Down to the wire|Last two tough it out two days before vote

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 31, 2009

Incumbent Mayor Laurence Leyens and Democratic challenger Paul Winfield spent all day Saturday canvassing Vicksburg neighborhoods, knocking on doors, shaking hands and talking about the issues in a final push to get out the vote before Tuesday’s general election.

“This is it for us. In terms of the big push, we’re all done,” said Leyens as he rang the doorbell of supporter Lucia Hawkins’ home on Farmer Street. “I’ve had about 100 people working with my campaign and helping me canvass over the past month. We’ve been to at least 5,000 houses, and we’re out of signs.”

Leyens said he will not canvass today, and will be in Jackson on Monday to meet with Gov. Haley Barbour to try to secure $15 million to help Vicksburg begin harnessing power from the Mississippi River with turbines on the bridges at the city.

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“This is more important,” said Leyens of the meeting with Barbour, adding “that project will never go forward if I am not in office.”

Winfield, on the other hand, said he plans to continue knocking doors through election day.

“When the chips fall, it’s going to be about who got out the vote,” he said. “I’ve been speaking about my vision for Vicksburg until I’m hoarse with anyone who will listen, and I’m going full throttle through Tuesday.”

Polls at 11 precincts in the city will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Both candidates said turnout will likely be the deciding factor in who takes office as mayor on July 6. The Democratic primary produced the lowest turnout in recent history, with just 3,165 votes cast — or 16.8 percent of the 18,480 names on voter rolls.

Winfield bested Gertrude Young, John Shorter and Tommy Wright in the race, garnering 1,915 votes — or 61.6 percent, enough to avoid a primary runoff. In the 2005 general election, Leyens took 3,959 — 55 percent — of the 7,166 total votes, while Democratic challenger and Warren County District 3 Supervisor Charles Selmon received 2,779 votes.

Leyens, 45, is seeking his third mayoral term as an independent. He was elected in 2001 in his first bid for public office, running on a platform to clean up the police department, beautify the city and increase economic development. This year, Leyens’ campaign slogan simply reads: “Results.” He is touting the police department under the leadership of Chief Tommy Moffett, whom he hired in October 2001, and reminding residents of the city’s infrastructure improvements and ongoing revitalization of downtown.

“I’m very proud of my record over the past eight years,” he said. “I feel like my plan for Vicksburg has been made very clear to the community, and I’m asking them to vote for me if they want to continue with the progress we’ve been making since I’ve been in office.”  

Though Winfield, 35, is not exactly new to politics, it is his first run at an elected position. He majored in political science at Ole Miss, is treasurer for the state Democratic party and was a delegate for President Barack Obama at the national convention last year. A practicing attorney, he is serving his fifth term as city attorney in Port Gibson and represented the Warren County Board of Supervisors from 2005 until 2008.

Winfield’s campaign has focused both on promoting a platform he calls HEAL — for it’s focus on housing, economic development, adequate policing and leadership — and criticizing the Leyens’ administration for catering to only a privileged portion of the city’s approximately 26,400 residents since 2001.

“The voters have a clear choice between someone who has worked real hard for a few people over the past eight years and someone who is trying to work for the people who have not been at the table,” he said. “I am going to be a mayor for everyone in this city regardless of what you can do for me, and I will work to make sure all of our residents are treated fairly and treated with respect.”

If elected, Leyens would be the first mayor to be voted into a third term since Johnny Holland, who served as mayor from 1957 until 1968. Leyens dismisses as political rhetoric claims that he works for only a select few in Vicksburg.

“Vicksburg is not for sale,” has been a staple slogan of Winfield’s since the day after his convincing primary win on May 5. He acknowledges Leyens’ clear ability to outspend him on the campaign trail, but said he doesn’t believe more money will equate to more votes on Tuesday. Leyens reported $100,819 in campaign contributions last week, compared to Winfield’s $56,373.99.

While Leyens and Winfield have not faced off in a debate heading into election day, some clear policy differences have emerged during the campaign. Winfield has cited Vicksburg as one of the most crime-ridden cities in Mississippi and began calling for Moffett’s job during his primary run. Leyens has stood by his choice for police chief and maintains the department has never been more professional or efficient.

Winfield has also criticized Leyens’ efforts to beautify the city with mass plantings of trees and flowers as a hollow attempt to give the appearance of progress without actually addressing the real issues facing the city’s residents.

“It’s not accurate to say you’ve cleaned up the city, when areas like Kings are still in squalor,” Winfield said. “That whole community has really been left out.”

Leyens contends the roughly $3 million his administration has spent on sprucing up the city’s corridors and neighborhoods since he’s taken office is a relatively small investment for an incalculable return when it comes to the city’s image. While he readily admits there still might be work to be done, Leyens contends — as he does on nearly every issue — the situation has been much improved since he’s taken office.

Code enforcement in the city has also been a divisive issue, and one all of the Democratic candidates singled out as needing an overhaul during the primary. While Leyens has said the city’s increased focus on code enforcement has been effective in ridding Vicksburg of much unwanted blight, Winfield claims the process is flawed and unfairly targets residents in the city’s underprivileged neighborhoods.

No Republicans filed in the mayoral race — the lone race on Tuesday’s ballot. Both North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman are unopposed in the election and will continue serving in their second and third terms, respectively. The annual salary for the mayor is $81,033.68 and for aldermen, $64,827.10.


Contact Steve Sanoski at