Two days after the June 5 primary, Howard Sherman hopped on Interstate 59 in Meridian and headed south to Laurel with a mission: To earn the endorsement of Rep. Omeria Scott.
Sherman knew Scott’s endorsement would be critical in the coming runoff between himself and state Rep. David Baria.
Scott, who is a African American and a longtime state representative, earned 20,000 votes but did not make the runoff. With fewer than 1,000 votes separating Sherman and Baria on June 5, those 20,000 votes could more than swing the election. So he and his wife, Sela Ward, drove to Laurel to take Scott out to dinner.
“I think within 10 minutes, there was tears,” Sherman told Mississippi Today. “Her and Sela connected on such a primal level, woman-to-woman, and she and I connected on the idea level. We had a real kumbaya moment and she said, ‘I really want to endorse you. I really want to see the state move and progress.’”
The next day, on the steps of Laurel City Hall, Scott publicly endorsed Sherman.
As Baria and Sherman enter the final week before the runoff, it’s clear that their campaigns are striving to line up the support of black voters.
In Mississippi, and nationally, black voters are the bedrock of the Democratic voting base. In Mississippi, three out of four Democratic primary voters are African American. The runoff candidates – both of whom are white – have proven they understand the need for endorsements and public support from black political influencers.
While Sherman wooed Scott, Baria and his campaign team worked their own phones.
Less than a week after the primary, Baria gave a press conference, flanked by a dozen members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Before the primary, several members of the black caucus told Mississippi Today they couldn’t vocalize their support of Baria because Scott, their legislative colleague, was also in the race. When she failed to make the runoff, members of the black caucus met with Baria to discuss their approach and strategy on how to get voters in their home districts to vote for Baria.
“David (Baria) is a strong democratic voice in the Mississippi legislature,” said Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez. “We need his intellect, understanding of policy and legislative process and his commitment to social and equal justice in the U.S. Senate.”
Baria’s support among Democratic officials seems to be solidifying. Recently, U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson – long regarded the most powerful and influential black politician in the state – took the dramatic step this week of returning a campaign contribution Sherman made earlier this year, reported Arielle Dreher of the Jackson Free Press.
“Well, it would have been, I think, disingenuous on my part to take a contribution from someone who’s running for office that I’m not supporting because it could be construed that I am,” Thompson told the JFP.
African Americans make up 38 percent of the state’s population, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau — the highest percentage of any state and, therefore, making black Mississippians among the most influential voting blocs in statewide Democratic politics anywhere.
As a result, even in the Republican-controlled state Legislature, there are 52 black lawmakers in the state House and Senate. Thompson is the only black delegate representing Mississippi in Washington, D.C.
“African Americans in our state continue to struggle from failed policy and years of systemic racism that keep African Americans from getting jobs they are qualified for and need and reaching the income levels that they need,” Baria said recently on “The Jungle: Mississippi Today’s Election Podcast,” when asked about addressing challenges facing African Americans in the state.
He added: “So you end up with these generational cycles of poverty, and it’s very difficult to break out of that. In underserved communities, both black and white, there aren’t the resources you have in other places around the state like the Gulf Coast or Madison County or DeSoto County.”
Sherman, who struck a similar chord, also stresses the need to expand economic opportunity.
“We have to bring jobs to the African American parts (of the state). They want vocational training, of course. There are core programs that can fund it as long as you match it to a company coming in,” Sherman said on Mississippi Today’s podcast, in a separate interview.
Sherman added that wants to lure employers by working with a bank to advance funding for vocational training; once the employer relocates and begins hiring local workers, the municipality would pay back the loan.
“It generates jobs — that creates a tax base and the local municipality takes incremental money they weren’t getting anyway, repays the bank. You have jobs, you have a tax base,” Sherman said.
Some Mississippi political operatives hope to replicate several methods to get black voters to the polls during the 2017 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones defeated Republican candidate and former judge Roy Moore.
Several new political groups formed in Alabama like Woke Vote, a program founded to get millennials out to vote. The group went to historically black colleges and universities and churches across Alabama to mobilize students and black women to vote.
Several NAACP chapters in Alabama called voters and went door-to-door encouraging African Americans to vote. Utilizing a text message campaign, the organization said it reached more than 160,000 African-Americans across the state and that 90 percent of the people reached said they would vote.
After the election, black women were largely credited for Jones win. Exit polling data showed that 96 percent of black women voted for Jones, and 93 percent of black men backed him.
“If you focus on African-American women you will bring along the men. The key factor is African-American women are influencers in our communities and in our households. And as men, we listen to our wives and we listen to our daughters,” Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels told NBC News shortly after the election.
Laurie Roberts, founder of the Mississippi Reproductive Fund, said to court black voters candidates have to do more than publicize endorsements of high-profile African American supporters.
“There is this notion that black people are this monolith and if one black leader puts out the call, then we say, ‘Oh O.K., this is who with we’re with.’ But we don’t just randomly follow everything that comes out of prominent black peoples’ mouths,” Roberts said.
Jacqueline Amos, state field director for the Mississippi Democratic Party, said candidates can get the attention — and votes — of black women by meeting them where they are.
“Go to meetings, go knock on their door, meet them in groups of three or four. Craft the message to what they are lacking, what you can do for that,” she said.
“Don’t continue telling us what the problems are. We need to know: Do you have solution?”
Contributing: R.L. Nave