Smith, Costa take different approach to race for mayoral votes

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 4, 2000

One is known for his signature wave to passing motorists, and one is spreading the word through local media and flyers. They may have a different approach and a different message, but F.L. &uot;Hank&uot; Smith and Robert F. Costa are both working to get their names — and their platforms — known to voters.

Costa and Smith are heading into the home stretch of this year’s Natchez mayoral race. Smith, the Democratic nominee, and Costa, an independent, make up the only contested race on Tuesday’s general election ballot.

Their messages aren’t the only difference: while Costa had spent just more than $2,000 as of May 27 on his campaign, Smith had spent more than $18,000. But having already won both the Democratic primary and the runoff, Smith has been actively campaigning since April.

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But the candidates do have at least one similarity: Besides running for office, they are also trying to run downtown businesses at the same time. When not out meeting potential voters or recording campaign ads, Smith and Costa are also running a gift shop and antique store, respectively.

As Costa said with a grin, &uot;It’s insanity.&uot;

A day in the life of an independent

&uot;I love these antique rings,&uot; Eva Dunkley said as she and her daughter entered Costa’s Franklin Street store Wednesday.

But Dunkley and her daughter, Aleadra, weren’t just looking for jewelry at T.A.S.S. House Antiques.

&uot;We wanted to let you know we supported you,&uot; Eva Dunkley told Costa.

Aleadra said her biggest concerns with this mayoral race are industry, jobs and education. Having heard Costa’s message — his campaign theme is &uot;Hope is easy&uot; — at an NAACP candidates forum in April, Aleadra said she is impressed by his platform.

&uot;It would be good to have a God-fearing, honest politician,&uot; she said.

&uot;People can vote me in, but it’s still got to be God’s will to make it happen,&uot; Costa told her.

Costa said he wants to pursue industry and wants to increase Natchez’s tourism base.

&uot;The greatest asset we have is the river, and it’s not being used,&uot; he said. &uot;And we don’t have to go after smokestacks. We’re a tourist town; let’s get tourists. …

&uot;We can go after distribution centers; we can go after warehouses.&uot;

Costa told Dunkley he would also pursue asking the Legislature to add a tax to tour tickets at the city’s antebellum houses and other historic attractions.

On Wednesday, Costa also paid a visit to fellow antiques dealer J. Wesley Cooper.

Costa’s campaign strategy doesn’t seem typical — he hasn’t placed signs in neighborhood yards or visited door-to-door with potential voters. Instead, he is trying to reach people through newspaper, television and radio ads, flyers and old-fashioned word of mouth.

&uot;This is what I do,&uot; Costa said. &uot;I talk to people, I talk to business people. I don’t run around asking them to vote for me.&uot;

Costa said he enjoys the conversations he has with residents because they can give him ideas for improvements. If elected mayor, he would like to hold town hall meetings with residents and aldermen.

&uot;If you don’t listen, you don’t get the message,&uot; he said. &uot;I would like to have town hall meetings every couple of months. You’re liable to come up with some good ideas.&uot;

At Cooper’s Molasses Flats Antiques store on Main Street, Costa and Cooper chatted about changes they’ve seen downtown and throughout Natchez.

Cooper has lived in the city since 1948. Costa, who grew up in Massachusetts and California, has lived in Natchez for 22 years.

&uot;I’ve seen the community in its best times and its worst times,&uot; Cooper said. &uot;When I came to Natchez, you couldn’t get a vacant building downtown. The amount of vacant buildings now is really frightening.&uot;

Cooper told Costa he fears the city has ignored industrial prospects because some people have had the attitude that they don’t want the city to change.

&uot;This town has got a golden opportunity if they’ll just promote it for what it is,&uot; Cooper said.

Cooper, who said he is a friend of both Smith and Costa, did not say whom he would vote for, calling both qualified to lead the city. But he said he thinks Costa has more experience to be mayor.

&uot;Whoever wins, I’ll wish them the best,&uot; he said. &uot;I’ll certainly do everything in my power to support them.&uot;

One idea Cooper gave Costa is to expand the city’s trolley system. &uot;Make public transportation out of the trolleys,&uot; Cooper said, suggesting the city could pick up people downtown and take them to outlying shopping centers, and vice versa.

Costa said he thinks the suggestion is a good idea.

&uot;What I’m getting is a sharing of ideas,&uot; he said. &uot;I definitely want to hear people’s ideas.&uot;

Meeting and greeting

Hank Smith started his day at 6 Thursday morning, and by 7:15 was parked on U.S. 61 South, waving to residents as they drove to work.

&uot;I’m just trying to keep my face and my name out there,&uot; Smith said.

After visits with local media outlets to pay for advertising, Smith headed up and down Franklin Street, talking with merchants and asking for their support.

At some businesses, the right answer was easy to find.

&uot;I already know who you are and I’m going to vote for you,&uot; said Tower Loan employee Stephanie Jacobs the minute Smith stepped in the door to introduce himself.

At the Coffee Break Cafe, Margaret Hall told Smith the same thing many voters have told all of the candidates in this city election: She wants to more industry and more jobs.

&uot;Industry and schools; I just think they would go hand in hand,&uot; Hall said. &uot;If we would have more industry we would have more schools.&uot;

Next door at The Pampered Sole, manager Karen Linton told Smith she would like to see more emphasis on Franklin Street businesses.

Smith told her he has heard that complaint before.

&uot;We have over 40 vacant retail spaces downtown,&uot; he said. &uot;That’s one thing that still upsets me about the convention center — not that I’m against the convention center — but I’m still opposed to the retail space in the convention center. I think it’s wrong for the city to be in competition with tax-paying citizens.&uot;

In planning for the convention center, the city has discussed using the first floor as shallow retail and office space to help the design blend in with the rest of downtown.

At Dixie Furniture, Darrell Smith said he’d also like to see more jobs and industry.

&uot;I think that’s what everybody’s saying,&uot; he said. &uot;Half the people in this town think there’s too much emphasis on historic buildings, but it all works out for all of us.&uot;

Darrell Smith also asked the candidate whether there will be a new police chief if Hank is elected.

&uot;No comment,&uot; Hank said. &uot;I have the option of reviewing the performance of all the departments, but I haven’t thought much about it. The board of aldermen controls so much of that, and that’s the way it should be; that’s the way it was set up. I don’t even have a vote unless there’s a tie.&uot;

Later, Smith said he has heard several comments — both positive and negative — about Police Chief Willie Huff.

&uot;I’ve heard it both ways,&uot; Smith said. &uot;I’ve heard that (Huff has) done a good job, and I’ve heard dissatisfaction. Really and truly I haven’t given it any thought.&uot;

For the most part, Smith spent the lunch hour Thursday just reminding people to vote on Tuesday. Many he talked to along Franklin Street said they think he’s the likely winner — &uot;aren’t you our new mayor?&uot; one merchant even asked.

But Smith said he isn’t taking anything for granted.

&uot;We’re too close to slack off now,&uot; he said.