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The bridge

By By Buddy Bynum / editor
Oct. 27, 2002
In many ways, the race for District 4 supervisor is a test of political strength, and it's not necessarily the individual political strength of any of the candidates whose names will appear on the Nov. 5 ballot.
One of the four candidates Rickey A. Harris, John Nelson Jr., Joe Norwood and Melvin Wright will eventually take the office, stepping in to fill the unexpired term of the late Q.V. Sykes. And what follows is not an attempt to underrate their strengths or overexpose their weaknesses.
For the most part, voters in Lauderdale County District 4 live in a fairly compact piece of territory in the southwestern quadrant of the county. More accurately, most live within the boundaries of the city of Meridian, where they get three votes in local government  mayor, a city councilman and a member of the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors.
Streets in District 4 have names like Martin Luther King Jr., St. Paul, St. John, St. Andrews, St. Charles, St. Luke, Interchange, Manning, Valley and Paulding. It also has a little stretch of Poplar Springs Drive from about 22nd Street to 26th Street.
It has Merrehope, Highland Park, the Jimmie Rodgers Memorial and Frank Cochran Center.
A review of demographic characteristics of District 4 residents, echoed by each of the candidates in media interviews and public appearances over the past few weeks, shows lower income and higher poverty levels than other districts. Educational levels also lag.
A map shows that most of the city of Meridian falls into Lauderdale County District 4 or District 2. Both are overwhelmingly African American in a city whose total population is about 54 percent black. The city's black voting age population is about 52 percent.
And therein lies a very interesting political spectacle.
Not-so-behind-the-scenes, one of Lauderdale County's most interesting political personalities seems to be working for a favored candidate. District 2 supervisor Jimmie Smith, observers say, is supporting candidate Melvin Wright, who bills himself as "the Wright man for the job."
Word of Smith's interest in the race must be getting around.
At a public political forum the other night  a meeting of the Empowerment Committee, which Smith helped found Wright declared, "I am my own person." He talked about the pressing District 4 needs for good-paying jobs, an aggressive road paving program and stamping out drugs.
Only two of the candidates for supervisor appeared at the Empowerment Committee's forum, Wright and Harris. Nelson and Norwood had scheduling conflicts. It should be pointed out that all four did appear together Thursday night at a forum sponsored by the Lauderdale County Human Relations Commission.
As he responded to questions from the audience of about 30 people at the Empowerment Committee forum, Wright pledged to work with the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation and city officials to build a "safer and better place" in District 4. He talked of bridging the gap between the community and its public schools. He said he was undecided on whether county patrolman are necessary these days, undecided on eliminating the annual "green box" fee for senior citizens, and undecided on combining city and county governments.
Harris was more direct. A county patrolman who worked for Sykes, he favors retaining county patrolmen. Harris said he is against metro government, for eliminating the green box trash fee for senior citizens.
It seems to many observers that Smith's political interest in the District 4 race is larger than Nov. 5 and operations of the Lauderdale County board of supervisors.
It is no surprise that his name comes up frequently when the subject turns to the next election for mayor of Meridian in 2005. He has a lock on District 2 and many of the same city voters in District 4 he's communicating with now would have the opportunity to vote for him, should he decide to make that race.
Regardless of the outcome of the District 4 supervisor race, Smith seems to be positioning himself well for bringing together diverse elements of the city, county and the area's primary economic development agency, the EMBDC. He is articulate, thoughtful, well-respected and very well-versed on local issues. And politics. Presuming he runs for another term on the board of supervisors next year, he should win easily.
Can Smith help pull Melvin Wright to victory on Nov. 5? Does he even want to run for mayor? Both subjects are still open for speculation. But it appears to me that Jimmie Smith is in an extraordinary leadership position and has the potential to comfortably bridge political, racial, cultural and economic divides.