Opinion | A Spirited Governor’s Race Brings Hope in Mississippi

It’s been 23 years since a Democrat was elected governor of Mississippi and 41 years since a Democrat was elected one of the state’s U.S. senators. The Republican lock on the state — along with the policies and noxious traditions that have kept it in the basement among U.S. states for most indicators of social health — sometimes seems impenetrable.

Mike Espy, the former Democratic congressman from Mississippi and U.S. agriculture secretary, tried twice to become senator, in 2018 and 2020, but never got more than 46 percent of the vote. Jim Hood, then state attorney general, did a little better in the 2019 governor’s race, getting nearly 47 percent of the vote, but the current Republican governor, Tate Reeves, prevailed.

This year, with Mr. Reeves up for re-election in November, there are once again hopes that Mississippi could take a few steps up from the bottom and elect a governor willing to make a break from the past. And even though Donald Trump won the state by more than 16 percentage points in 2020, there are reasons to think it could happen.

For one thing, thanks to a significant scandal involving the misappropriation of welfare funds, Mr. Reeves is extraordinarily unpopular for an incumbent Republican, with 60 percent of voters saying they would prefer another candidate, according to a Mississippi Today/Siena College poll that came out last week. For another, he has a promising and energetic Democratic opponent named Brandon Presley who has been polling fairly well and is making a strong case that the state desperately needs a change, advocating a series of popular policies that could make a real difference in the lives of Mississippians, particularly those on the lower economic rungs. The contest is already turning into one of the most interesting races of 2023.

Mr. Presley, 45, is one of three elected members of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and is the former mayor of Nettleton, a small town in the bright-red northeast section of Mississippi. He talks energetically about the need to expand Medicaid and save rural hospitals, and why it’s important to eliminate the extremely regressive state grocery tax, and would rather discuss the lives of poor families than his own family ties to a certain popular singer of the same last name from Tupelo, up the road from Nettleton. (Elvis was his second cousin.)

His most effective tactic is his unrelenting attack on Mr. Reeves and the welfare scandal that has swirled around him and the previous Republican governor, Phil Bryant. A 2020 state audit found that as much as $94 million in federal anti-poverty money was improperly diverted to two nonprofit groups that used it for favors to lobbyists, celebrities and some lawmakers. The celebrities included Brett Favre, the former N.F.L. quarterback, who, according to text messages uncovered by the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today, arranged to spend $5 million in welfare funds for a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, his alma mater. At the same time, the state was rejecting a large majority of requests from families for Mississippi’s meager $170 a month in welfare payments.

Mr. Reeves was lieutenant governor when all this was going on, and several people at the center of the scandal have been his friends and supporters. Last summer, his administration fired the lawyer who had been officially assigned to investigate the scandal and recoup the money, after the lawyer issued a subpoena to the university’s athletic foundation regarding the volleyball money. Though Mr. Reeves hasn’t been implicated in the diversion of most of the money, Mississippi Today published text messages in August showing that the former state welfare director, who pleaded guilty to federal and state fraud and theft charges last fall, said he was acting on behalf of Mr. Reeves when he siphoned $1.3 million of the welfare money to a fitness program run by the governor’s longtime personal trainer, Paul LaCoste.

That was all Mr. Presley needed.

“I got in this when I saw, as all Mississippi did, millions of dollars aimed at working families got diverted by Tate Reeves and his cronies,” he told me last week. “His own personal trainer, who taught Tate Reeves how to do jumping jacks, got a $70,000 vehicle and was paid $11,000 a month, while we’ve got children going hungry in Mississippi. Well, it made me want to puke.”

Mr. Presley is funny and garrulous and is often described as the best natural politician in the state, with an easygoing manner that appeals to voters of all types. He grew up as the son of a low-income single mother and speaks with real empathy about the tens of thousands of poor families, Black and white, who can’t get clean drinking water, proper health care or broadband internet after decades of largely racist neglect by the state.

His most significant plan is to fully expand Medicaid in Mississippi, which Mr. Reeves — along with Republicans in nine other states, mostly in the South — refuses to do. As The New York Times recently reported, health care is in a serious crisis in the state, where five hospitals have closed since 2005 and 36 percent of the remaining rural hospitals are at risk of closing from lack of funds. Mississippi’s stubbornness has cost it about $1.35 billion a year in federal funds to hospitals and health care providers, money that could be used for 100,000 poor adults who now have no guaranteed health coverage.

“This will go down in history one of the dumbest decisions ever made in this state,” Mr. Presley said. “Our health care system is on fire because Tate Reeves is not willing to help working Mississippians, just because of some petty, cheap, childish politics.”

The state has a $3.9 billion budget surplus and could easily afford its 10 percent share of the expansion cost, but Mr. Reeves would rather use the money to help prosperous earners by getting rid of the income tax, which most low-income people do not pay. Mr. Presley, on the other hand, is campaigning to eliminate the grocery tax, which at 7 percent is the highest in the nation and hurts poor people the most. Though he is too politic to say so, the grocery tax is yet another legacy of Mississippi’s structural racism, which helps explain why there is more hunger in the state than in any other.

Polling shows that nearly 60 percent of state voters say they will support only a candidate for governor who wants to get rid of the grocery tax, and 55 percent will support only a candidate who wants to expand Medicaid. But that same poll shows Mr. Reeves ahead of Mr. Presley by 11 points. (The Presley campaign says its internal polling shows the race to be within the margin of error.) To a large degree, that contradiction can be explained by rote party identification in the state, but it’s also because nearly two-thirds of voters don’t know enough about Mr. Presley yet, particularly in African American areas.

“In those neighborhoods, he’s still a white guy that nobody knows,” said State Representative Robert L. Johnson III, the House Democratic leader, who is Black and has been supportive of Mr. Presley. “But he’s not afraid to embrace the African American vote in this state. He’s made commitments to do things that other candidates don’t do. It’s early yet, but the governor has been so bad that I think this time might be different.”

Mr. Presley has won the endorsement of Bennie Thompson, the Democratic congressman from Jackson who carries a lot of weight among Black voters, and he has one new advantage: In 2020, voters abolished the Jim Crow-era requirement that candidates for governor have to win not only the popular vote but also the most votes in a majority of the 122 state House districts, a law intended to keep Black candidates out of statewide offices. (Mr. Reeves did not support the repeal.)

“I think he can win,” Mr. Espy told me. “He’s very likable, a good retail politician, and Tate Reeves is so very, very unpopular. But he’s got a big job. He needs to raise the money and do more Black outreach.”

Mr. Presley said his campaign would do everything possible to get a high turnout among Black voters, noting that the issues he cares about, particularly Medicaid and the grocery tax, resonate well in those precincts.

One thing that he doesn’t bring up that much, unless asked, is his support for Mississippi’s extremely restrictive abortion law, which bans abortion unless the mother’s life is in danger or the pregnancy was caused by rape. That law has an outsize effect on low-income women who can’t afford to travel outside the state for an abortion.

Mr. Presley described himself as “pro-life and Christian.” But he quickly said that to him, being “pro-life” means being pro-hospital, pro-doctor and pro-emergency room, supporting full funding of the state education budget and ending the scams that have prevented federal and state welfare money from going to the families who need it.

His position on abortion and his support for gun rights will not win him many friends in the national Democratic Party, but Mississippi is not like the rest of the nation. Winning there and finally beginning to reverse the detestable policies of the past — an enormously difficult task — will require a candidate who can bring together an unusual coalition of voters with very different interests, and Mr. Presley may be the one to do it. It’s been done next door in Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards is a Democrat in a similar mold, and if it can happen in Mississippi, it might bring hope to thousands of other voters who have ceaselessly struggled for better lives in the Deep South.

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