SADOW: Next Ellis Term May Feature Choppy Waters

Fresh off a successful four years and convincing reelection, Monroe independent Mayor Friday Ellis looks to face a different – and possibly less tractable – set of challenges through 2028.

This week, he took the oath for a second term, along with new terms for Republican Councilors Doug Harvey and Gretchen Ezernack and Democrat Juanita Woods. In 2020, Ellis, who is white, shocked the political world when in a city with black voting majority and Democrat voting majority as a novice candidate he defeated black long time mayor Democrat Jamie Mayo.

Proving this no fluke, he overcame Mayo again earlier this year, more than doubling up on him with 63 percent of the vote, an improvement of about 10 percent in the rematch. Ellis credited his victory to taking largely a service-oriented approach deemphasizing ideology that focused on attention to constituents, which seemed to resonate among black voters as he captured at least a quarter of the vote in a number of supermajority black precincts.

But Mayo allies will try to have the last laugh from the past election cycle. Knocking off former Councilor Carday Marshall was Rodney McFarland and Verbon Muhammad did the same to former Councilor Kema Dawson. All are black Democrats.

McFarland and Muhammad both serve as spiritual leaders, the former a Baptist and the latter a Muslim, and both once served on the Monroe City School Board. They also have demonstrated a similar trait in politics: willingness to be combative on ideological grounds. McFarland has served as a party activist and Muhammad is a member of the Nation of Islam who claims Louis Farrakhan as a political inspiration, not exactly known as a unifier. (Mayo once honored Farrakhan on behalf of the city, which may have soured some voters on him.)

Acting as a unifier is what Ellis has tried to be. For his major agenda items, he almost always could rely upon Ezernack and Harvey and usually on those occasions could pick up a vote from Dawson or Marshall, with Woods most consistently in opposition, to get his priorities passed.

That now seems far less likely with the newcomers on board. They began attending City Council meetings regularly after their elections and at several intervals protested the Council’s taking action on items such as appointments, contracts, and other fiscal matters until they were seated, with McFarland doing most of the complaining. The repartee suggested they would have provided decisive votes against many of Ellis’ initiatives in this regard, extending divisive rhetoric noticeable in their campaigning.

During these they claimed their districts were being shortchanged and state and local Democrat officials came out for them over the incumbents of the same party. While McFarland won in the general election running a mildly negative campaign, when he and Muhammad teamed up to push the latter past Dawson in the runoff, Muhammad’s campaigning turned wildly negative, essentially calling Dawson a stooge for a Republican former Pres. Donald Trump agenda. (Key supporters of Ellis generally have come from the ranks of Republicans.)

That bodes ill for Ellis’ strategy of evenhanded governance, and for now there can be expected increasingly pitched battles over budget priorities and appointments. He does, however, have one important means of leverage against what looks to his being on the short end of a 3-2 council division: he can veto ordinances, which require four votes to override. That means the Woods-McFarland-Muhammad troika can’t do anything substantial unless Ellis agrees.

Thus. Ellis will have to show even sharper negotiating skills to move forward his priorities, and may have to reconcile letting stuff through that doesn’t enthuse him. The new alignment puts at risk his efforts to convey an attitude that city government won’t let bickering get in the way of bringing economic development and law and order to underserved areas of the city, particularly the southside bases of the Council Democrats. If they insist on stridency that misunderstands the mandate Ellis has citywide, it might be a long and contentious four years.

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