Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley listens to discussion regarding the cost of providing broadband services to a low-income school children in a rural community, during a Senate distance learning hearing, Wednesday, May 13, 2020, at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss. Lawmakers heard from education leaders, communications experts and businessmen about the impact and expense of COVID-19 on the state's educational institutions, which forced elementary, secondary and university school closure statewide and taxed and stretched the existing broadband system statewide, especially in rural communities. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley cited the red letters in the Bible (those of Jesus) as he spoke of the need to use some of the billions in Mississippi’s federal funds to ensure all Mississippians have access to high speed internet and safe public water systems.

Presley, speaking this week in Jackson, cited studies indicating people suffering from addictions during the COVID-19 pandemic had a much better chance to succeed if they could access online counseling.

Presley said he is not saying a good internet connection will end the problem of addiction, “but I am saying if we believe the red letters in the good book, there ought to be enough of us to say we care about putting those tools in our people’s hands…

“We have to make sure as Mississippians we continue to love and care for the unborn, but care also for the born and those who are struggling in life.”

Presley can relate to the average Mississippian, especially rural residents, like few modern politicians. His father was murdered when he was young, and he’s spoken of periods when his family didn’t have water or electricity because his mother couldn’t afford to pay the bills.

He can speak in everyday terms about complicated public utility regulatory issues he deals with as a Public Service commissioner and how those issues impact people.

Because of those communication skills and his ability to easily win what is likely the most Republican of the three Public Service Commission districts, Presley is often touted as something the Mississippi Democratic Party is short of: an attractive statewide candidate.

In 2019, four-term Attorney General Jim Hood was believed to be that person. Yet he could garner only 47% of the vote in losing to Republican Tate Reeves.

“I think Brandon could be a good candidate,” said former state House Democratic leader David Baria, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2018. “But I thought Jim Hood was a good candidate. I’ve been chasing for some time what Democrat could win statewide.”

Presley has toyed with running for a statewide post in the past, but has ultimately returned to the safety of re-election to the Public Service Commission. There will be pressure in 2023 for him to be the Democrat to step forward to challenge the Republican nominee for governor — whether it be Reeves or someone else.

In recent years, some white statewide candidates have struggled to earn the trust and support of Black Mississippians, who make up more than two-thirds of the Democratic Party’s voter base. Presley, however, has worked intentionally for years to build relationships among Black leaders from the local to federal levels.

State Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, said he believes Presley would have strong support from members of the Legislative Black Caucus if he ran for statewide office.

“If Brandon does run for governor, he would be good. He has the heart, the concerns and compassion for the people of Mississippi. He wants people to have access to opportunities,” Hines said.

In the fall of 2003, Presley, then a 25-year-old mayor, met at the Tupelo airport with Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, his campaign staffers and the small group of reporters covering Musgrove’s ultimately unsuccessful re-election bid.

Presley served as one of the hosts as Musgrove campaigned in various locations in northeast Mississippi.

The political novice, in his second year as mayor of Nettleton, which straddles the Lee and Monroe counties border, regaled Musgrove’s staffers and reporters as he would mimic Musgrove’s high-pitched voice and then the deep, slow southern drawl of Musgrove’s Republican opponent Haley Barbour.

But Presley also would provide political insight saying the election was pivotal as it would determine political control of the state for years to come. He said a Musgrove defeat would spell the end of the line for a long time for Democrats as a ruling party in Mississippi.

The 25-year-old was prophetic. Republicans now control all aspects of state government, holding all eight statewide elected posts and maintaining supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. On the state level, there is nothing that Republicans do not control.

Presley, now 233 pounds lighter, no longer does impersonations, at least not in public. On occasion he has displayed a respectable singing voice. After all, he is related to another northeast Mississippi native, Elvis Presley.

“I’m a Merle Haggard Democrat,” Presley has joked.

He also is non-committal when asked about his political future.

“That log will shake itself out between now and election year,” Presley said recently on Mississippi Today’s The Other side podcast.

In the coming months, perhaps when annual campaign finance reports are filed in January, Presley’s political future could become clearer — as well as whether he might be aiming to reverse that political trend he predicted would happen way back in 2003.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.