Vicksburg chooses Leyens

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 6, 2001

Mayor Robert Major Walker, left, stands outside City Hall after learning that his re-election bid had been rejected by political newcomer Laurence E. Leyens. At right, Leyens hugs his father, Louis Leyens, after hearing he had been elected to a four-year term as mayor. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN/C. TODD SHERMAN)

[06/06/01] The cheers from the B.B. Club could be heard a block away at City Hall as unofficial election results indicated Laurence E. Leyens had won the contest and would become Vicksburg’s mayor.

Meanwhile, at the campaign headquarters of Mayor Robert Walker, the incumbent prayed with his supporters and thanked them for their help during the past four years.

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Unofficial results gave Leyens the win by 670 votes out of the 8,290 ballots cast in what was a fractious day of balloting at some precincts. The margin was greater than affidavit ballots that have not yet been counted, affirming that Leyens, 37, will lead the city governing board starting in July.

In the North Ward, incumbent Gertrude Young, the Democratic nominee, won her her third term in office by defeating independent candidate Sylvester Walker. In the South Ward, Republican nominee Sidney H. Beauman Jr., defeated three challengers to win his first elected position as Vicksburg alderman.

Leyens celebrated with supporters at the B’nai B’rith Literary Club, a historic Jewish night club used for about 40 years as Vicksburg’s police department. Upon his return to the city after working in insurance in California, Leyens bought and restored the structure down Walnut Street hill from City Hall.

The first-time candidate took 4,271 votes to Walker’s 3,601. Former Mayor Joe Loviza had 331 votes while Eva Marie Ford received 87.

Speaking to a room full of people including Loviza and Ford, Leyens said there would be a lot of work ahead beginning with the inauguration.

“This was the easy part,” Leyens said. “The next four years is going to be tough. Please don’t leave me now.”

Even before putting his name on the ballot, Leyens began telling Vicksburg residents that the most important change he wants to make at City Hall is getting the community involved in city government. He told supporters that it would be his top priority after taking office.

“The one message that I want to tell you is that our message is real,” Leyens said.

He repeated his campaign promise to have monthly meetings with residents in different neighborhoods to discuss the problems unique to each. He also promised his administration will be inclusive.

Loviza, 61, who defeated Walker in 1993 and was defeated by Walker in 1997, said that he probably will not run again. Loviza shook hands with each of his opponents in the election and congratulated Leyens on his victory.

“I’m a good loser like I’m a good winner, but I would have preferred to have gotten more votes,” Loviza said.

Ford, 63, said she would continue to work for the betterment of the city as a private citizen but it is too soon to tell if she will run for public office again.

“I think it was a lot of fun and a good race,” Ford said.

Walker, 57, who was Vicksburg’s first black mayor, said at a press conference at City Hall that he wishes the next mayor the very best, but would not speculate on his own future.

“It’s been a great opportunity to serve the city that I love very much,” Walker said.

Walker challenged election results in 1993 when he lost his bid for re-election to Loviza by 116, but would not say if he will contest the outcome of Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s over,” Walker said. “The election is over and the campaign is over.”

Problems at polling places were reported throughout the day beginning almost as soon as the precincts opened. On two occasions, Vicksburg police were called to defuse heated debates at polling places.

The first problems were reported at the City Auditorium precincts early in the day over poll watchers. Later, police were called to the American Legion precincts after polls closed when tempers flared as poll watchers began challenging absentee ballots.

Ballots cast in advance of the election remain sealed until after polls closed. Poll managers then verify the names of the voters and count the ballots in the totals. Poll watchers for Leyens challenged ballots they said were cast by voters who no longer live at addresses in the city, but the final decision to reject or count the vote is up to the poll managers.

“There’s only about 200 votes in dispute so I don’t think it will make a difference,” Leyens said.

Other problems reported during Tuesday’s voting included a power outage at the Kings precinct, a broken voting machine at the City Auditorium that had to be replaced midway through the day and concerns at many voting places about how close campaign workers could stand or sit.

Leyens’ supporters at the Auditorium and American Legion had been asked to move campaign signs further away from the entrance to the polling places. State law requires literature for candidates to be no closer than 150 feet to precincts, but Leyens said his people were within the legal limits.

In the end, Leyens said he was not worried about any challenges to his victory.

“Vicksburg is going to be open for business,” Leyens said.

The mayor is the chief executive officer of the city and has one vote out of three on the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. The mayor is paid a salary of $56,531.

Walker’s defeat Tuesday is the third consecutive election where the incumbent lost. The last time a full-term incumbent won re-election was in 1985.

Walker’s elective career includes winning the District 3 seat on the Warren County Board of Supervisors followed by a 1988 victory in a six-person special election field to become Vicksburg’s first black mayor. He was then re-elected to a full term before losing to Loviza and being returned in his biggest-ever win in 1997.

Including primaries, Walker, a historian and college professor, has been on ballots 11 times and has been the winner nine times.