A voter cast a ballot at the D'Iberville Civic Center in D'Iberville, Miss., during the Mississippi primary election on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023. (Hannah Ruhoff/The Sun Herald via AP)

BILOXI — John Willie Dedeaux has suppressed an urge for the last 15 years to mount a campaign for the state Legislature. But this year is different. 

After weighing his future retirement options as a school resource officer, he decided to finally run as a Democratic candidate for his House seat in Pass Christian because he believes his community could improve with a different representative in the state Capitol. 

Dedeaux knows it will be difficult for him to unseat his opponent, three-term Republican incumbent Carolyn Crawford, and become the first Democrat to represent his district in 12 years. 

But after hearing from some of the nation’s most prominent Democratic officials last week in his home county, he’s certain the political tide may be turning across the Gulf Coast, and this year could be different for other reasons.

The Congressional Black Caucus Institute on Aug. 10 convened its annual Mississippi policy event at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, with Democratic National Committee Chairman Jaime Harrison making a rare appearance in the Magnolia State. 

Harrison last appeared in Mississippi in 2018 for the state’s two U.S. Senate elections. Chairman of the national party since 2021, he wields influence with Democratic officials across the country. And speaking to Mississippians could give local organizers and candidates a morale boost during the peak of the campaign cycle.

Before last week, Dedeaux said he thought the national party didn’t care about him, his campaign or even his town. But after hearing national leaders pledge not to overlook Mississippi, the Blackest state in the nation, he now has a different opinion. 

“Those guys coming down and explaining how they want the party to grow, it lit a fire down here,” Dedeaux told Mississippi Today. “And it should put a fire under a lot more people.” 

The conference included a welcoming event with Harrison and a barbershop talk to discuss voting for Democratic candidates.

The event’s organizers did not allow the press to attend any of its events, but several people who took part in the conference told Mississippi Today that Harrison, a former South Carolina U.S. Senate candidate, promised to invest resources in the state, even with a Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP control of every statewide office.

“You are not going to be alone, Mississippi,” Harrison reportedly told attendees. “We have your back, Mississippi.” 

State Democratic party leaders, candidates and elected officials for years have complained that the national party often writes off Mississippi as an uncompetitive place because of its conservative electorate with a history of its leaders rejecting progressive policies.

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

But Rep. Robert Johnson III, the Democratic leader in the state House, hopes Harrison’s appearance on the Coast will mark a turning point in the party’s relationship with Mississippi. 

“The DNC hasn’t given up on Mississippi just because we have a Republican supermajority in the House and Senate and a Republican governor,” Johnson said. “They haven’t given up on the state of Mississippi, and they understand there’s work to be done.”

The event also occurred during the ongoing statewide election cycle, where Brandon Presley is attempting to oust Republican Gov. Tate Reeves from office, and state lawmakers are up for reelection. 

To have a shot at winning, Presley must erode Reeves’ firewall on the Coast that has consistently voted in large numbers for the governor.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves kicks off 2023 campaign where it’s mattered most: the Gulf Coast

Presley did not speak at last week’s CBC conference, but he attended a luncheon at the program as a guest of U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, the institute’s chairman. Presley also hosted his own campaign events on the Coast that weekend.

The state’s bottom three coastal counties of Jackson, Harrison and Hancock have also become a GOP stronghold for legislative seats in recent years. Out of the 16 House districts in the three counties, only two are represented by Democrats. All of its Senate districts are represented by Republicans. 

Organizers, led by Thompson, typically host the policy event in Tunica, but this year, they decided to move it to Biloxi — a symbolic gesture that state Democrats are willing to come to the Coast and engage with community leaders. 

Local activists and party leaders point out that the Coast, an area that houses one of the most transient and diverse populations in the state, could become competitive if national organizations invested money in the area and the right candidate could energize its Democrats and a moderate voting bloc.

“The new Democratic Party will not take this idea that there’s no place in the state that we can’t go, whether it’s GOP territory or what have you,” Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Cheikh Taylor said. “It’s all fair game.” 

The event took place in the midst of a statewide election shadow of the statewide election, but it also served a larger purpose to many of the attendees who have been involved in Democratic politics for decades. 

Sammie Lee Keys-Wiseman, a longtime Democratic organizer in Harrison County, became politically active when she met civil rights legends like Fannie Lou Hamer as a young girl. But before this month, she had never met a national leader of the party she’s been a member of her entire adult life. 

“I haven’t felt this way about the party in a long time. There was real energy and motivation in the room. It made me want to get up and work,” Keys-Wiseman said. “It really left me rejuvenated.”

In her 80s, she felt reassured that younger generations attended the conference and received advice on how to encourage more millennials to vote in state and local elections. And while she feels energized ahead of this year’s election, Keys-Wiseman warns that simply having a one-time event won’t be enough to build long-term change on the Coast or the state. 

“I think we need to organize like this at least once a year or even twice a year,” Keys-Wiseman said. “And the Democratic National Committee, they need to make it a point to get down here, so we can know exactly what they’re doing for Mississippi.” 

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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.