Despite dramatic electoral and financial setbacks, Hester Jackson-McCray makes legislative history

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Democratic state Rep.-elect Hester Jackson-McCray of DeSoto County

Hester Jackson-McCray, in the midst of a tough general election fight for a seat in the Mississippi House of Representatives, heard a knock at her door in September.

At the door stood a man who was there to deliver bad news: She had missed too many payments, and her car was being repossessed.

A 58-year-old Horn Lake resident who is raising six of her eight grandchildren at her home, Jackson-McCray knows struggle better than most, but 2019 has been especially tough for her. A nurse for more than 30 years, she had to stop working full time after complications from a knee surgery.

As she waited weeks for her disability application to be approved, she started a small catering business to try to make ends meet. As her regular income dwindled, her bills stacked up.

“I had to decide whether I wanted to have a car or have a roof over my head,” Jackson-McCray told Mississippi Today. “At the time, even with the campaign and having to knock doors and meet people, having a roof over my head was more important.”

But Jackson-McCray, a Democrat, hitched rides with friends and family and continued to campaign for the House seat in the heart of DeSoto County, which is among the most populous and well-organized Republican counties in the state. Because of its location and demographics, many political prognosticators considered the seat difficult for a Democrat to attain.

That perceived difficulty was on full display just four years ago, when Jackson-McCray was defeated in the election for the same House seat by Republican state Rep. Ashley Henley. Henley won 68 percent of the vote in 2015 to Jackson-McCray’s 32 percent.

But this year, despite the physical and financial setbacks, Jackson-McCray defeated Henley — by just 14 votes. 

“I think there are a lot of people in this state who have been struggling to make ends meet for a long time,” Jackson-McCray said. “I hope it’ll be good to have someone like me at the Capitol to fight for them.”

Her victory has given hope to Mississippi Democrats, who have little reason for optimism after a brutal 2019 election cycle. The win also places her in the history books: Jackson-McCray will be the first African American to represent DeSoto County in the Legislature, and she will be just the third African American to represent a majority-white legislative district since Reconstruction.

“I do think about what this win means,” she said. “Having children and grandchildren looking back in history and saying, ‘That’s my grandmama. All her hard work paid off.’ That’s a good feeling.”

While the results of the election were certified last week by the Secretary of State’s office, there’s a chance Jackson-McCray could never serve in the Legislature. Last week, Henley filed a formal election petition that seeks to overturn the results of the election. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives will hold hearings in January and determine if the results should remain.

Jackson-McCray was born in Chicago but has lived in DeSoto County since 2001. She previously ran for local office three times — twice for Horn Lake mayor and once for Horn Lake alderwoman — without success. 

This year, she won in the Nov. 5 general election with limited financial help. She raised about $7,000, which included a $1,500 donation from the Mississippi Public Education PAC.

State Rep. Ashley Henley

Henley, her opponent, raised $21,000, including large donations from Empower Mississippi, one of the state’s most politically powerful interest groups that boosts conservative education policy and works to elect allies across the state.

Democratic political operatives have been eyeing House District 40, a few miles south of Memphis, since districts were last redrawn in 2012. When the district was drawn, black voting age population (BVAP) was 30 percent. In Mississippi, low BVAP districts almost always spell easy wins for Republicans.

But in statewide elections, voters in the district have consistently voted for Democrats: In 2019, the district went for Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood in the governor’s race; in 2018, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy won in the general and won even bigger in the runoff; and in 2016, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won.

With that in mind, staffers at the Mississippi Democratic Trust got involved in Jackson-McCray’s campaign. During the general election, the political committee helped Jackson-McCray target likely Democratic voters using voter file data and created and managed a website and social media accounts.

“The thing about Hester is that people have this notion about her. They wonder if she’s just a perennial candidate who might not actually do what it takes to win, and they discount her before even giving her a chance,” said Merritt Baria, deputy director of the Mississippi Democratic Trust. “To be honest, I sort of thought that myself. But then I actually met her, and there was no question about whether she could win or whether we should invest. She was already working extremely hard, knocking doors any chance she got… The district and the trends were good, but I don’t think anyone should take away from the fact she outworked her opponent.”

Jackson-McCray said by Election Day, she had knocked on 6,000 doors. She said she worked during the primary to target potential Democratic voters who may have recently moved to the district — as a suburb of Memphis, DeSoto County is by nature very transient — but weren’t yet registered.

During the general election, she said she reconnected with those voters to ensure they had filed the necessary paperwork to cast votes in November.

Her first priority in the Legislature, she said, will be to write and sponsor legislation that will help public school teachers get fairer pay.

“My platform was to save our schools and get our schools fully funded,” she said. “We need to get our teachers adequately supported so they don’t have to have two or three jobs just to make ends meet. They can’t pay their school loans back. They don’t deserve that. They deserve more for teaching our children.”