What’s going on with Canton’s Democratic Party? City leaders have varying opinions.
CANTON, Miss. (WLBT) - For Marion Freeman, it’s like Jim Crow all over again.
The 78-year-old member of Canton’s Democratic Executive Committee remembers when Black people couldn’t vote … when African Americans were forced to endure near-impossible litmus tests for the chance to cast a ballot.
“They brought in a selected group of Black people to the courthouse to count jelly beans in a jar,” he said, sitting at a corner table at Merri Pennie’s Tea Room on the Square.
“You had to count jelly beans, recite the Constitution and know how many licks a sucker has,” said Tim Taylor, a Canton alderman sitting at the opposite end of the same table.
While this time it’s not counting beans or reciting the nation’s founding documents, Freeman, who is Black, said the voices of residents in his city are again being taken away.
And he says the one behind the new suppression is Mayor William Truly, the city’s two-term African American mayor.
Freeman and other members of the group that calls itself Canton’s “Legitimate Democratic Municipal Executive Committee” said the mayor is pulling out all the stops to stay in power, including setting up his own Democratic committee to oversee the party primaries.
Freeman said the effort has stirred confusion, something the mayor is using to not only stay in office but to pack the board of aldermen with his political allies.
“The reason he did this was to muddy up the waters,” Freeman said. “He knew our committee was not going to run the election the way he wanted.”
He also believes there is an element of racism on the mayor’s part. The chair of the LDMEC, John Scanlan, is white.
Attorneys for candidates disqualified by the LDMEC have labeled Scanlan as a Republican and a Trump supporter. In an early March court case, Scanlan testified that he was conservative.
Ed Blackmon, an attorney for Mayor Truly, said he has documents proving that Scanlan is a Republican, has voted in the Republican primary and has donated to Republican candidates.
“If you only vote in Republican primaries and give to the Republican candidates, in my mind, you’re a Republican,” he said.
Blackmon went on to say the one causing chaos was Scanlan, who had refused to call executive committee meetings and had ostracized Natwassie Truly, the mayor’s wife and an elected member of the LDMEC.
“Wassie attempted to contact Scanlan to have a meeting in preparation for the upcoming primary. He refused to take any calls or respond to her. Believing that nobody was going to do anything to prepare for the election, she consulted with (Democratic) party leadership on how she could proceed, with her believing at the time she would be the only one participating,” Blackmon said.
William Truly also claims that it’s Scanlan who was trying to oppress Black votes. “Why would (a) Republican want to be part of a Democratic committee, except to create chaos and confusion?” he asked. “And he almost did. He said his intent was to get rid of the ‘dark side,’ which to me, means African-American voters.”
Canton, is a majority Black city with approximately 13,500 people. A GOP candidate has not won Canton’s top spot in years. And races for the top position have not even been close.
In 2017, Truly was elected with 75 percent of the vote. In 2013, Arnel Bolden, also Democrat, was elected mayor with 92 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Truly said he didn’t need the Democratic committee to win the race. “I’ve been here since 1972. I’ve delivered (countless) babies,” he said. “I’ve crossed the lives of so many people since I’ve been in Canton. People know who they want and who they believe in.”
Canton is no stranger to election drama. Multiple city officials were indicted following the 2017 elections, including some who had been charged with voter fraud and conspiracy.
This time around, there are two Democratic executive committees, the one chaired by Scanlan known as the LDMEC, and the second one chaired by Natwassie Truly, which Scanlan claims is “illegitimate.”
William Truly contends that the committee led by his wife is the legitimate one, and that she had to form it because Scanlan and Freeman had refused to move forward in preparing for the upcoming elections.
With multiple committees, multiple ballots were submitted to the Madison County Circuit Clerk for consideration, with candidates disqualified on some and not disqualified on others.
The matter eventually had to be hammered out in Madison County Circuit Court.
“They figure if they baffle us with enough (expletive), they’ll stay in office,” Scanlan said.
Scanlan said the mayor wants to pack to the board to control the millions of dollars expected to come in as part of federal COVID-19 relief.
The American Rescue Plan includes $1.8 million for the city. Millions more could come through the state, in part, to help Canton shore up its water system.
To spend that money without interference, the mayor would have to have support from the board. Canton has a strong board-weak mayor form of government. Mayoral appointments, as well as any contracts entered into, have to be signed off on by the board.
The current mayor and board have had numerous fights over the years, including several related to the 2021 elections.
However, the mayor never signed the request and at a press conference last week, he told reporters that Canton was no longer seeking the county’s help.
So far, the board of supervisors has refused to take over the election, citing infighting in the city.
“If they need better training, we could do that. If they need resources, we could do that,” District 2 Supervisor Trey Baxter said. “But (because of) infighting, I don’t see that as being our responsibility.”
The mayor also disagreed with the board of aldermen on other election-related issues. According to city documents, Truly vetoed a board resolution recognizing the Scanlan committee as the official executive committee, as well as a resolution saying that Ward One Alderman Candidate Colby Walker had not qualified to run for office. (Walker had been disqualified on one of the ballots submitted to the circuit clerk.)
Scanlan is calling out state leaders for not helping sort out the mess. “This is a hot potato the secretary of state, the governor, and the attorney general does not want,” he said.
He said Mississippi is likely not getting involved because it doesn’t want the federal government to intervene.
He pointed to the fact that the secretary of state’s office accepted the results of the Democratic primaries, even though questions remained about the legitimacy of the committee members that signed off on the results.
In an April 16 letter, Watson said that his office could not accept the primary results because “it appears that at least two of the persons who signed the recapitulation report were not properly appointed members of the (DMEC).”
The letter was addressed to committee member Natwassie Truly.
Documents obtained by WLBT show that she formed a second committee in January.
Watson questioned the formation of that committee but backed off that stance days later after his office was informed that the members in question had been reappointed following state statute.
“On April 20, the Canton Democratic Executive Committee met and appointed individuals to fill vacancies on the committee,” Assistant Secretary Kendra James said in an email. “After that meeting, the official recapitulation report was resubmitted with the appropriate number of signatures.”
Scanlan says that most members that signed on, though, had still not been properly appointed because they had not been voted on by a majority of existing LDMEC members.
The Democratic executive committee is charged with overseeing party primaries. Duties include everything from qualifying candidates to hiring and training poll workers to certifying election results.
Members are elected every four years along with other municipal officials. In 2017, five individuals - Scanlan, Freeman, Truly, Nan King, and Kathryn Irving - were elected. King and Irving have since resigned.
Minutes from a Jan. 26, 2021 meeting of the LDMEC, show that Scanlan and Freeman had appointed L. Elaine Blair and Charlleis Lovett to fill those vacancies. Natwassie Truly was not in attendance.
This is where things get confusing.
Days after the LDMEC meeting, a special public meeting was held to appoint a temporary committee.
That meeting, which was on Jan. 30 at the Canton Multipurpose Complex, was advertised in the Madison County Journal on Jan. 7, 14 and 21.
The advertisement shows that the Madison County Democratic Executive Committee had called a meeting of all Democratic electors (voters) to appoint the temporary board to oversee the primaries.
The advertisement was signed off on by Vicki Slater, a member of the county committee.
Slater said she signed off on the public notice because an officer with the county committee was required to. She said she had not kept up with what had been going on in Canton since, and referred questions to Blackmon.
Mississippi Code Section 23-15-313 mandates that if no executive committee exists, members of a political party in a city can come together at a public forum and appoint a temporary committee to oversee elections.
If a committee does exist but has vacancies, remaining members may make temporary appointments to fill those vacancies.
Despite having a committee in place, Truly hosted the meeting at the multipurpose center, and appointed four new members to the board.
Those members included: L.C. Slaughter, Robert Estes, Stephen Blackmon, and Don Cole. Slaughter is a former member of the Canton Municipal Utilities Authority board of commissioners and was forced to repay the state nearly $20,000 he used to cover personal legal expenses, according to the state auditor. Blackmon is the son of Ed Blackmon.
Ed Hutchinson, a consultant to the LDMEC, said he attended the Jan. 30 meeting and called a point of order. “I told them they were not allowed to do what they were doing, because there was a committee already (in place),” he recalled. “They mayor shut me down.”
Mayor Truly, who was present at the Jan. 30 gathering, moved to table Hutchinson’s point of order, a move that was approved on a 13 to 2 vote.
Seventeen people were in attendance. Following the approval of the slate of committee members, the meeting was adjourned.
On Feb. 1, a letter from Natwassie Truly was hand-delivered to then-City Clerk Allyson Majors saying that four members had been appointed to fill vacancies on the committee.
Mayor Truly said that the committee was formed because the duly elected committee had never met. “By law, the committee is supposed to submit information to the clerk that this is the chair and these are the officers,” he said. “Scanlan never did that and he showed Feb. 5 saying he was the chair.”
Feb. 5 was the qualifying deadline for candidates seeking municipal office. The executive committee chair was supposed to pick up qualifying information and registration fees that afternoon. The committee is then supposed to review that information to ensure candidates seeking office meet party qualifications.
Scanlan had attempted to pick up candidate information that day, but the documents had already been turned over to Natwassie Truly.
Members of the Scanlan committee contacted Mississippi Democratic Party to step in. However, Scanlan said at the time Chair Tyree Irving did little more than offer to mediate the situation.
“He doesn’t follow any laws,” Freeman said, referring to the mayor. “He’s just like Mr. Trump. The only difference is the pigmentation of his skin.”
On Feb. 2, the Canton Board of Aldermen approved a resolution recognizing the Scanlan committee as the legitimate Democratic committee, a measure that Truly vetoed.
“Governing authorities of municipalities in the state of Mississippi have no authority to choose who it wants to run its primaries by vote, ordinance, contact, or agreements,” he said in his veto message.
Days later, on Feb. 11, Scanlan submitted a letter to the circuit clerk saying that William Truly, Natwassie Truly, Ward 1 Alderman Rodriquez Brown, Ward 2 Alderman Fred Esco, and Ward 6 candidate Monica Gilkey had not qualified to run for office.
Those candidates filed suit in Madison County Circuit Court seeking to have their names added back to the ballot.
The Trulys, Brown, and Esco were disqualified based on residency requirements. Gilkey was disqualified because someone else submitted qualifying papers on her behalf.
In their complaints, Esco and Brown argued that their constitutional rights had been violated because they had not been given a chance to respond to the committee’s concerns.
“Had the committee requested, or had it conducted the statutorily required hearing, Petitioner Esco could have provided additional irrefutable evidence of his residency,” his attorney wrote at the time.
Testimony given during that case raised additional questions about the legitimacy of the Truly committee.
Democratic Chairman Irving, for instance, said the appointments were likely not made according to state statute. “What the statute says is the Municipal Democratic Executive Committee,” he said from the witness box. “It doesn’t say one member of the committee. It doesn’t say a second member of the committee. It says the committee meets and fills any vacancy.”
Scanlan, meanwhile, testified as to why the candidates had been disqualified. As for the mayor, he said the addresses listed on his qualifying papers and voter registration form did not match.
“[His] statement of intent states that he lived on Cathy Circle... I don’t remember the number offhand, but his voter registration was for the Links, south of town.”
He later told 3 On Your Side that Esco owned an expensive house out of town but claimed to live in a rented house in Canton along with seven relatives.
As for Brown, Scanlan said “he claims to live with his grandmother and had “not presented any evidence of where he lives - no utility bill... no car tag.”
Brown says he was disqualified because the DMEC looked up information on the wrong Rodriquez Brown. He said he had initially appealed that decision to the committee, but his appeal only made it to Natwassie Truly, not the full body.
“The document never (made it) to the proper board. I presented it to the board Ms. Wassie was chairing, because at the time... she was presenting herself as the (legitimate) board chair,” Brown said, sitting in the Tea Room.
“That’s what confuses everybody because she’s presented herself both ways. There’s a direct conflict of interest. She is the wife of the sitting mayor who has put up a slate of candidates to replace these people,” Hutchinson added. “How the heck should she be deciding things when she has a vested interest to rule against you? That’s not right.”
Judge Lamar Pickard, a special judge appointed to oversee the case by the Mississippi Supreme Court, ruled that all five candidates who brought complaints could appear on the ballot.
Following the trial, the state Democratic Party sent in an election integrity committee to help with elections. The city paid $21,000 for the service.
The primary was April 6.
Esco, Brown, and Ward Five Alderman Tim Taylor lost their bids for re-election, and all three have challenged the results with the LDMEC. Challenges were heard by the committee Monday.
Results were initially certified by Truly, Harris, Cole, and Slaughter. However, Scanlan, Freeman, and Charlleis Lovett have refused to sign. A fifth member, L. Elaine Blair, signed the report but later recanted her signature.
The second recapitulation report was received by the secretary of state on April 21, after the Truly appointees were reappointed per state statute, officials in Watson’s office said.
Blair told WLBT she did have concerns about the election but wanted to do what the judge wanted the committee to do.
“I have knowledge of various instances where the primary was not conducted correctly in Ward 5,” she said in a one-page statement. “The primary conducted on April 6 had such problems that it should be redone.”
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