These millennial Democrats are shaking up this year’s #MSelex legislative races

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Many political observers believe that the U.S. is an ocean experiencing a so-called blue wave of electoral successes by young Democrats — but could it happen in Mississippi?

Progressive activists in the state think so. Generally speaking, they believe the time has come for the Legislature to better reflect the state in terms of race, gender and age.

Currently, one in three state lawmakers are white men aged 55 or older. They have also focused on conservative legislative issues that don’t always align with the rest of the state, particularly young people.

For example, the Legislature’s attempts in recent years to rollback access to abortion stands in stark contrast to the overwhelming defeat of the so-called Personhood initiative in 2011.

According to the April 2019 Millsaps College/Chism Strategies State of the State Survey, 43 percent of Mississippi voters believe that decisions about abortion should be left to women and their health care providers.

In September 2017, a poll from Chism Strategies found that just 49 percent of Mississippi voters favor the current state flag. The current flag is so unpopular with so many that Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill during the 2019 legislative session allowing a new specialty  license plate design that featured a redesigned state flag from artist Laurin Stennis.

Education funding is another issue young people are focused on, with many decrying the $1,500 teacher pay raise approved during the 2019 legislative session. Some are also calling for the Legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which has only happened twice since its founding in 1997.

Mississippi Today sat down with four young Democrats challenging longtime incumbents about their campaigns and what this shift means for the future of politics in the state. 

Colton Thornton, Senate District 22

Colton Thornton

When Colton Thornton graduated from Mississippi State in the spring of 2017 he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew he wanted to stay in Mississippi. All of Thornton’s close friends have since left the state either to pursue better economic opportunities or to escape persecution based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Thornton then began see brain drain as the biggest issue facing the state.

“There may be some people in our government right now that do acknowledge it, but I don’t think they understand the seriousness of it,” Thornton said.

Marching with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the Nissan unionization effort inspired and emboldened Thornton so he began advocacy work that landed him shoulder to shoulder with elected officials during the last legislative session. It was there, lobbying on behalf of the ACLU for two voting bills and an equal protection bill that he realized there was a real disconnect between young people and their representatives.

“It became pretty obvious that most of them did not care about the issues that affected young people,” Thornton said.

The 26-year-old saw an opportunity when state Sen. Eugene “Buck” Clarke, a 15-year incumbent, decided to run for state treasurer. A federal court ruled in favor of African American plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit alleging the district was gerrymandered to make it hard to elect an African American and ordered the district redrawn. That presented a chance to return that seat to Democratic hands, so Thornton decided to throw his hat in the ring.

“I still wake up a lot of mornings not knowing what the hell I’m doing,” Thornton said.

Though he admits that names like Bernie Sanders are not too popular in Mississippi, Thornton thinks there is is an important distinction to be made when someone identifies as a progressive in Mississippi.

“Obviously being progressive in Mississippi doesn’t mean the same thing as being progressive in California or New York. Progressive for me, in Mississippi means, that we have to stand up for things that have been neglected for far too long,” Thornton said.

For Thornton these issues include Medicaid expansion, automatic voter registration and taking steps to ensure that the kind of racial gerrymandering that took place in District 22 never happens again.

“I just can see this as an opportunity for us to say let’s take this a step further. Why don’t we push for reforms such as having nonpartisan committees draw our district lines,” Thornton said.

Without name recognition and running in a crowded primary of six candidates, Thornton’s path to victory is wholly dependent on one-on-one interactions with people.

“Seeing a sign on the side of the road that doesn’t do anything. Seeing a Facebook ad doesn’t do anything” Thornton said.

When Thornton knocks on someone’s door, he says that the last thing they expect to hear is that someone so young is running for state Senate. With those interactions comes a lot of challenges, questions over what he knows about these issues. Thornton’s answers are wholly based on what he has heard from Mississippians on the campaign trail. The issue of education in particular has shown to be as a motivator for potential crossover votes.

“I had the opportunity to speak with the (residents of) Yazoo County School District and most of the people I’ve talked to would, some people would say, hey, look, you know, I normally vote Republican but this mess that happened in the Capitol with the vouchers and the sneakiness and no transparency, people were upset about that,” Thornton said

Thornton says voters in Sunflower County have been happy just to see a candidate putting in the effort to come listen to them. Even though the work is slow, Thornton is hoping his efforts across the district will pay dividends in the end.

“I’ve learned quickly that campaigning in the Delta literally means driving two hours in the middle of nowhere to a room full of 10 people and shaking hands. That’s the way it’s done,” Thornton said.

Marcus Williams, Senate District 26

Marcus Williams

Marcus Williams’ age regularly comes up on the campaign trail. While knocking on doors one day, he recalls an older woman saying: “Well honey, you look 12!” The 31-year-old used the opening to pivot to a conversation about the legislative process, why he wanted to be a state senator and how he could be effective in that role.

“That right there showed me that looks can be deceiving. People are shocked to learn how young Martin Luther King was when he was leading the Montgomery bus boycott. I mean these were people in their 20s; they were leading an entire movement. They changed the shape of America forever. And so we can do that now, but we have to be thoughtful about how we do it and intentional about it” Williams said.

When talking about his run for state Senate in District 26, Williams is wholly focused on the potential young people have to change the political landscape of Mississippi. He grew up in District 26, where his parents still live. Like many other Mississippi millennials, Williams says he has seen most of his friends leave the state in recent years because of the lack of job opportunities or wage stagnation.

“We’ve got new problems and also new opportunities. I want to be a new leader to represent an entire generation that is waiting to get off the sidelines and get in the game and help craft the public policy that’s going to shape Mississippi for the next 40 or 50 years,” Williams said.

Though Williams has never held public office, he has an extensive background within Mississippi’s Democratic Party. He served as President of Young Democrats Mississippi for two years. He has also served on the state Democratic Executive Committee as well as the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee.

When speaking about his primary opponent, Sen. John Horhn, who has held the District 26 Senate seat for 25 years, Williams is clear about the respect he has for him, but also his opinion that their district needs new leadership.

“I feel as though after 26 years of service, there needs to be a change. John had his time. Now it’s time for someone else to get an opportunity to lead this district,” Williams said.

Like many candidates running for state office this year, Williams’ platform focuses on education. In terms of policy, Williams is advocating for increasing teacher pay to the southeastern average, free kindergarten, universal pre-K and free community college across the state.

“I can see it when I’m knocking on doors and when I’m talking to folks that they’re excited about where we can go, but they’re frustrated with where we are right now,” Williams said.

Shanda Yates, House District 64

Shanda Yates

Without a primary opponent, 38-year-old Shanda Yates is set to face off as the Democratic candidate against incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Denny for District 64’s House seat.

The gender disparity within the state Legislature is something driving Yates’ run for office. Currently, only 15 of 119 House members are women.

“I’ve actually had people say to me, the Legislature is not somewhere that a woman is going to enjoy being. And that has only emboldened me and made me more determined to do what I’m doing,” Yates said.

Yates, however, isn’t making her youth a centerpiece of the campaign.

“Age, I really don’t think that it matters — if they’re in their twenties or they’re 45 or whatever the case may be. But to see people who aren’t career politicians sort of stepping up … because they feel the need and want to see things get better in their districts or in the state as a whole, I think that is exciting for sure,” Yates said.

An issue that Yates is vocal about and that potential constituents have talked to her about on the campaign trail is the feeling that their representative is not accessible. So Yates is knocking on doors, trying to meet as many people as possible to let them know she will be available to them if elected.

“I’ve only talked to maybe one or two people in my door knocking who even knows who their current representative is,” Yates said.

Yates says that folks are surprised to see her walking around their neighborhood.

“When they find out that I am that candidate and not just a volunteer or whatever, passing out literature, people are very excited and open up and really want to talk and hear what I have to say,” Yates said.

Yates says she said no when she was first asked to run by current legislators, whom she declined to name, but reconsidered because she thinks she can serve the district better than Denny, who has held the District 64 seat for 31 years.

“He’s had that seat since I was seven. Northeast Jackson is a much different place than it was 30 years ago,” Yates said.

As she has been knocking on doors and shaking hands, Yates says she has noticed another trend that seems to unite Democrats and Republicans: anger about Mississippi’s infrastructure crisis.

“People acknowledge that our infrastructure is crumbling and it should have been tackled a long time ago and that the current representative has had more than 30 years to get a hold on this problem. And it has only gotten worse,” Yates said.

Like other candidates going into November’s elections, Yates also has education on her mind. Yates looks at education reform from a top down standpoint. She thinks too much funding is going to administrative costs and to non-essential staff, and more of it should be sent directly to the teachers and be spent at the classroom level. And after that reallocation has happened, the Legislature should make up any difference to fully fund Mississippi Adequate Education Formula.

“Paying our teachers and educating our kids shouldn’t be a political battleground. We should agree that kids need education — whether Republican, Democrat, independent or apolitical,” Yates said.

Kathryn York, Senate District 8

Kathryn York

When Kathryn York entered college as a University of Georgia pre-law major she noticed gaps left by her public education, falling behind and struggling in some subjects. She saw some folks sailing through and others who were struggling a lot harder than she was. That educational inequity hit her hard.

“I knew in that moment that policy was not going to be the way for me then to make change because I didn’t fully understand what education looks like on the ground. And I needed to do that before I could credibly advocate for change,” York said.

After she graduated, York returned home to Mississippi and became a Teach For America corps member. She was sent to M.S. Palmer High School and started building a choral music program from the ground up. She says that for the first six months, she taught in a janitor’s closet.

“I moved from understanding the issue of educational inequity cognitively to understanding it in real life and saw what my kids were up against every day. Saw that wasn’t the same challenge I had faced growing up. It’s amazing what those kids overcame every day in spite of the system that was around them,” York said.

Other problems in the state’s education system have become evident to York as she’s talked to teachers in her district. One decided to quit after a decade as a math teacher because seeing her students struggle took too much of an emotional toll.

“That to me is just the hallmark of a system that is terribly wrong. There are other ways of assessing student and teacher performance that are more balanced and I think we have to as a state invest in that and we could lead the way on that for our country there’s nothing holding us back from that,” York said.

Education issues have also become more personal for York since her oldest child, Emma, started kindergarten last fall. When she and York walked into Davidson Elementary for her first day of school, she realized Davidson was not facing the same challenges that M.S. Palmer was facing, but was not enjoying the same advantages and privilege that a school 25 miles away in Oxford was enjoying. This inequity made her angry.

“In that moment I decided what was next for me to do was the thing I thought I would do in college. To have a more direct impact on policy and decisions that affect our people on our children every day. I would take that seat when it came open,” York said.

York sees being a young, first-time candidate as more of an opportunity than a challenge. The 38-year-old thinks that some youthful energy coupled with the experience that’s already in the Legislature could make for an exciting future.

“We also have nine women senators in our state at the moment, across both sides of the aisle. And I think it’s time for that voice to be elevated a bit more. That excites me about this opportunity,” York said.

As far as policy goes, York opposes attracting new industry through offering tax breaks to large businesses and corporations.

She notes that between 20 percent and 35 percent of families in her district live in poverty.

And so giving away money to a big industry just can’t make sense in my mind,” York said.

York wants to attract new industry by “using what we have to build what we need.” She wants incoming industries to partner with the state’s community college so that students are ready to enter that workforce when they graduate. York also wants the state to pay for that education through the tax revenue generated by the lottery beyond the initial $81 million allocated for infrastructure.

“It’s not that expensive. That funding is there. And it will graduate participants who have no student debt and guaranteed source of income. And when we think about changing our economy, to me that will shift the future of our state,” York said.