, said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Wiseman has spent nearly all of his adult life studying government in Mississippi and has been at MSU for 32 years.

He can’t recall any other time a Mississippi city had three candidates with previous mayoral experience running for the office, though he’s sure it has happened at some point — certainly less than a handful of times though, he was quick to say.

The players

Just like the 2001 NBA comeback was difficult for Michael Jordan, coming back to the mayor’s office is tough, Wiseman said.

“Arguably the toughest job in elected politics is mayor,” Wiseman said. “That is the one place that people identify where they can dump their problems and disgust. In many cases, people don’t understand the limits on the mayor. It’s where frustrations become very personal.”

Walking away from that — by your choice or the voters’ choice — and coming back after a time period away is something few people desire to do, Wiseman said.

In fact, a long list of former Natchez elected officials are quick to say they would never — and never have — considered going back after leaving. Former Mayor Tony Byrne, Fields, former two-term alderman and one-time mayoral candidate Sue Stedman and former alderman David Massey were among those who said what the current mayoral candidates are doing is tough.

Yet, Stedman pointed out that none of the mayoral candidates — Larry L. “Butch” Brown, Jake Middleton or Phillip West — ever truly stepped away from that public life.

Brown moved from leading Natchez to leading the Mississippi Department of Transportation. West stayed publicly involved through various community groups, including his service on the Natchez Inc. board. And Middleton has been either mayor or alderman for 20 years.

And none of the candidates ever stopped caring about Natchez, Fields said.

“All of the ones that are running, you can tell their love for Natchez,” he said. “They all were voted out before they could see their visions through and that has a lot to do with why they are running.

“I think it’s admirable.”

The fans

Voters are talking about this race, and most agree that turnout Tuesday will be high as a result.

But the uniqueness of the ballot makes the decision of the voter either easier or more difficult, depending on how you look at it.

“Everybody knows the candidates, unopposed Alderman Mark Fortenbery said. “You have three different men who have three different ideas.

“I think it’s great. You get your choice. You get three different flavors of ice cream.”

But not so fast, Stedman said, voters also know what makes this ice cream melt.

“Each one has done good stuff and each one has quite frankly stepped on some toes,” she said. “As far as most voters go — instead of looking at someone’s qualifications — in this case they’ve seen them in action and they’ll have definite opinions about candidate preference.”

It’s the public’s knowledge of the three men in the race that will show on Tuesday, Massey said.

“Everywhere you go, they are talking about this,” Massey said. “I think it will be a tremendous turnout on Tuesday.”

But not-so-fast, longtime politician former Sen. Bob Dearing said. Everyone is assuming multiple factors that may simply not prove to be true.

First, Dearing said, turnout is rarely what is should be.

“Getting folks out to vote is difficult,” he said. “I just see it being a very, very close race.”

In those races, Dearing said, it’s not necessarily a candidate’s experience, popularity or name recognition that wins at the end of the day.

“Those people who go door-to-door will win,” he said. “People like to see folks face-to-face.”

Secondly, Dearing said, Natchez isn’t the same Natchez it was when Brown or West were mayor.

“There are so many people that have moved out-of-town that were Natchezians,” he said. “And so many that moved into town. From Katrina, you got a lot of folks that were not here during the last election.”

And, just maybe, Fields said, the candidates aren’t the same either.

“I think they have all mellowed,” Fields said. “They have all really looked at their time in office and in retrospect see what they probably would have done differently.”

The winner of the Democratic primary will move on to face independent candidate Bill Furlow and Republican Bob Buie on June 5.