Skip to comments.Foes, fame just part of the job for black GOP mayor in Delta
Posted on 04/08/2002 6:53:56 AM PDT by Lance Romance
Foes, fame just part of the job for black GOP mayor in Delta
Tchula, Miss. --- Yvonne Brown, the mayor of this small bayou town, calls her police chief a "jerk." She tried to have him and the city clerk fired.
Silence greets Brown when she visits the cinderblock City Hall. Aldermen treat her like a pariah at board meetings. She gets hate mail and phone threats.
It's not easy being a Republican in nearly all-black, all-Democratic Tchula.
But Brown --- believed to be the only African-American, female, Republican mayor in the United States --- perseveres, certain that God and a majority of Tchula's voters depend on her to weed out corruption, incompetence and apathy in one of the poorest corners of the Delta.
"These people don't care if I'm a Republican or pro-life or pro-family," Brown says. "They want to know that you care about their lives in little Tchula. They want to know what you're doing for me."
But Brown is being used. Willingly.
Republican leaders in Mississippi and Washington increasingly trot her out to preach the GOP gospel to minority voters. They want the American electorate to know that the GOP is home to African-Americans other than Colin Powell, J.C. Watts and Condoleezza Rice.
"She's a big deal," says Jennifer Coxe, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
She's also a swirl of contradictions. An ex-Black Muslim, Brown is now a Southern Baptist with a storefront ministry. A product of the civil rights movement, she castigates the NAACP as "obsolete." A beneficiary of affirmative action, she opposes preferences for minorities.
Brown also despised Mississippi as a young woman and married at 19 to escape its backwardness. She now professes love for the Delta and a conviction that she needs Tchula, and Tchula needs her.
Jessie Banks isn't convinced.
"She is an opportunist," insists Banks, Tchula's "Democrat to the bone" mayor during most of the 1990s.
Brown defeated former Alderman Willie McLaurin 417-307 last summer. The campaign, with its accusations, intimidations and political hijinks, lived up to Mississippi's notorious electoral history. But Brown, who will turn 50 in September, doesn't shy from controversy.
Back to her roots
Bennie Rayford, Brown's father, who was a teacher and principal, had the nerve to ask the local school board during the days of segregation for a bus so black kids wouldn't have to walk miles to the one-room school. The board asked him to leave, so the Rayfords moved to Chicago, where Yvonne was born.
The family ended up in Toledo, Ohio. Brown's father gave Yvonne two college choices: Alcorn State or Jackson State, black universities in the Delta.
"He wanted me to have a 'Mississippi experience,' " Brown recalls. "I hated every moment at Jackson State. There was blood on the floors and the walls when I arrived for band camp. There had been a riot. They hadn't cleaned up anything."
She adds, "I began plotting how not to come back. So, I got married."
At 19, Brown and her husband began scatter-shotting across the country: Illinois, West Virginia, California, Michigan. In Oakland, Brown and her husband hooked up with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam.
Seven years, two children and one ex-husband later, she was back in Toledo working as a teacher's aide. A baby sitter turned her on to Christ in 1976. A family friend reintroduced her to Robert Brown, a friend since fifth grade. Both have defined Brown's life since.
A leading insurance company hired Brown "under a quota program." Other white-collar jobs followed until her husband decided to enter the ministry full time in 1991. The Browns moved to Mississippi.
"It was like the Third World --- the poverty," Brown says, about settling first in Jackson, then Tchula (population 2,332). "In my heart, I knew it was something special. It was just drawing us."
One day, she was asked to serve as a press conference backdrop for then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, who was announcing a women's business initative in Jackson. When the Republican governor asked the 50 or so assembled women to share their experiences, the room went silent.
Brown, eventually, raised her hand --- to Fordice's relief. "All I said was, 'Thanks for the $40,000 you gave to the sewing plant for job training for women.' "
Brown was soon rewarded with a spot on the state's board of community and junior colleges. Networking across Mississippi fueled her GOP fervor. she served as GOP secretary for Holmes County. Two years ago, George W. Bush, who was then governor of Texas, stumped for Robert Brown in a run for Congress.
Police Chief Sharkey Ford claims Yvonne Brown deceived voters during last year's mayoral campaign. "Most people were taken away by being given free food and led to believe there would be more things to come in the line of gifts. She also promised them jobs," he says.
The mayor acknowledges she gave away food: Sam the Fish Man accompanied Brown on her campaign rounds and dished up fried catfish sandwiches to prospective supporters. And Brown's ministry routinely gives food packages to down-at-the-heels Tchulans.
There were claims that Brown's food was poisoned; that people who voted for her would lose their homes; that supporters would be "sent back to the plantation." Brown says City Clerk Ann Polk and other officials politicked against her on city time and juggled voter-registration rolls. The mayor-to-be enlisted the support of the Secretary of State's office and a missionary who monitored the election.
Polk scoffs at Brown's assertions.
"If the election were held tomorrow she wouldn't win because she doesn't have the confidence of the citizens," Polk says.
The ugliness didn't end with Brown's victory. She asked a state investigator to audit Tchula's finances when a $78,000 deficit came to light. The investigation expanded when the police chief reported last fall that City Hall's front door had been kicked in and all guns stolen.
At her first board meeting, Brown tried to fire Ford and Polk, only to be overruled by Democratic aldermen.
"It's got the intellect of Mayberry here," Brown says, "but the corruption of New Orleans."
Brown knows, though, that her political star will fade if Tchula's fortunes don't rise.
"My goal as mayor is, basically, to restore hope and dignity to Tchula," Brown says. "That may seem impossible, but it's doable. It's kind of like, 'How do you eat an elephant?' One spoonful at a time."
Straight from the Leahy, Daschle and Gephart playbook.
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