Mississippi Today rolled out a three-part series on the Mississippi Democratic Party this week based on months of reporting.
Following the historic 2019 loss for Mississippi Democrats, we interviewed more than six dozen prominent Democrats about the past, present and future of the state party.
Part one illustrates how dysfunction and disorganization within the Mississippi Democratic Party led to the historic 2019 loss. Part two illustrates how a political identity crisis within the party is harming candidates up and down ticket. Part three illustrates how the party’s leadership has failed to support and devote resources to black Mississippians, who make up at least 70 percent of the party’s voting base.
On Monday, Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak talked with Mississippi Today about several concerns raised in those articles. The following transcript is taken from the conversation with Moak. It has been edited for clarity and length.
Mississippi Today: What happened in 2019, from the top of ticket all the way down?
Bobby Moak: You were coming off a 2018 election year where you had the president visit I don’t even know how many times. It was about voter turnout. It was a missed opportunity. You know, we saw Kentucky win. We saw Louisiana win. We saw phenomenal number of dollars spent on their Democratic Party and their candidates because they had sitting governors or U.S. senator or whatever the case may be. The money was not only given to the candidates there, but it was also given to the party. Mississippi didn’t have that ability because we haven’t had those elected officials for 12-16 years.
What do you think the role of the Democratic Party in Mississippi should be?
Moak: In a nutshell, it’s supporting candidates and supporting our elected officials that are Democrats.
If the Democratic Party is going to have success in Mississippi again, how do you get there?
Moak: You get there by starting from the bottom. In 2016, we put together a large number of Democrats to be elected at the municipal level. We didn’t have much competition there from the other side. During the 2019 election, we reached out with different programs to put more candidates on the ballot, which we were successful in doing. It’s getting folks in the game. It’s calling folks off the bench, saying it’s time to get in the game. You’ve got to rebuild the party from the bottom up. You have to have the financial ability, and you have to have the ability to work with local elected officials. You have to have all of that.
Specifically, what have you done since you were elected chairman to rebuild the party?
Moak: Well, we started by putting almost 600 Democrats on the ballot that would not otherwise have appeared on the ballot. That helped us turn out a lot of additional votes in a lot of additional counties. In a lot of places, that was successful. Just like my home county in Lincoln County, where Democratic turnout increased by 10 percent. That might not sound like much, but that’s huge. Same thing happened in Rankin County, DeSoto County, Lamar County, around Tupelo, we saw increases. Even with the loss at the top of the ticket, we saw people turning out to vote as Democrats. We saw independents and white voters coming back to the party also.
Specific concerns have been raised about staffing and overall infrastructure at the party level. There’s no executive director or finance director. Why are those two positions vacant?
Moak: It’s all about money. We’ve got a digital director and data director, and we’ve had people from the executive committee filling in on some of things like the two things you just mentioned. It’s about raising enough money to have an executive director. You know, an executive director isn’t someone who just sits in the office and answers a phone and has a nice conversation with you. It’s a person who has those contacts to raise those funds. It’s hard to find those funds in Mississippi, so it’s going to have to happen in other parts of the nation to bring those funds in. You’ve got to be able to raise that money. You’ve got to know the data systems that are now called upon to be used in our state, just like in every other state. You’ve got to have those kind of abilities, too, and with those abilities comes a cost. But yes, there is also a plan to set out those job descriptions a little tighter in Mississippi. Those will be ready by May 29, and we’ll figure out how to move forward after that.
As you mention, raising money in Mississippi is tough. How do you get to the point that you can, as a party, raise the money you need to get these things done?
Moak: You know, that’s always been an issue. I think our Republican friends have a much easier avenue to go down because they’ve got U.S. senators and governors. People who contribute to them also contribute to the party when asked. So we’ve been getting a lot of financial support from the (Democratic National Committee), but we have to show folks who are willing to put some money into Mississippi that we have a viable program that can match up with any other state. I think we’re doing that with our data program. We’re one of the first 10 states that were contacted by the Biden campaign to come in and do some joint efforts with them. They said it was only because of relationships that we have here in the state with some national figures. So I think we’re on the right track with that and it will come. And listen, we know that it will come because if you take a look at where this party was just three or four years ago, you’ll see the complete difference there.
Some other concerns have been raised about miscommunications that occurred with some county-level volunteers. They said the state party wasn’t always responsive. What would you say to those people?
Moak: Well at the local level, I think we’ve tried to answer those questions. Also what we’ve done, the money we have raised, we’ve tried to send some of it back to them to help candidates. We’ve put them through training, we’ve put them through our VAN program, which is our list of all the voters in the state that would be respective to their county and contact information. We’re becoming more involved with the counties in letting the counties know what we have, and I think we’ve been getting there. The case in point is that we’re seventh in the nation in signup for these training matters. We’ve got some county organizations within the party, too, that like to take a leadership role in doing that. You know, whether that’s been occurring or not, that’s why the party’s become more involved at the county level.
There are some very clear ideological differences within the party — everything from conservatives to moderates to progressives. As chairman, how do you seek to strike that balance and keep the different factions in the state satisfied with the party?
Moak: Well number one, you have to realize you will not keep all the factions satisfied. Okay, that’s just a fact of political life whether you’re at the state party or in the state legislature. The Democratic leaders over there are — I’ve had that, too, and I can tell you this one is a lot more difficult. How I look at it is this: The party is not here to set policy positions. That’s for our elected officials whether at the city, county or state level. The issues they want to push is when the party needs to come in and say, “Let’s do this.” You get behind them. The hardest thing I found after leaving the Legislature after 32 years is that I don’t think the party should get in front of our elected officials. They are looking at things from the bigger view than we are, and they should have more information than the party has. And the party needs to back them up.
Well right now, there aren’t a whole lot of elected Democrats who have much influence who can set that policy. You’ve got legislative leadership, but Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers. You’ve got Congressman Bennie Thompson, but he’s got federal duties. If the elected officials should set the policy and lead on issues, how do you get there if there aren’t officials to lead? Should the party step in?
Moak: Under those circumstances, I would say yes. We try to pick up on the issues that Congressman Thompson is sending out in daily and weekly email blasts in his role as chairman of Homeland Security. We try to do that through some sort of messaging. We’ll see what may be going on in the Legislature, particularly lately with COVID-19 or prison issues, and we’ll talk to our local folks to try to help them. If there’s going to be a vacuum somewhere and nobody wants to step out on an issue, it may be that they’re not the ones to do it. In that instance, I think the party should step out and take that role.
If the party does that, how do you determine what the message should be, given the different factions in the party. You’re a moderate Democrat —
Moak: I want to say this, too: There are no coincidences in politics. I learned that a long time ago. So if you see the party step out ahead of our elected officials, it’s because somebody, somewhere has had a conversation with an elected officials. That’s where you’ll see the party step up, step ahead of some elected officials.
So it might not be direct messaging coming from the party as much as it’s coordination behind the scenes with those elected officials?
Moak: There are no coincidences in politics. So I think that makes it easy for the party to message.
How would you say most regular Mississippi Democratic voters fall on the political spectrum? Are they more moderate, more progressive?
Moak: You know, I see them sort of all across the board. I see them somewhat of a microcosm of all of those folks out there. I’ll go a step further beyond your question. We see a lot of independents or folks who want to come back, those are more. I think we’ve seen the polling information on that. They are more middle of the road. They’re not far right, they’re not far left. They’re coming back as you saw in the post-election analysis precinct polling in 2019. In different areas of the state, you saw 8-15 percent of voters come back to the party who had not historically been there in the last eight or 12 years.
That’s an interesting point. Jim Hood’s strategy was definitively geared toward white independent voters. I spoke with Janis Patterson, a black woman who is progressive who ran for state House in Prentiss County. That was the center of where Jim Hood was targeting his more moderate messaging. She talked about this disconnect between the policies she was pushing and the policies Hood was pushing. In the end, they received the same number of votes in her district. As party leader, how do you weigh those two different ideologies with how they fared in the end?
Moak: Well in that particular example, I know that candidate. She was a great candidate who was pushed by a lot of friends, including my family up there in north Mississippi. She got hit by the same thing Hood got hit with. Here’s one thing about her going into that race: She knew that district was tough to win. She still stepped out there, and those are the kind of folks you have to appreciate more than anybody running for office. The question that Hood probably had was that those voters would vote for him, whereas they didn’t vote for (Mike Espy) in 2018. That didn’t turn out to be so. So it became Democrat versus Republican rather than candidate. What you have to do as a party is look at numbers before you go into a race. You have to help the candidates if they’ll take the help and say, “Here’s where you need to be to garner the Democratic base.” That’s part of our data and digital program we’ve been putting together the past three-and-a-half years.
The Republican Party is really good at messaging and being on the same page from top to bottom. What’s it going to take to get Democrats in Mississippi on the same page like that?
Moak: I’m not sure Democrats want to follow that Republican lead. Republicans can do that because they’ve got U.S. senators, because they’ve got governors, because they’ve got a speaker of the house and lieutenant governor who can call them and say, “If you don’t vote this way, we’re going to run somebody against you in the primary.” Democrats really never have been that way. They’ve been more free-thinking. They like to think for themselves. Republicans don’t tend to send that kind of aura out there. I think we all know that. They tend to be more in line than Democrats. The thing about Democrats is they’ll fight among each other, and at the end of the day, they’ll almost come back together all of the time. Will we get Democrats to do that? Are Democrats going to fall in line on issues they care about? Yes. You saw that in the last election on issues like healthcare, roads and bridges, education. Those are the kind of things that bring Democrats together are issues.
To be fair, there are some issues that would keep Democrats apart. Abortion, state flag, economic development come to mind.
Moak: To be fair, you’re right. But those are things Democrats just have to work through, and that’s why you have to put together a Mississippi party platform. It’s been so easy for Republicans to say, “Oh you’re a Democrat, here’s your national platform.” Well no. This is Mississippi, here’s what we do. We look at it that way because we think that’s gonna be the best things for Mississippians. Like the things I just harped on: education, healthcare, infrastructure.
Race is a big consideration for the Mississippi Democratic Party. Knowing that 70 percent of Democratic voters are black, and you’re a white man, how do you ensure that you’re representing black Mississippians adequately?
Moak: Let’s get this out of the way: There are sure folks who were not for me getting the job four years ago, and there are folks who don’t want to see me continue in the position. That’s just a fact. It’s also a fact that during the last three and half years, we’ve pulled this party out of financial holes it’s been in. We’ve brought back independents into the fold, we’ve brought back white voters. There’s one thing I believe in, and that’s that we will not stand if we stand alone. We have to have all of us: blacks and white and every mix of moderate or far left or far right Democrats. You have to have all of those folks coming in. One thing you cannot do is you cannot forget the base of the party. I have tried to focus on that and giving back to the counties, which is something we haven’t seen, which is to try to build back the party at the county level. That’s one thing you must continue to do, and you’ve got to make it open and transparent for everybody. And look, I’ve had pushback in recruiting candidates in 2019. The same people who want openness don’t like it when you want to open it for everybody to have a voice. I believe that everybody gets a shot and everybody gets their voice heard. At the end of the day, you have to take care of your Democratic base, but then you’ve also got to try to add to it.
So you want to strike a balance between keeping the base of black voters happy but also reaching out to white voters who recently left? No one’s had success with that. How do you do it?
Moak: I don’t think it’s a tightrope. You must take care of the base. We’ve seen there’s a base there. What we need is a little more accountability, more training. We need to bring in more volunteers on the ground. Listen, we’ve got tons of volunteers in our air force, if you will. We ran about 4.2 million telephone calls or emails or direct postcard messaging during 2018. Putting that on the ground is also something harder to do, and it’s something we’ve got to work on. Giving counties money back. We want counties to be the leaders in putting that vote out at the local level.
Has there been enough support for and enough focus on the party’s base of black voters?
Moak: I don’t think anybody’s done enough, no. That’s evident by the fact that we’re losing some local races that we shouldn’t. There’s just one that immediately comes to mind in the Mississippi Delta. We had a minority candidate that should’ve just run outright, but instead there was a runoff. And during that runoff, I think had the state party not become involved and tried to get in concert with the other groups on the ground, then we wouldn’t have gotten that seat in the special election.
We’re in a transition period, but right now you’ve got two staffers currently. One’s a white man, one’s a Hispanic man. You’re a white man as chairman. Looking forward, how do you staff the party in a way that’s more representative of the population of the state and the Democratic Party?
Moak: We just had a black female who left the party late last year. We do have Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams’ group, under our roof now. A wonderful lady is leading that, a black female. Looking at our structure under our constitution, we make sure we’ve got everybody represented.
Moving forward, can you be a good leader for the Mississippi Democratic Party?
Moak: I think that I have been, and the proof is in the pudding.