The Worst Mayor in America

Meet Jackson, Mississippi's Frank Melton.


Last September, my newspaper reported that on August 26, 2006, Jackson, Mississippi Mayor Frank Melton had taken an entourage of police officers and teenagers (some with criminal records) to a duplex in a poor neighborhood. Stating that the duplex was home to drug dealers, Mayor Melton then directed the odd mix of cops and teenagers to destroy the house with sledgehammers.

Strange as it may seem, none of this surprised us.

This is just our mayor—"Frank," as the former television executive and ousted director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics insists that everyone call him. Most people, including a doting mainstream media, do.

Even before he was elected mayor, Frank Melton was known around Jackson as a loose cannon with little regard for civil liberties or the U.S. Constitution. He was adept at saying what people want to hear. The African American TV executive from Texas defeated the capital city's first black mayor in 2005 by absurdly promising to rid the city of crime and "thugs" (clearly referring to the black variety) within 90 days of taking office (yes, we still have crime). Former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., the man Melton defeated, was quieter, more methodical, and more focused on issues like development and infrastructure, and balancing the city's budget. He sat back and allowed a professional police chief do the job of crime fighting—and presided over a steady drop in crime over his eight-year tenure.

In his campaign, Melton claimed that Johnson's administration doctored the crime statistics, but offered little in the way of evidence. It didn't matter. Melton won the Democratic primary with 63 percent of the vote.

Since he came to Jackson from Tyler, Texas, to run WLBT-TV in 1984—leaving his wife and biological children behind—Melton had constructed a persona for himself as a tough-on-crime folk hero. He bought billboards where he plastered mugshots of accused drug dealers. Once a week, he'd end his TV station's newscast with a "Bottom Line" rant, often focusing his ire on some public official who had challenged his vigilantism and do-it-yourself justice system (Melton, for example, has often allowed young men wanted for serious crimes to turn themselves in to him and stay at his home rather than bring them to the police).

Going all Buford Pusser on an occupied duplex might have been extreme, but it's par for the course for Mayor Melton, whom no one will ever accuse of lacking for a sense of drama. Among our mayor's greatest hits:

• He once stopped a school bus on a busy interstate because he "needed a hug" from the kids inside.

• He's been known to strap weapons to his chest and leg that he has no authority to carry or conceal, then wear them in public.

• He regularly suits up and leads SWAT-style "raids" on homes, businesses, and even roadblocks in busy traffic—without cause or a warrant.

• He has tried to close down the city's strip clubs for moral reasons, despite no authority to do so.

• He once bulldozed an elderly woman's house, promising to build her a better one. He then forgot to build it.

• He recruited a team of kids to torch a row of dilapidated shotgun houses, without clearance or first turning off the utilities.

• He keeps a house full of young men, including minors and/or felons, without having the proper foster-parent credentials.

• He once hid two of those young men wanted for armed robbery from the district attorney and county sheriff, driving away with one of them in his car after deputies stopped them and tried to serve a warrant on the young man (who later assisted with the duplex demolition).

This list is not comprehensive. The duplex demolition, however, got Melton in more trouble than usual. The rental property Melton sent his army of young drug warriors to destroy was owned by a single mother who rented it to a young schizophrenic man with no history of drug-dealing. The district attorney charged—and a grand jury indicted—Melton and his two police bodyguards of multiple felonies, ranging from burglary to directing a minor to commit a felony. At the same time, the state attorney general charged Melton with violations of various gun safety laws as well , including wearing a weapon in church and carrying a concealed weapon on a university campus; Melton pled down to misdemeanors on those charges. Still, a notable achievement for one of the founders of "Mayors Against Illegal Guns."

Melton and his defense team—led by a conservative former mayor of Jackson who is also suing the city in an annexation battle, and the attorney who defended Byron de la Beckwith (the man who murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers)—ratcheted up the mayor's paternalistic populist appeal by pushing the meme that the duplex destruction was part of the mayor's passionate war on crime. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Melton's people painted the place as a "crackhouse," and his antics little more than a creative effort at getting another drug dealer off the street.

The lawyers convinced a mostly African American jury that this black mayor was doing what nobody else had done in Jackson: He was cleaning up crime in the inner city. They instructed the jury that Melton had no "evil intent," which they insisted had to be shown in order to convict Melton or his bodyguards, despite objections from prosecutors.

Melton the folk hero might have gone a bit too far, they argued, but he was just being "Frank." He meant well. All were acquitted, inspiring outrage at the NAACP, the ACLU and even the NRA. To Melton's supporters, it didn't matter. The mayor had targeted a small-time drug user (not a dealer). That he didn't find any drugs, that he'd thumbed his nose at the rights of citizens and property owners—these were beside the point. Mayor Melton was leading a war against the drug scourge in Jackson, they'd say. That was what mattered.

Oddly enough, under Melton's leadership the Jackson Police Department didn't report a single arrest for selling drugs in 2006. So while Melton basks in the glory of his own extra-legal vigilantism, he really isn't doing much to fight the drug war by legal means.

The Department of Justice is currently putting witnesses—including the police chief and city attorney—before a grand jury to testify about the mayor's role in the duplex demolition, in addition to other incidents, including a Melton-led warrantless midnight raid on a nightclub later the same night. On that raid, with his hand still bandaged and bloodied from broken glass at the duplex, Melton stood in the middle of the club and yelled, "Close this motherfucker down!"

When manager Tonari Moore—the son of the club's owner—began videotaping the entourage, Melton's bodyguards put him in handcuffs. When they got him outside to the Mobile Command Center—the tricked-out RV that Melton uses for his midnight raids—witnesses say several teenage boys jumped off Melton's bus to beat the handcuffed Moore.

On April of last year the mayor allowed me to accompany him on a ride-along for his Sunday night raids. My photographer and I first went to Melton's home to meet up with him, Police Chief Shirlene Anderson (a timid, ineffectual leader whose purpose seems to be to enable Melton to play cops-and-robbers), and other police officers. Melton invited me into his bedroom as he finished preparing for the raid. This room was huge, sparsely furnished with a table for meetings at one end, and an unmade king-size bed at the other. The room was exactly the same size as the Olympic-sized swimming pool in the basement underneath it—a pool where Melton has for years brought boys from the inner city to teach them to swim.

After buckling his shoulder holster into place, he asked me if I wanted to see his collection of badges—none of which he has any legal authority to wear. He grabbed an old one from a brief stint he did as a part-time county deputy and put it on the collar of his Abby, his drug-sniffing dog. "He's putting a badge on a dog," one of his mentees said to another, rolling his eyes.

During that ride-along and another the following Sunday, I watched Melton spontaneously park the RV, get off and walk into traffic with Abby the dog, then conduct impromptu, completely random drug searches of passing vehicles. He then turned to me and said with a snicker: "Donna, you know what? I run Jackson. I do it in a weird way, but I run Jackson."

I watched Melton and his bodyguards—with submachine guns—marched into private homes, walking past bewildered-looking tenants too afraid to challenge him. He beat on one woman's door with the butt of his shotgun. All of this happens in the poorest parts of the town, by the way, leading one black newspaper here, the Mississippi Link, to call him the new Bull Connor, quite an accomplishment for a black mayor.

Later, I hid behind a tree while Melton's entourage pushed into a private home in the middle of the night because a man down the street told them he had bought "pot" there. They walked through the living room, flashed lights all around, then gathered the three young people who lived there onto the porch to lecture them about the dangers of drugs.

One of them was the girlfriend of one of the tenants. Melton made two shocking statements to her, delivered with a joking tenor: "Why you are in there sleeping with him if he ain't got no damn job?" came first, followed by, "What time are y'all gonna' fuck so I can come up in here and catch you? … I want to make life miserable for you."

Two years into his tenure, and amid what appears to be a wide-ranging FBI investigation—including civil rights violations, bribery and other forms of corruption—support for Melton within the city limits is finally waning. But that may have more to do with mismanagement of the city budget than his disregard of the rights of young black people. Two years after unseating a mayor who balanced the budget every year and managed to keep the lights on, Melton and his staff has given the city a shortfall somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million.

The city council managed to whittle the deficit down to about $3 million, including cutting line items like the $70,000 part-time salary paid to Melton's sister-in-law. Last month, the city had to tap its $7 million reserve fund for the last $3 million of Melton's 2006-07 overspending, which has threatened the city's credit rating.

Meanwhile, the mayor who was going to erradicate criminality in 90 days has presided over dramatic increases in crime, a shrinking police roster, increasing contempt for public records, and reports of disturbing gaffes by officers—two of which may have led to the domestic violence deaths of two women.

Around the same time, a young man died after being tasered while in police custody, and a policeman shot another unarmed man at a traffic stop. The police chief will not address community concerns about any of these cases, refusing to release relevant police policies, saying they are all "personnel matters."

And the Melton saga continues. A week ago, Melton announced that he was promoting one of his bodyguards, Michael Recio, to assistant police chief. Recio hasn't even passed the sergeant's exam, leading many to believe that the promotion is blatant cronyism, an attempt to put a "yes" man who won't challenge Melton's authority in a powerful position. A group of officers from the Jackson Police Department marched on City Hall in protest.

In May 2006, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann nominated Melton for his "Worst Person in the World" award ,after the school bus incident made national news. Since then, Our Mayor Frank has only gotten bolder, more corrupt, and more foolish. So welcome to Jackson, home of the worst mayor in America.

Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief of the Jackson Free Press, and has covered Melton since January 2005. For more, read Ladd's interviews with Melton, known locally as "The Melton Tapes."