Heckuva mayoral race

Published 10:47 am Saturday, January 28, 2012

At first glance, the electoral math looks tricky for Raystine Johnson, the Franklin city councilwoman and vice mayor who announced Thursday her intentions to run for mayor in May.

If historic voting patterns continue, Johnson would need a consolidated African-American vote and a handful of white votes to have any chance of upsetting veteran incumbent Mayor Jim Councill.

The mayoral candidacy of Greg McLemore, the combative Ward 3 city councilman, almost assures that the black vote will be split. Say what you will about McLemore — and plenty has been said about him on this page — but he is just two years removed from a landslide victory in majority-black Ward 3. There’s no reason to think his populist, champion-of-the-common-man message won’t again appeal to a few hundred voters, especially in impoverished neighborhoods.

A few hundred votes is all McLemore needs to be the spoiler of Johnson’s mayoral ambitions.

If I’m Jim Councill, however, I’m not taking anything for granted.

The wildcard factor is Johnson’s ability to draw significant white support, even with a longtime white incumbent in the race.

The vice mayor, a successful businesswoman and a steady influence on the City Council for the past decade, is precisely the kind of African-American candidate that middle-class and upper-class whites are comfortable casting their ballot for.

She is — in many ways other than skin color — the opposite of Councill, whose overreaching, micromanaging tendencies alienate council colleagues and some citizens.

Take, for example, the two candidates’ contrasting approaches to the city’s controversial flirtations with the Navy last winter on the use of Franklin Municipal Airport for pilot training.

Councill was “all in” from the beginning, singlehandedly pushing the project with a force never intended by the city’s founders 50 years ago when they devised a weak-mayor form of government — one in which the mayor presides at meetings, casts one vote and cuts a lot of ribbons.

Truth be known, Johnson was predisposed to agree with Councill early in the Navy discussions, but she never showed her cards. She listened carefully to the facts and to opinions on both sides. She ultimately concluded, like the majority of her council colleagues, that the project was ill-advised for Franklin.

Many voters have come to like Johnson for that kind of governing style. They see her as a moderating presence on a board that has become way too acrimonious in recent years.

All of that said, Johnson is far from the favorite in the race. Councill maintains solid support in many pockets, and his love of Franklin and passion to see her succeed are unquestionable. His mistakes are the product of zeal and strong convictions, not of anything sinister.

If I were a betting man, I’d put a little money on Councill at this stage, a full three months before the election.

Should be a dandy of a mayoral race.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is steve.stewart@tidewaternews.com.