Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Just about everyone who lived in northeast Jackson and southern Madison County got a knock on their door in the summer and fall of 2019.
When they opened their doors, they were greeted by a 37-year-old white woman who began with something like: “My name is Shanda Yates. I’m running as a Democrat to serve you in the state House of Representatives. I’d like to tell you why.”
House District 64 encompasses most of the white neighborhoods in Jackson and a few Reservoir area neighborhoods in Madison County. Those district lines had long been drawn to ensure a white, Republican sliver of the state’s capital city, which is the Blackest large city in America.
The 31-year incumbent of the district was Rep. Bill Denny, chairman of the all-important Apportionment and Elections Committee, overseeing the redrawing of legislative districts. Denny was considered a Republican Party elder and one of the most powerful lawmakers at the Capitol.
But Yates, a former law partner of Republican Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, wanted change for her district. So she went out and sold it, sharing her unabashedly Democratic platform with voters.
Most prognosticators believed she stood no chance. But she received a cascade of financial and political support from in-state Democrats, including party organizations and individual donors and candidates. She was invited to speak at local and state Democratic Party meetings. Former U.S. Congressman Mike Espy, who ran as a Democrat for U.S. Senate in 2018 and 2020, canvassed with her in northeast Jackson.
Several progressive groups based outside Mississippi took notice. For a few cycles, these groups had been investing in districts like House District 64 across America, sensing the left-moving trend of middle-aged white women in suburban areas. Yates’ campaign received tens of thousands of dollars in independent expenditures from out-of-state networks that exclusively support Democrats. She publicly boasted being endorsed by some of these groups.
The bet was risky, but the feeling was unanimous among all the Dems involved: Yates could win. They were right.
When the results were tallied on Nov. 5, 2019, Yates had defeated Denny by 168 votes. Every dollar spent and every vote had counted. But Democrats broadly viewed her victory as bigger than just another D on the House roster and the exceedingly rare defeat of the GOP.
She’d instilled hope among Democrats — not the state party itself, which has long been in shambles, but the group of individuals and organizations that champion progressive causes in the state — that change in ruby red Mississippi was possible. A white Democratic woman had knocked off a Republican icon in Jackson, and several people who helped her campaign in 2019 had already begun planning how to use it as a model for victory in 2023 and beyond.
But in a stunning blow to all those people, that hope abruptly vanished last week.
Yates announced on Jan. 13 that she had left the Democratic Party and would serve in the Legislature as an independent. She did not inform Democratic Party leadership of her decision before it was made public. Several Democratic lawmakers who consider Yates a close friend were not given a heads up.
Every Democrat who spoke with Mississippi Today shared a feeling of disappointment that Yates didn’t give her colleagues the chance to address her concerns.
“Not mad. Not angry. Just hurt,” a prominent Democrat close with Yates said.
Several of the progressives who helped get Yates elected reached out to express their disappointment and anger.
“We’re Democrats in Mississippi. We’re used to being frustrated and disappointed, but this is different,” said a Democratic operative who worked closely with Yates during her 2019 campaign. “Shanda helped us believe that with the right candidate, in the right district, even in this climate, we could win at the state legislature-level despite the brokenness of the state party. We worked outside the party structure and we won. But here we are two sessions later, and it didn’t matter because ultimately we still lost.”
Strengthening the blow, most every Democratic official learned of Yates’ decision from Y’all Politics, a political blog that regularly runs messaging for Mississippi Republican Party leaders. The GOP blog bearing the bad news has been one of the toughest pills for Democrats to swallow and has heightened speculation about why Yates ditched the party.
The reason for her decision, Yates fired off in a series of tweets over the weekend, was the Democratic Party’s “toxic environment.” In an interview with WLBT, she broadly alluded to pushback she received over her vote to approve the new Republican-drawn congressional districts — the only House Democrat to do so. She offered no specifics beyond that.
Yates spoke with Mississippi Today via text message on Sunday, and offered few additional specifics.
“Following the (congressional redistricting) vote, members of the Democratic Party and my legislative caucus made it clear to me that I was not welcome in the party any longer,” Yates told Mississippi Today. “I do not plan to publicly elaborate on the specific content of the statements that were made to relay this message as doing so would serve no purpose aside from further dividing the Democratic Party and this is not my intent.”
She continued: “I am saddened that some seem to assume that I have abandoned my beliefs and ideals yet have no desire to look at the underlying issues that led to this decision. My constituents and those who supported me should know that I am the same person I have always been. The letter behind my name doesn’t change that. I will continue to represent District 64 to the best of my ability.”
Yates said she would no longer caucus with Democrats, though “(House Democratic leader Rep. Robert Johnson) and I have a good working relationship, and he knows that he can come to me anytime it may be needed.” Yates said she did not plan to caucus with Republicans, either, but is instead planning to “work individually with members, as needed, depending on the issue/bill.”
Repeatedly pressed for specifics about her party switch, Yates declined to offer them.
Mississippi Today spoke with 10 House Democrats and asked what they’ve heard about the reasoning for Yates’ defection. Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader, was one of the only Democrats in contact with Yates about her concerns — which she first expressed a little more than one day before she announced her decision to switch parties.
Here’s what Johnson said went down:
“This all unfolded in a couple days. Shanda has always been a great Democrat, always has voted with us when we’ve asked. After the (Jan. 11) redistricting vote, two or three members of the Hinds County delegation told me they were upset that she voted with the Republicans on final passage. I told them they didn’t need to worry about it, that she’d co-authored our amendment and voted with us there, and that we’d accomplished exactly what we were hoping to with that vote. I thought that would be the end of it.
Those couple members apparently shared their disappointment with some of their friends, who said some stuff about Shanda at the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee meeting that day. That got back to Shanda. She first told me about everything on that Wednesday (Jan. 12). She let me know that people were calling her law office and berating her staff over her vote. I was upset when I heard that, but told her that it was coming from just two members. I let her know that she had the full support of the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Caucus and that the one or two Hinds County members were not a problem.
Still, we gathered a small group of Democrats and told those couple Hinds County members they got it wrong. She knew she had the support of the House Democratic Caucus. I wish she’d just weathered it. And look, I’m not necessarily defending her, but it’s hard enough being a white Democrat in the House of Representatives for any member to beat up on somebody like this. We don’t do that, except in Hinds County. The Hinds County delegation can be rough. It’s all part of it. I just wish she’d stayed because she could have with the major support she had. She’s been a good member, a good Democrat. But any idea that she didn’t have support of the overwhelming majority of the caucus is wrong. If two or three loud Hinds County Democrats made it unbearable for her, I hate that.”Rep. Robert Johnson, House minority leader
Several Democrats told Mississippi Today that Rep. Earle Banks, a Jackson Democrat, led the charge against Yates for her redistricting vote. Banks, long a provocateur among even his fellow Democrats, did not return several messages requesting comment before this story published.
A few minutes after the story published, Banks texted and said: “That is not true. I never stirred up any thing against her after that vote.”
Every Democrat who spoke with Mississippi Today said they were given little or no heads up about Yates’ concerns and ultimately her decision to switch. Most of them hadn’t even heard that she was struggling with her place in the party — a reality that has spurred feelings of confusion among Democrats, and has left open the door for wild speculation among both Democrats and Republicans at the Capitol.
As the dust settles, Democrats — already in the super-minority in both the House and Senate, desperate for any legislative momentum — are now down another member.
Yates is the latest of a string of white Democrats to defect; there are just three white Democrats left in the House, and two in the Senate. Those who have left in recent years have reaped rewards from Gunn or other Republican leaders:
- In 2019, Democrat Rep. Nick Bain flipped to the Republican Party. The next year, Gunn named Bain chairman of the House Judiciary B Committee.
- In 2020, longtime Democrat Rep. Kevin Horan announced he would become an independent. Less than a week later, Gunn made Horan chairman of the House Corrections Committee. Horan is now listed on the Legislature’s website as a Republican.
- In 2020, Democratic Rep. Michael Ted Evans announced he would serve as an independent. That year, Gunn named him to the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. The next year, Gunn appointed him to the House Transportation Committee.
- In 2021, freshman Democratic Rep. Jon Lancaster announced he was flipping to the Republican Party. Lancaster was praised publicly by top leaders of the Mississippi Republican Party, including Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves.
As for the Y’all Politics speculation, Yates chalked it up to coincidence, saying she sent the press release at the same time to the blog and the Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper that covers her district. She said she had not communicated with Gunn about her party switch before she announced it, saying: “He did not know. Not sure if he even knows I left the party.”
“No nefarious intent,” Yates said. “If that were the case I would be naming names and saying lots of things. I’m not. I tried to do this quietly with a very mildly worded press release.”
She continued: “I care enough about the party to not give specifics about the comments and statements that other members of the party made to me. Doing that would only hurt the party. And if the fact that I don’t want to hurt the party (that I was told I didn’t belong in) isn’t proof enough that I care about the underlying good of the party and the people who elected me, then I’m sorry.”
State of play and what to watch for:
1. The Mississippi Democratic Party continues to be a mess. The party baffled most everyone Friday with a strange, cryptic tweet about Yates’ decision to switch parties. Even had Yates given her legislative colleagues a chance to make whatever wrong was occurring right, there’s not much the party itself could offer her by way of financial or political support. Democrats at the Capitol had a great deal of respect for Yates, but respect from colleagues can only go so far when Republicans can pass any bill they want without a single Democratic vote.
2. Yates had support from legislative Democrats. In her first term, her colleagues elected her vice-chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Even feeling burned by Yates for her decision to leave, every legislative Democrat spoke highly of her and said they regretted she left the party. Will Democrats make any move to extend an olive branch to Yates or bring her back into the fold? Will any Democratic leader work to get to the bottom of why this happened in efforts to prevent it from happening again?
3. The non state party affiliated progressives who helped Yates get elected in 2019 — the groups responsible for the only semblance of effective Democratic politics in Mississippi — are already discussing with each other whether they will support her in a possible re-election bid in 2023. Yates told Mississippi Today that she does currently plan to run for re-election. No matter how they handle her, those individuals and groups will almost certainly add a new question when deciding whether to support legislative candidates moving forward: “Will you flip if you’re elected?”
4. Legislative redistricting looms. Population changes in the 2020 Census indicate that two of Jackson’s majority-Black House districts may need to consolidated. Could Gunn or other powerful Republicans reward Yates for leaving the Democratic Party with a redder district? It’s extremely possible some of those progressives feeling burned by Yates could work to find a Democratic challenger to run against her in 2023. How her district is redrawn in a couple months could very well decide her fate at the Capitol.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated news of Rep. Jon Lancaster’s party flip was broken by a conservative political blog. Taylor Vance at The Daily Journal broke that news.