Will city continue recent cycle of hiring one-term mayors?

Published 12:06am Sunday, April 29, 2012

NATCHEZ — In order to have three candidates with mayoral experience on the ballot, a city must have a lot of living former mayors.

And in order to have a lot of living former mayors, a city must be tough on incumbents.

That’s a title Natchez seems to willingly accept.

Since 1988, Natchez has had only one mayor be re-elected to office — Larry L. “Butch” Brown in 1996.

Counting the man who led the city for 20 years prior to 1988, Natchez now has six living mayors.

It’s no major surprise, politically speaking, said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University.

Small-town government trends one of two ways, he said.

“It seems you either get elected many, many terms in a row or just one term,” Wiseman said. “You don’t see many two-term and out or three-term and out.”

Add in Natchez’s centuries old history and the divisions it is likely to create, and it’s understandable that voters will rarely back a mayor for long, Wiseman said.

It’s easy to look at election night returns in Natchez and predict whether or not the winner will be as successful in four years, former state Sen. Bob Dearing said.

“If it’s a close election, 200 votes or less difference, whoever is going to be mayor is going to have a tough time,” Dearing said.

He’s right, the numbers show.

In 2000, F.L. “Hank” Smith defeated incumbent Brown by only 224 votes.

In the 2004 primary, Phillip West defeated Smith by only 106 votes. In the general election that year, West edged out Republican Sue Stedman by only 100 votes.

In 2008, current mayor Jake Middleton defeated West by 223 votes.

In fact, the last time a significant vote count separated the two frontrunners in the race was in 1996 when Brown defeated West by 1,183 votes, winning re-election as an incumbent.

Former long-time alderman David Massey served with two one-term mayors and one two-term mayor.

“When you find someone to be the mayor in Natchez, it’s really hard to please more than 50 percent of the people,” he said. “It’s really like refereeing a football or basketball game.”

But it can be done.

Former Mayor Tony Byrne served in the hot seat for 20 years, from 1968 to 1988.

His secrets to success weren’t rocket science, Byrne said.

“My background was working for the chamber, and my philosophy was giving credit to the volunteers around you and knowing you are controlled by a board,” he said. “I felt like I could work with the boards, and if we had differences, we worked them out.

“I knew I’d need them next time if they didn’t vote for me that time. I don’t think (voters) enjoy seeing the board divided.”