U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., left, and Brandon Presley, Northern District Public Service commissioner and candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, have a conversation before speaking to members of the Greenwood Voters League at Hart Lodge 640 in Greenwood, Miss., Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

GREENWOOD — U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who entered the national spotlight by leading the select committee scrutinizing the Jan. 6 insurrection, had specific instructions for Leflore County voters on Wednesday night. 

“I want you to get your popcorn, I want you to get your Coke out, and I want you to watch TV tomorrow,” Thompson said. “Tomorrow will be historic. It proves that in America, no one is above the law.” 

Around 50 attendees of the Greenwood Voters League applauded the congressman’s comments which were a clear reference to former President Donald Trump, who was arraigned Thursday in Washington on four federal charges relating to the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

Trump, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination for a second term as president, pleaded not guilty to the federal government’s charges against him. Still, Thompson took pride in the historic role he played on the committee.

“As you know, I chaired the Jan. 6 committee,” Thompson told the attendees. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of taxpayer’s money getting it right. But it took us almost two years to convince the Department of Justice they needed to get involved.” 

But while Thompson recounted his efforts on the committee that eventually issued criminal referrals to the Justice Department about the former president, Brandon Presley, the Democratic candidate for governor, looked on and listened to the congressman’s speech with a somewhat muted expression. 

The gubernatorial candidate followed Thompson’s remarks with a nearly 20-minute stump speech that included his usual round of policy proposals on Medicaid expansion, grocery tax cuts and his pro-life beliefs. 

But it contained no mention of Trump, the indictment or Washington politics. 

When asked by reporters about Thompson’s comments on the indictment and the select committee, Presley largely dodged the question and pivoted to Mississippi’s sprawling welfare scandal, a common theme of his campaign. 

“The indictments we’re watching are the indictments that have come down and will continue probably to come down in this welfare scandal where tens of millions of dollars have been stolen from Mississippians,” Presley said. “Those are the indictments I’m spending a lot of time watching.” 

North Mississippi’s current utility regulator, Presley has intentionally cultivated a relationship with Thompson, Mississippi’s current longest-serving congressional representative and only the second Black official to represent Mississippi in Washington since Reconstruction. 

Thompson, Mississippi’s lone Democratic official in Washington, endorsed Presley on the same day Presley announced his candidacy for governor, something the congressman did not do for former Attorney General Jim Hood’s 2019 bid for the Governor’s Mansion. 

Presley’s likely Republican opponent in November, incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves, took to Twitter to highlight Trump’s charges and point out Presley’s relationship with Thompson. 

“The Biden Administration’s attempts to interfere in the election by weaponizing law enforcement are corrupt and wrong,” Reeves said. “They have proven they will do anything to ‘get’ Donald Trump, and trample ethics, the rule of law, and our national unity to do it. And it all started with Brandon Presley’s top backer, Bennie Thompson.”

The incumbent governor has also attempted to use national issues to tie Presley, a moderate Democrat, to other liberals across the country, such as California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Reeves even challenged Newsom to a debate over gun rights.

“He and the governor of California deserve each other,” Presley said of Reeves on Wednesday. “They both belong to a jacuzzi-soaking, penny-loafer-wearing bunch of elitists. They don’t know anything about where we are.”

The Wednesday night scenario likely serves as a case study for how Presley plans to manage his partisan label in a conservative state throughout the duration of his campaign while maintaining his relationship with more traditional Democratic officials and navigating controversial national issues. 

While speaking to groups like the influential Greenwood Voters League, the Democratic candidate has consistently focused on issues that he believes would directly impact the state and has largely avoided speaking on national politics. 

Reeves is expected to capture the GOP’s nomination on Tuesday’s primary election, then would compete against Presley during the Nov. 7 general election. 

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Taylor, a native of Grenada, covers state government and statewide elections. He is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and Holmes Community College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Taylor reported on state and local government for the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, where he received an award for his coverage of the federal government’s lawsuit against the state’s mental health system.