In beleaguered majority Black Town of Mason, a contentious election fight to be the next mayor

By: - October 6, 2022 6:03 am
Mason, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Mason, Tenn. (Photo: John Partipilo)

MASON, Tenn. – In the small west Tennessee Town of Mason, a four-way race for mayor is growing increasingly contentious. 

Candidate roadside campaign signs have been slashed and stolen. An election challenge has been filed in federal court. And accusations of racism, incompetence and fraud have followed.

The November election comes at an important juncture for Mason, a majority Black community located next door to the future site of Ford Motor Company’s Blue Oval City, where construction of the most expensive electrical vehicle manufacturing plant in U.S. history began last week.

The plant will eventually draw thousands of workers, and — with them — new restaurants, shops, subdivisions and schools that are expected to revitalize the largely undeveloped Tennessee region that surrounds it. 

Earlier this year, state officials suggested that Mason’s elected leaders lacked the competence to lead the city through a new era of west Tennessee growth. Comptroller Jason Mumpower asked the community to cede its charter and dissolve their township, bringing more than 150 years of local self-governance to an end.  Mason’s Black leaders resoundingly rejected the suggestion, accusing Tennessee leaders of racism and questioning the timing of the intervention into their long-struggling community — at the very moment it appeared poised to reap the benefits of Ford’s investment. 

As of today, Mason has held onto its charter but remains under the financial oversight of the Comptroller while city officials work to pare down outsized debt accrued, in part, as a result of fraud and theft under the leadership of prior, mostly white, city administrators who have since resigned or been replaced.

Under the cloud of state financial supervision, and with the prospect of revitalization on the horizon, mayoral candidates say the stakes this year for the next Mason mayor are particularly high. 

The Vice Mayor

Virginia Rivers, a third-generation Mason resident and the town’s current vice mayor, assumed the role of town spokeswoman this year during the onslaught of media coverage highlighting an effort to dissolve a Black-led Southern city. Photos of Rivers standing shoulder to shoulder with a CBS News crew visiting Mason, on CNN, the “Roland Martin Show” and local TV news feature prominently on the city’s official website.

Town of Mason Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers (Photo: John Partipilo)

The experience crystalized her decision to run for mayor, she said.

“I know I can make a difference,” Rivers said last week. “When the Comptroller came in and said we should give up our charter, I’ve said ‘I will stand up for Mason,’ and that’s what I’ve done.”

Campaigning in Mason, a town of less than 1,200 people in a town of two square miles, doesn’t require a campaign chest. There are no TV or radio ad buys. Most of the $700 Rivers said she has raised thus far has been spent on pamphlets and road signs that dot Highways 59 and 70, the main arteries in and out of town.

Twice last week, someone destroyed her signs. One sign disappeared; another was sliced cleanly across the top by what appeared to Rivers to be a box cutter. She went out and Scotch-taped it back up, she said.

No other candidate’s signs have been tampered with, said Rivers, who declined to share her suspicions of who might be responsible. But the vandalism bothers her when her campaign is focused on bringing the community together, she said. 

If elected, Rivers’ first priority is landing funds to repair Mason’s aging sewer and water system, a key step to accommodate future growth. The system can sustain the current population, but needs millions of dollars in upgrades before new retail, industrial or residential developments can come to Mason.

She hopes to work with Ford to bring a job training site to Mason, and perhaps even an electric vehicle charging station, add parks and a community center.

A sliced campaign sign for Town of Mason Vice Mayor Virginia Rivers (Photo: Virginia Rivers)

Rivers’ other priority is restoring Mason to its rightful place in west Tennessee, as a community no longer overlooked, discounted or ignored.

Rivers grew up in an era marked by the exclusion of Mason’s Black residents, attending Mason’s then-segregated primary school. She has gone on to raise her children in Mason; her daughter and grandson still live here. She worked for 25 years at the state’s Department of Safety, working her way up from a clerk to administrative assistant to supervisor, then manager, before she was first elected to public office as a town alderman six years ago at age 59. 

She watched as Mason was left out of a months-long planning efforts that brought counties and cities in the region together to prepare for the arrival of Ford’s $5.6 billion electric vehicle plant. It was an omission that still stings.

“If we had a seat at that table, we could have spoken,” Rivers said. “We weren’t at the table. We were on the menu to be taken out. I would get Mason back at that table.”

Thomas “T.B.” Burrell: The farmer

Just down the street from city hall, Thomas “T.B.” Burrell’s campaign signs loom large along both sides of Highway 70.

A fourth generation Tipton County farmer whose father and grandfather were born and raised in Mason, Burrell decided to move to town this year at the urging of former classmates who thought Mason needed a mayor like him, he said. Burrell owns 400 acres of farmland just outside Mason’s city limits.  

Burrell rented an old friend’s house, parked a large, new-model RV on the front lawn, gathered 25 signatures and filed his paperwork to qualify for the ballot in June. 

Then, in September, the Tipton County Election Commission reversed its decision and revoked Burrell’s certification, after receiving complaints from other candidates questioning whether Burrell was actually living in Mason. 

Thomas Burrell, a candidate for mayor of the Town of Mason, Tennessee (Photo: John Partipilo)

Burrell filed suit last month; a federal judge rejected his claims last week. His attorney has since filed a petition to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals to hear his appeal to be reinstated on the ballot. Burrell says he is confident he will prevail. 

Confidence has carried Burrell through years of battles. As president of the Black Farmers & Agriculturalist Association, Burrell has served as the chief plaintiff in two lawsuits seeking redress historic and ongoing discrimination against Black farmers, crisscrossed the South to speak about the history of Black farming, and challenged federal authorities to make good on promises they reneged.

That history of leadership makes him uniquely suited to leading Mason through this critical time, he said. In his six-page “Mason Plan” Burrell outlines his goals for “Mason the Beautiful” and “Mason the Prosperous.” The campaign handout includes a photo of him shaking hands with Gov. Bill Lee at an event focused on increasing participation of youth in agriculture.

He has met former President Donald Trump face to face, he said. And he has testified before Congress on behalf of Black farmers. 

“Mason needs leaders who know how to negotiate,” he said. “That’s Thomas Burrell. I understand complex litigation. How in the world can leaders who can’t write a check for more than $1,000 negotiate with a billion dollar company?”

(The Comptroller no longer requires town expenses to be approved by state officials.)

Thomas Burrell with the RV he parked in front of the house rented before filing paperwork to qualify for the ballot in June. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Burrell scoffed at his opponents’ abilities to engage in the high-stakes jockeying necessary to land new subdivisions, business investments, schools and other community resources — and to negotiate more from the state, which has provided Ford with nearly $1 billion in taxpayer incentives. 

“You’re going to lead Mason to the promised land, but you can’t get off your porch?” he said. “The state of Tennessee is getting ready to spend billions of dollars for the benefit of a major corporation, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to be that magnanimous, why don’t you include Mason? I’m not arguing against Ford. I’m saying Mason needs to get some of that generosity.”

This week, Burrell issued a press release to draw attention to his battle to be restored to the ballot, which he characterized as a racially-based and unlawful effort to exclude a Black candidate. Among the members of the county election commission who voted to remove him is the president of Tipton County NAACP, the release noted. 

The action represented “a plot, a scheme and conspiracy under ‘any’ guise, pretext and/or color-of-law to remove and/or deny ‘any African American from voting or being a candidate in ‘any’ election, whatsoever.”

“The late Congressman John Lewis and Dr. Martin L. King, Jr. are turning over in their graves,” the release said. “This type of unlawful deprivation of the right to vote and running for political office is precisely what — so we thought — the NAACP and other civil rights organizations have stood for the last seventy years.” 

Standing outside his RV last week — it serves as his home while the house he is renting undergoes repairs, he said — Burrell believes he is being singled out because his opponents know he has the votes to win. 

Mason’s current mayor, Emmit Gooden, won by a margin of just 45 votes in 2018. The 25 signatures Burrell submitted to qualify for the ballot include residents that previously supported his opponents, he says.

Emmit Gooden: The Mayor

Gooden was first elected mayor in 2018, entering the race after taking stock of the declining fortunes of Mason, which has no grocery store, no gas station and housing stock that shows obvious decline in most parts of the small community.

“It’s the town I was born in, and the town I live in. I felt like it was in a bad situation with the city falling down,” he said of his decision to first run for mayor. “My last four years has been a challenge day after day.”

Accountants from the Comptroller’s office had begun visiting Mason regularly to investigate Mason’s finances, after a series of fraud and mismanagement came to light before Gooden was elected. Then the pandemic hit, while state scrutiny increased. 

Town of Mason Mayor Emmit Gooden at a community meeting this year about the Tennessee Comptroller’s request that the town cede its charter. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The  town was more than a half-million dollars in debt, Gooden learned when he took office. It came as a shock; Gooden previously served as an alderman, but the dire nature of Mason’s finances had not been disclosed. 

“When I got in and saw how bad the city was, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ ” he said. “We had to start where we were, which was behind. Since then I’ve been trying to get the city back into the shape it needs to be. It’s been straight working on nitty gritty every day for the past four years straight.” 

He wants the chance to move Mason forward, instead of constantly playing catch up, he said. 

“Right now after all the hard work, and sweat and tears, I don’t want to see my town drift away from progress. We’ve been at a standstill for so long. We’re just that close where everyone can see we’re about to get on a growth spurt.”

Town of Mason Mayor Emmit Gooden at a community meeting to address the state Comptroller’s request that the town cede its charter (Photo: John Partipilo)

Gooden’s goals include adding a community center, library, beautifying the city and “making it presentable so people want to come live here and be proud of where we live.”

“I’d see Mason as a mini-Memphis in 10 years. There’d be shopping, factories and businesses. It wouldn’t be this country living no more.”

This past year, under pressure from the Comptroller and the subject of widespread media cover, has been hard, Gooden said. Most residents go about their days with little interest in the conflict, but as mayor he has also contended with pushback from his constituents. 

A customer recently complained about his water service. “He was raising Cain if we didn’t come out and fix it right away; he said he was going to call the Comptroller on us,” Gooden said. “We tried to explain how we’re understaffed. It’s just part of the job.”

Eddie Naeman: The businessman

Eddie Naeman, a Mason alderman, former vice mayor and local businessman has also set his sights on the city’s top job. 

Naeman, Egyptian by birth, moved his family to Mason from Jacksonville, Florida, 20 years ago after meeting a gas station franchise owner at a national conference who had a business to sell. He raised his two children here. He has owned a gas station, a convenience store, a medical supplies factory and a small car lot over the decades. 

Eddie Naeman, an alderman with the Town of Mason, is running for mayor this year. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Only the car lot is operating now, but Naeman is working to build a grocery store, a large warehouse structure he has been slowly working on but whose progress has been stalled in an ongoing and bitter dispute with his fellow city leaders over obtaining a business license.

Naeman says he will bring a businessman’s sensibility to running the town.  

It was his business sensibility that led Naeman to contact the Comptroller’s office in 2019 about alleged improper spending and fraud by elected officials, he said. By then the comptroller’s scrutiny of the town’s finances had begun. The Comptroller has not made any public allegations of fraud against Mason’s current leadership. 

“Me, the vice mayor and the mayor, we are not on the same page,” Naeman said. “The administration … how do I put it? … is not doing the right things for the citizens or the Town of Mason. 

“I’m glad the Comptroller came,” he said. 

Eddie Naeman, a member of the Town of Mason’s Board of Alderman and candidate for mayor, stands in the unfinished interior of what he hopes will become a grocery store. (Photo: John Partipilo)

Naeman has pledged to cut payroll and operating expenses if he is elected and to streamline the process of obtaining business licenses. He wants industry and subdivisions. And he has been in preliminary talks, he says, with McDonalds, Burger King and Hot Wings about establishing a franchise in Mason. Right now, the population can’t sustain a fast food business. 

But Naeman sees that changing fast with the arrival of Blue Oval City.  The small car lot he operates, right next door to Burrell’s parked RV, has only an old model convertible BMW parked on the grass. Naeman said he has cleaned out his stock in the last few months, selling cars to about 20 people who just landed construction jobs at the Ford site.

He thinks he has the votes. A generation of Mason residents grew up visiting his convenience store and there’s barely door he could knock on in town that wouldn’t be opened by someone who knows him, Naeman said. 

“If you walk down the street and ask anybody about Eddie, they’ll tell you about me. We’re like family. There’s no black and white here.”

Naeman says he has a wealth of insider knowledge about the town’s inner workings he will soon make public in a self-published book titled “Secrets of Mason.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.