Black voters are the overwhelmingly majority of Mississippi Democratic Party’s base. Why is party leadership white?
The party’s leadership has failed to support and devote resources to black Mississippians, who make up at least 70 percent of its voting base.
This is the third story in a three-part series about the Mississippi Democratic Party.
By Adam Ganucheau | May 29, 2020
Bobby Moak called into the statewide radio show of uber conservative Paul Gallo on Aug. 6, 2016, for what was his first public interview since taking over as chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
Moak, the former Democratic leader in the House of Representatives who was defeated by a Republican in November 2015, was pressed for several minutes by Gallo about his position on the state flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem.
Many Mississippians believe the emblem is a symbol of hate and shouldn’t represent the state with the highest percentage of black residents.
Gallo: “Let’s play the ‘what if’ game. If Democrats had power in the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, what would y’all do about the state flag?”
Moak: “I think one thing that we can’t do is throw red meat issues out there. We’ve got too many issues with education —”
Gallo: “Now you’re just dancing around it, and that’s what people don’t like. Here’s a yes or no question: If you were in total control, would you, through the Legislature, change the state flag?”
Moak: “Paul, I’m not a member of the Legislature —”
Gallo: “No, but you’re the chairman of the Democrat Party, and I think your views are respected or at least you’d like them to be with the people out there. Would the Democrats change the flag immediately if they were in control of the Legislature?”
Moak: “I don’t have a crystal ball, Paul, I have no idea —”
Gallo: “Would you push for that as chairman?”
Moak: “Well let’s just say this. Your same question is that (Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn) is in control of the Republican supermajority. He’s stated that (the state flag change) needs to occur, and we haven’t seen that happen. So let’s look in today’s realities, and let’s talk about some issues that are going to make some difference in people’s lives like education, poverty and jobs. Let’s don’t dance around those issues either, Paul. I mean, my goodness —”
Gallo: “I’m asking because we just had a publisher of a newspaper that thinks we need to change the state flag. I think so, too. I’m asking, as chairman of the Democrat Party, are you in favor, yes or no, of doing that, and will you push for it with the candidates you put forth in the next election cycle?”
Moak: “Well first of all, as chairman of the party I don’t put forth candidates. Number two, I don’t set policy, that’s the Legislature. I used to be there—”
Gallo: “Well what do you do?”
Moak: “Here’s what we do, we try to put the structure in place so that good candidates will come forward…”
Six times in four minutes, the brand new chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party refused to say that Democrats should change the state flag if given the opportunity.
“That was the moment I knew the leadership of the Mississippi Democratic Party didn’t represent people who look like me,” said Tyrone Hendrix, a longtime political strategist who worked on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and helped manage Johnny DuPree’s 2011 gubernatorial campaign.
At least 70 percent of Democratic voters in Mississippi are black, but the top leader of the Mississippi Democratic Party is white.
As white elected officials and voters have ditched the Democratic Party in droves in recent years, white Democrats have maintained their control of the state party. Before Moak was chairman, it was Rickey Cole, a white man. Before Cole, it was Jamie Franks, a white man. Before Franks, it was Wayne Dowdy, a white man. Before Dowdy, it was Cole, a white man. Before Cole, it was Jon Levingston, a white man.
Beginning the evening following the 2019 general election in which the Democratic Party suffered a historic loss, Mississippi Today interviewed more than six dozen prominent Democrats about the past, present and future of the party. In those interviews, a single theme was discussed more than any other: racial tension within the party that has gone ignored by party leadership.
“There’s more racism in this Democratic Party than I’ve seen in the Republican Party,” said Felix Gines, an unsuccessful 2019 legislative candidate who served as chairman of the Harrison County Democratic Party. “I wish I was wrong about that.”
Jared Turner, the only black political fundraiser in the state of Mississippi and one of few in the nation, is considered a must-have consultant for top Democratic candidates in the state. Name a high-profile Democratic campaign in Mississippi since 2007, and Turner likely helped out in some way.
That depth of experience has shown Turner which political strategies work in Mississippi, and perhaps more importantly, which strategies don’t work in Mississippi.
After the 2015 election in which Democrats suffered massive losses, Turner dove into the data. White moderate voters, long the main target of Democratic Party leaders, had all but completed their years-long shift to the Republican Party.
So he developed a theory and became one of the first operatives to share it broadly with prominent white leaders: The Mississippi Democratic Party should not spend another dime on white voter outreach.
“I’m watching Democratic campaigns ignore black voters and spend 90 to 95 percent of their money on reaching white voters, who continue to end up voting for Republicans,” Turner said. “Then after the election, I’m seeing the same people who made those spending decisions blame black voters for not turning out and supporting our candidates. It’s just bullshit.”
Turner continued: “We need an apparatus to actually turn out black voters. Black voters participate in elections more than any other demographic, but there’s a segment who will not turn out unless you have a specific program in place to get them to turn out. There are real gains to be made with them, unlike with white voters, and very few have tried it.”
Few people have tried to run statewide campaigns Turner’s way in large part because they’re received no messaging support from the party, several black candidates and political operatives told Mississippi Today.
Take 2019, for instance: The state party, led by a white moderate, put its messaging behind the top two candidates on the ticket: Jim Hood, a white moderate running for governor, and Jay Hughes, a white moderate running for lieutenant governor.
Meanwhile, the messaging of black statewide candidates like attorney general candidate Jennifer Riley Collins, secretary of state candidate Johnny DuPree, insurance commissioner candidate Robert Amos and treasurer candidate Addie Lee Green were largely ignored by the state party.
“Hood was who he was and what worked for him, and we needed him and the party to be more,” said Pam Shaw, who managed the 2019 campaign of Jennifer Riley Collins. “There were thousands of people who voted for Mike Espy in 2018 who didn’t vote at all in 2019, and I’d argue it’s because they only heard Jim Hood. The numbers are there for Democrats to have success in statewide elections. But the Hood campaign or the party didn’t do the kind of outreach to black voters that would’ve helped him and helped us, helped the ticket.”
Shaw continued: “It all goes back to the tension around how you build your base and what’s your party. Is it building your base around brown or black people, being open and welcome, or is it going to the others? I don’t know that people have made that decision yet.”
One reason white moderates continue to hold the power of the party: Mississippi’s black Democratic voters have never been adequately represented on the state party’s governing body.
Every four years, Mississippi Democrats elect 20 people from each of the state’s four congressional districts to serve on the 80-member executive committee, which is responsible for “any and all affairs of the Democratic Party,” according to the state party’s constitution. Those duties include approving all party financial decisions and electing the party chairman.
The deck is statistically stacked against black Democrats on the executive committee.
A plurality of the state’s Democratic voters live in the 2nd Congressional District, which has been heavily gerrymandered by white, conservative leadership. During the 2016 presidential election, the 2nd Congressional District was home to 43 percent of the state’s total Democratic voters. The next closest district by Democratic makeup was the 3rd Congressional District at 21 percent.
• Congressional District 1: One executive committee seat per 4,197 voters.
• Congressional District 2: One executive committee seat per 9,617 voters.
• Congressional District 3: One executive committee seat per 4,805 voters.
• Congressional District 4: One executive committee seat per 3,875 voters.
In the 2nd Congressional District, which Congressman Bennie Thompson represents, black voters make up about 61 percent of the electorate. The next closest district by black representation is the 3rd Congressional District at 32 percent.
Though the 2nd Congressional District is home to considerably more black voters than any other district, it receives the same number of executive committee seats as the other three congressional districts, each of which represent far fewer total black voters.
Of the 80 executive state committee members elected in 2016, just 42 of them, or 52 percent, were black — about 20 percentage points lower than the overall black voter representation of the party.
“I love this party, and I work hard to help Democrats in Mississippi win,” Turner said. “I’m a political consultant. I don’t work anywhere else. This is how I make my money, it’s how I feed my family. I even take on extra work for little pay just to do some basic stuff that the party itself isn’t doing that it probably should be.”
“I just feel like I’ve been loyal to something that has not been loyal to me,” he said.
Shameca Collins decided to run for district attorney in southwest Mississippi in 2019 because she believed that alternatives to prison could do more long-term good than locking people up and potentially disenfranchising them for life.
Collins, a black Democrat who had been serving as a city prosecutor in Natchez, had considerably more progressive thoughts on criminal justice issues than the 24-year incumbent district attorney, a white moderate named Ronnie Harper who was running for reelection.
“I believe in being tough on crime, but being tough on crime doesn’t mean that you have to destroy lives,” Collins told the Natchez Democrat. “You can’t let people get away with committing crimes, but you can put programs in place that will reform our young men and women before they become another statistic.”
Collins benefited from Mississippi NAACP organization efforts that were already occurring in southwest Mississippi. The NAACP, which does not endorse political candidates, advocates for its members around specific political issues. It is one of several organizations in Mississippi that boosts progressive issues but operates independently of the Mississippi Democratic Party.
The organization’s proven grassroots strategy replicates the successful campaign methods of civil rights groups of the 1950s and 1960s. Last year, NAACP leaders identified key allies at the neighborhood level who could rally around issues that later happened to align Collins’ platform. Over time, those community allies broadened their reach to voters across the district.
“That campaign tradition has continued in Mississippi whether African Americans had a political party engage with them or not,” said Corey Wiggins, the executive director of the Mississippi NAACP.
Many voters in Collins’ district were upset about lengthy pretrial incarceration rates and racial inequity in the criminal justice system, Wiggins said. The NAACP efforts helped show voters that local elected officials were responsible for those frustrations.
That strategy ultimately paid off for Collins as she unseated the longtime incumbent Harper in the Democratic primary.
“By centering people and communities directly impacted by the issues and the policies that are creating havoc in everyday lives of folks, it’s powerful,” Wiggins said. “When you’re talking about issues of racial equity in justice, how do you really get to the core of the ills that we are experiencing? You’ve got to center people to understand that.”
Wiggins continued: “Whether that’s through a grassroots organization, a political party or even a corporate entity, you’ve got to center people. If not, you leave out the most important component of why we’re doing this in the first place.”
Though that grassroots campaign blueprint was literally drawn up in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement, leaders of the Mississippi Democratic Party have made no effort in at least two decades to follow it, several prominent party players told Mississippi Today.
Just twice in the modern history of the Mississippi Democratic Party has an African American served as chairman. From 1987-1994, Ed Cole, a black man, served as chairman. And from 1994-1998, state senator Johnnie Walls of Greenville held the seat. Walls was outspoken during his political career about black Mississippians being underrepresented within the state party. As he considered an independent bid for U.S. Senate in 1984, Walls said black candidates of the Democratic Party “do not receive the same support we give whites.”
Race is a key consideration of the current structure of the party. In 1976, just 44 years ago, the all-white Mississippi Democratic Party merged with the majority-black Mississippi Loyal Democrats to form the modern state party.
Most of the Loyal Democrats had become politically engaged with the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was founded in 1964 by Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker and Bob Moses as a way to obtain political influence in the state. Their founding of that party was spurred by the “regular” Mississippi Democratic Party’s racist policies and exclusion of black voters.
“One thing that people involved in today’s Mississippi Democratic Party tend to forget is that we’re an actual coalition between races,” said David Rushing, who is white and serves as chairman of the Sunflower County Democratic Executive Committee. “It’s delicate. You have to talk and understand where people are coming from to really maintain this coalition. I’m afraid it’s being frayed right now because the state party leadership doesn’t seem to know how to work with the base (of black voters).”
Key strategists who have led the party’s focus on growing support among white moderates agree with Rushing. After the 2019 election in which Democrats earned little white moderate votes, the strategists told Mississippi Today that the party cannot win with that focus. And worse, they say, is the risk of further isolating the party’s base of black voters.
“The party’s gotta tear itself down completely and start back again,” said Michael Rejebian, who managed Jim Hood’s campaign in 2019. “You’ve got some dynamic African American leaders in different parts of the state who are poised to take the reins, get out there, build the party back up and run for office. I think they can win, but that hinges on getting rid of those obstacles that have kept African American leaders from moving into higher positions (in the state party) or state office.”
Moak, who is campaigning to be reelected party chairman later this summer, does not agree with Rejebian or other strategists who have conceded the focus on white moderate appeal can’t win elections. This week, Moak told Mississippi Today that he believes the party should continue focusing on growing its white moderate support.
Every Democrat interviewed for this series said that the Mississippi Democratic Party should be as diverse and as broadly inclusive as possible, particularly regarding race. But most people interviewed said that for the party to build a winning strategy for the future, the majority of its focus should be on supporting its base of black voters.
“The party doesn’t have to be all black. It doesn’t even have to be black dominant,” Hendrix said. “But it should be led by people who have the general belief that the party should reflect both the demographics and the positions on the issues that a majority of Democrats in the state of Mississippi have. Right now, that’s just not happening.”
“The Mississippi Democratic Party is at the point that if it doesn’t change, it will die,” he said.