By Brad Flory
This sounds insane, but maybe Jackson is not a conservative city anymore.
Hear me out before drawing up the commitment papers.
When I moved to Jackson mumbly-something years ago, everyone said it was a socially and politically conservative town. True, the city elected a Democrat to the state House, but he was Mike Griffin, an anti-abortion Democrat (try finding one of those today) so conservative he was once wooed by Republicans to switch parties.
Young people I met ridiculed Jackson as a place where new ideas were unwelcome and, to quote a song of that era, it was hip to be square.
Political types considered it virtually impossible to be elected mayor of Jackson without cultivating support in the socially conservative east-side neighborhoods, where working-class sons and daughters of immigrants lived, and, more generally, without winning the Catholic vote citywide.
Now let’s jump to 2019 and Mayor Derek Dobies.
Dobies was re-elected to a second term on Nov. 5, which would be no big deal in any other city. It is a big deal in Jackson, where mayors are discarded like used tissues.
Until Dobies bucked the trend, the string of one-term mayors stretched back to 2007: Jerry Ludwig, Karen Dunigan, Martin Griffin, Jason Smith, and Bill Jors. Smith did not seek re-election, but the others were cast out lopsided margins. Griffin, now city treasurer, was a long-serving mayor from 1995 to 2006, but when he returned for a second tenure voters gave him just one term.
So what makes Dobies different than all those one-term mayors?
Forgive me if this sounds rude, but I don’t credit Dobies with exceptional personal magnetism. He is not the sort of politician who lights up a crowd by entering the room. And he has at least the usual share of strong critics.
By Jackson standards, Dobies raised big sums of money for both his mayoral campaigns. But I doubt money alone swings elections in a small community. To me, the cash he receives from outside interest groups most clearly suggests that Mayor Dobies is building groundwork to seek higher office.
The biggest thing that sets Dobies apart from other mayors, in my mind, is his unambiguously liberal track record.
Dobies pushed through the hugely controversial Non-Discrimination Ordinance as a City Council member in 2017, providing legal protections to gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Similar gay-rights ordinances were proposed for many years but never reached City Council for a vote because conventional wisdom said Jackson residents were too conservative to tolerate that sort of thing.
If the conventional wisdom was correct, Dobies would have been trounced when he ran for mayor nine months after the NDO was enacted. Instead, he took 55 percent of the vote to easily beat an incumbent who opposed the ordinance.
Mayor Dobies also has a tendency to favor expansion of city authority to create new programs, a political behavior usually ascribed to liberal activism. For example, he would require Jackson businesses to install exterior security cameras to help gather evidence to fight street crime.
Here’s the bottom line: The positions Dobies takes on social issues make him the most liberal mayor of Jackson that I can remember, and probably the city’s most liberal mayor ever.
Call me insane, but maybe he wins elections because that’s what most city voters want.