A mural honoring the series of wade-ins in the 1960s adorns the side of the historic Inez Cafe building in East Biloxi. (Photo credit: Adam Ganucheau)

BILOXI — Most voters would say that a politician switching parties in the middle of a term is the ultimate betrayal of their trust.

Elected officials are, indeed, entrusted by voters to make decisions for them based on a set of shared, usually partisan principles. District lines are drawn, laws are passed, and judicial opinions are written to honor this cornerstone of American democracy. It’s intended to ensure all people are adequately represented in our government — one of the most important ideals to everyday Americans who feel that trust is their only connection with the leaders who serve them.

That’s why a midterm flip-flop at any level feels like a blindside to those who live within those representatives’ districts. The feeling is especially fresh on the minds of many East Biloxi residents this week.

Biloxi City Councilman Felix Gines recently had one word for his recent flip from the Mississippi Democratic Party to the Mississippi Republican Party: relief. But many constituents in his ward are using much different words for his decision: disappointment, anger and, yes, betrayal.

Gines is the latest in a string of Democratic defections as state party dysfunction continues to cede power to Republicans. Mississippi Republicans wield immense political influence at the state, local and federal levels thanks, in large part, to flips.

But this latest conversion has turned more heads than usual because of its racial dynamics: Gines is the first GOP pick-up since state Republican Party leaders announced an initiative to attract Black candidates.

Biloxi City Councilman Felix Gines

“Coming into a predominantly Black district and making a bold change like this will allow people to not take their vote for granted,” Gines told Mississippi Today in a lengthy interview last week. “So often, we’ll give our votes away for whatever reason. Well who’s going to be best for our community? That’s what it’s got to come down to. This bold move will serve as a wake-up call to not just the Black community, but all communities across the state. And particularly in Biloxi.”

He was right about at least one thing: His constituents here in Biloxi are wide awake following his party switch — just not in the way he was hoping.

About 20% of Biloxi’s 50,000 residents are Black. Gines was elected as a Democrat to the city council to represent East Biloxi, a predominantly Black neighborhood. For years, he has been the city’s only Black elected official — the beneficiary of the codified notion that all Americans should be adequately represented in government.

Civil rights history in Gines’ district runs deep. A series of wade-ins at Biloxi Beach in the 1960s helped integrate the Mississippi Gulf Coast and make it a vacation destination for Southern Blacks — a reality that continues to bolster the local economy. The main stretch of Highway 90 along the beach is named in honor of Dr. Gilbert R. Mason, who led the wade-ins and fought his whole life for voting rights and equal representation in government. Murals and other visible signs of the area’s commitment to political activism remain, and the Biloxi NAACP chapter is among the most active in the state.

Needless to say, Gines’ decision to pledge allegiance to the virtually all-white Mississippi Republican Party is not sitting well with many of his constituents.

“The Republican Party is the party that is everything anti-Black,” said Bill Stallworth, a community leader who formerly held Gines’ city council seat. “It’s the party of Strom Thurmond, of the Southern Strategy, of policies intended to keep Black folks down. To win, they’ve redrawn lines, disenfranchised so many voters and created lies about massive voter fraud. The effects are real, and they are deep.”

Putting Gines’ party switch bluntly, Stallworth said: “If we have to start throwing away our principles, if this is what we have to do to get elected, maybe we shouldn’t get elected.”

Gines told Mississippi Today no one factor led him to flip. When asked how he squared many of the modern Republican Party’s policies and principles that have worked against Black people, he harkened back to 19th century America.

“I’ve been using the term ‘going back home’ because this was once the party of Blacks,” Gines said. “Blacks once called the Republican Party the party of Lincoln. Look at the history: the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th Amendment. When you start talking about civil rights and freedom, one of the first groups to push civil rights in America was the Republican Party. Now what it’s become versus what it was is two different things.”

When pressed about the more modern policies of the Republican Party, Gines deflected and said, “I don’t think that there’s anything that everyone believes in 100% in either party.” When asked which Republican Party platforms he agreed with, he mentioned just one theme.

“I grew up in a conservative household,” he said. “There were 11 kids, and we had to stretch a dollar. My dad knew how to budget his household. If he didn’t budget his household right, his kids would’ve had to go without. That is what we call true conservative living. Fiscal responsibility. That jumps right out.”

He did not directly answer a question about whether he felt he had properly managed the city of Biloxi’s spending during his previous two terms as a Democrat.

Just a few hours after he announced the party flip, there were broad talks of unseating Gines. For more than a week now, callers to WJZD owner Rip Daniels’ popular radio show “It’s a New Day” have blistered Gines for his party switch.

“Felix Gines’ values are just the same as all Republicans trying to move up — that is, they’re out for themselves,” Gwen Catchings, a retired professor and business owner who lives in Gines’ district, told Mississippi Today. “They’re willing to sell their soul to the devil in order to get where they want to go. What they fail to realize is that once you go down that slippery slope, you’ve lost all your integrity.”

The recent effort of GOP officials to attract Black elected officials may have flipped Gines, but it could prove difficult to sustain come election time. While generations of Black Mississippians have fought and even died for better representation, Mississippi has never elected a Black candidate to statewide office. No legislative Republican is Black, and virtually all of the state’s Black elected officials are Democrats or independents.

GOP officials, though, say they will double down on their currently held values to try to appeal to a more diverse set of candidates.

“We know our plans and policies to reduce inflation, lower taxes, cut wasteful spending, secure our borders, invest in national defense, and restore American energy are appealing to all Americans,” Mississippi GOP Chairman Frank Bordeaux said in a statement. “We’re taking that message to communities where Republicans have not traditionally been as successful in order to recruit, train, and elect a more diverse group of candidates and bring thousands more freedom-loving Mississippians into our party. Felix Gines making the decision to join our party is a major win for us.”

But Black voters in Gines’ district do not appear moved to join him in the Republican Party — “the party of Donald Trump and insurrectionists,” as Daniels recently put it on his radio show.

“I know Dr. Gilbert R. Mason is turning over in his grave today,” Catchings said of Gines’ GOP flip. “If the Republican Party really wants to do something for Black folks in Mississippi, it wouldn’t be important if Felix Gines or anyone else was Republican or Democrat. They would already be doing it. If they didn’t do it while he was a Democrat, they aren’t going to do it when he’s a Republican. It’s just so obvious. Why should we fall for that? What we have is just like Georgia and Herschel Walker. The white folks have found them a Black boy. That’s all this is, and we aren’t going to fall for it.”

Dr. Gilbert R. Mason led the Biloxi Beach wade-ins and fought his whole life for voting rights and equal representation in government.

In 2019, Gines ran as a Democrat for a Biloxi-based House of Representatives seat as a Democrat. He came within about 150 votes of unseating incumbent state Rep. Randall Patterson, a Republican who himself was a Democrat until he flipped to the Republican Party midterm in 2014. Gines decried the lack of support from the Mississippi Democratic Party in the 2019 race and blamed his loss on state party dysfunction.

When Mississippi Today asked if Gines planned to run for that House of Representatives seat in 2023, this time as a Republican, he let out an extended laugh before responding, “Right now, my job is to serve my constituents and do the best I can to serve them. But I won’t rule out any future runs.”

Patterson told Mississippi Today on Dec. 13 he had not yet decided whether he’ll run for a sixth term in the House, but he praised Gines for “having a good heart” and “doing a good job as Biloxi councilman.”

READ MORE: ‘I got absolutely no help’: Dysfunction within the Mississippi Democratic Party leads to historic 2019 loss

Regardless of Gines’ future plans, many of his council ward’s constituents are fuming. Stallworth, who served on the Biloxi City Council for 10 years and lost to Gines in the 2013 Democratic primary, said he was approached several times by the Republican Party with incentives to flip.

“All I had to do for more power was give up my integrity, to be loyal to the party, to be loyal to the money,” Stallworth said of those offers. “I didn’t do it because I’d rather be loyal to principles and to what my God says to be. I don’t plan on losing my soul. My integrity is the last thing I’ve got, and I’d fight with everything in my power to maintain that. I don’t have a lot to leave my children. But if I can leave them with a sense of integrity and honesty and fair play, if I can give them that, I will have done well.”

Stallworth continued: “I don’t mind anyone being a Democrat or Republican, but I do mind people being liars and cheats. I’d say that to Mr. Gines or any other politician. You’ve got to be honest with yourself at the end of the day. Anything less than that just isn’t acceptable.”

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Adam Ganucheau, as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief, oversees the newsroom and works with the editorial team to fulfill our mission of producing high-quality journalism in the public interest. Adam has covered politics and state government for Mississippi Today since February 2016. A native of Hazlehurst, Adam has worked as a staff reporter for AL.com, The Birmingham News and The Clarion-Ledger and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Adam earned his bachelor’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi.