While driving through the neighborhoods of Cleveland, it’s hard to ignore the racial undertones of the special runoff election to decide who represents one of the state’s few majority African American districts.

Tracey Rosebud is black and from Tutwiler; Blake Ferretti is white and from Cleveland. They are squaring off in a runoff special election for the House seat left vacant by retiring Rep. Robert Huddleston, a black Democrat. Although the runoff is officially nonpartisan, Democratic groups are supporting Rosebud while conservative groups back Ferretti.

The seat, which Huddleston held for 23 years before abruptly retiring earlier this year, represents a district that is 61 percent black. The district – stretching from Shaw, up to Cleveland, over to Ruleville, and up toward Clarksdale – was drawn in the early 1990s for a black representative.

Going into Tuesday’s runoff election, many across the district are asking: Should a white person win this seat?

“This race is important because if you have Republicans that can come in and win a 61 percent African American district, every African American seat in the Legislature will be contested by a Republican,” said Rep. Chris Bell, D-Jackson and member of the Legislative Black Caucus. “No matter what the percentage of African Americans in that district, this would be a catalyst for them to further secure a majority within the House.”

If the special election three weeks ago was any indication, both the Legislative Black Caucus and the House Democratic Caucus could be down a member on Tuesday night. Ferretti garnered 43 percent of the vote on May 8, while Rosebud won just 22 percent. The two candidates earned more votes than the other two candidates, and because neither earned 50 percent, the Tuesday runoff was necessary.

In interviews this week, both candidates downplayed the influence race has played in the election.

Most of my supporters haven’t directed toward race,” Rosebud said. “It’s primarily been about the fact that most of them know I had a passion and desire to see that things happen differently in this position. We haven’t been using themes of whether it should be a black district or a white district. I’m just out there pushing my message and my ideas.”

Blake Ferretti
Blake Ferretti

When you try to play into the racial element, what you do is start dividing people. When you get divided, that helps no one,” Ferretti said. “I understand the seat has been held by a Democrat the past 23 years. Just look at those years. I’d ask the people the question, ‘What’s been done in 23 years?’ Are you better off today than you were 23 years ago?”

The issue has, however, played a more direct role than either candidate admitted.

“If (Rosebud) doesn’t win, that means not having a candidate who would actually listen to or be adhering to the issues of the community,” said Edric Johnson, a Shaw resident who is black. “To actually have a candidate who will not be fighting for the less fortunate, that’s the biggest issue for me. We need somebody who’s willing to fight for less fortunate.”

“I feel like (Ferretti is) a good guy,” Johnson continued. “I feel like he’s misinformed about the issues in our community. When you keep yourself in a certain circle, sometimes it limits you to not understand everyone.”

“There are so many people that are so disenfranchised from what’s going on, they don’t even know there’s a special election or even who’s running,” said Tommy Naron, a Cleveland resident who is white. “Yeah, race has come up, but who can do more for the races than Blake can? I’m enthused about Blake caring about the jobs and opportunities.”

“We had a special election forum a few weeks ago,” Naron continued. “Those three candidates – the black guys – were good men, but they didn’t know the things that were important. Blake had done his homework. He had researched it from education to jobs and economic development.”

Black caucus members Rep. Earle Banks, D-Jackson, and Sen. Sampson Jackson, D-Preston, have donated to Rosebud’s campaign. Rep. Sonya Williams-Barnes, D-Gulfport, and chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus said other caucus members had been on the ground offering campaign help.

“This district should have a representative that reflects the demographics of those who live in the district, as well as one who will vote on issues that are beneficial to those who live in the district,” Williams-Barnes said.

Rosebud, who was employed by the Clarksdale Public Utilities before he was terminated on May 4, has racked up endorsements from the Mississippi Democratic Party, the House Democratic Caucus PAC, the Mississippi Public Education PAC, the Mississippi Political Action Committee, and the Legislative Black Caucus.

Rosebud’s employment status has risen as fodder for opponents and the political rumor mill. Rosebud claims that he was not fired but rather “suspended pending a hearing” over a business relationship, but would not elaborate further. Christopher Campos, director of communications at Clarksdale Public Utilities Clarksdale would not comment on specifics of the termination.

At the company you have a policy stating if you’re going to do outside work, you have to have paperwork,” Rosebud told Mississippi Today. “Another employee and I actually had a business agreement with some other properties. It was strictly a business relationship that they referred to, and I’m confident it will get sorted out at the hearing.”

Blake Ferretti and Tracey Rosebud are campaigning for a vacant House seat
Signs for Blake Ferretti, a white Republican, and Tracey Rosebud, a black Democrat, are displayed along Highway 61 in Shaw. Credit: Adam Ganucheau | Mississippi Today

Ferretti, who owns a real-estate management company in Bolivar County, has earned endorsements or financial support from the Mississippi Realtors PAC and the Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi.

Ferretti is also closely affiliated with conservative group Empower Mississippi, which advocates for what it calls school choice. He was featured in a 2017 video promoting a dyslexia-related policy the group was pushing, and Ferretti’s wife spoke at a 2018 Empower rally at the Capitol about expanding school voucher programs.

One reason Rosebud underperformed on May 8 was that two other black Democrats – Lester Williams of Ruleville and William McClellan of Charleston – also ran, splitting would-be Democratic voters three ways. Williams won 21 percent of the vote, and McClellan won 13 percent of the vote.

Turnout was excruciatingly low, even for a special election in the late spring: just 2,283, or 9 percent, of the district’s 24,000 residents voted.

“I do understand the numbers, but we’ve got a lot of support in white and black communities,” Ferretti said. “At the end of the day, regardless of who you are or where you come from, people just want a good job. They want a better life for their children, so they can grow up and be prosperous. We’re not focused on the race issue at all.”

Contributing: Kayleigh Skinner

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.

Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.