My Vote in the MS-3 Run-off

Throughout my 40ish years in political consulting, I heard at least hundreds of times voters tell me they chose a candidate as “the lesser of two evils.” There was one they saw as “just a politician” to whom they didn’t relate, while the other was generally someone who by flaws of character or understanding would do them active harm.

Those who didn’t vote at all explained that there was no one running who had anything to do with them. There is an assumption that not voting means someone isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care. That is sometimes true. Other times people know and care but choose not to participate because they do not relate to either candidate.

I understand these rationales better than ever before as I contemplate whether to participate in the June 28th run-off election between incumbent Congressman Michael Guest and ultra right challenger Michael Cassidy.

Here in Mississippi, there is no party registration and so registered voters can participate in primary and run off elections if they “intend to support the nominee.” Despite that little clause about intent, people cross party lines for strategic reasons and vote in primaries and run-off elections in either party with impunity. Democratic participation on behalf of Senator Thad Cochran was likely decisive in his victory over ultra right challenger Chris McDaniel in 2014, although many of those Democrats may indeed have supported Cochran in the fall given that the Democratic challenger fell short of 40 percent.

This year, many people I know who often vote Democratic plan to vote for Guest in the run off because Cassidy is a newcomer to Mississippi, reputedly a McDaniel protege, and vows to make Marjorie Taylor Greene a role model should he be elected to Congress.

Given that Cassidy is of questionable legislative competence and shows signs of being a pro-violent crazy, I have little doubt who is the (slightly) lesser evil. Cassidy’s main complaint against Guest, a former prosecutor, is that Guest voted for a bipartisan January 6th Commission on the recommendation of the ranking Republican of the Homeland Security Committee on which he sits. To Cassidy, that makes him a RINO. Guest also, however, applauds overturning Roe v. Wade, voted against certification of the election, and is running in the runoff on his conservative credentials, which are ample, tweeting right-wing language and no doubt figuring that if he reassures Republican voters on his MAGA-ness, he might still pick up some more progressive votes given that Cassidy is Greene-lite.

I am frustrated by the situation. I am angry at the legislature who for politically unsavory reasons carved out my little blue Jackson precinct and kept it in the 3rd CD with some of the most conservative counties in the state. I am a tad annoyed by what seemed a random article in Mississippi Today, arguably our best press outlet, that if the NAACP redistricting plan had succeeded, Guest might have lost outright. He might have won outright if he had campaigned, even without his having a couple moderate Jackson precincts where voters disagree with him, so why point to the NAACP? And I am frustrated that one of these two men – Cassidy or Guest – is likely to represent my blue precinct in Congress given the nature of the district as a whole and the (thus far) lackluster campaign of the Democratic candidate who will almost certainly get my vote in the fall. Of course, I chose to live here so that’s on me. I wish I could move my house two blocks to the west to the state’s one Democratic district.

But I just can’t vote for the lesser of these two evils. He is not lesser enough. And while the clause on intent is toothless, and Mississippi tradition almost invites my participation in the run-off, a vote for Guest would be to my mind just wrong for me. I would squirm every time he posted some racially tinged tweet, or went on an irrelevant diatribe about socialism (which is no threat here). I would remember with each squirm that I had used the little power I have – my vote – in his behalf. Cassidy would be worse, but only a little, and maybe people here would be embarrassed either by his rhetoric, or by his inability to deliver for the district (although probably not).

I respect the fortitude of those of my friends and neighbors who agree with me on issues but will vote for Guest. Maybe I will build such fortitude over time. But I just can’t do it this time.

I will take my guidance from those who don’t vote. Neither of these men have anything to with me. And I can’t support either one of them. I will stay home June 28th. And I understand better than before why some people don’t vote. Not voting is a statement too.

Law, order, and dishonor

Many Republicans seem to me to be confused about law and order. I am hearing decidedly mixed messages on public safety and public corruption both here in Mississippi and from Washington, DC. It’s hard to figure exactly where that party is coming from.

First, here in Jackson the Governor used his line item veto to take money away from the local planetarium because there is too much crime in Jackson. The connection between crime and star gazing is loose, unless you know that the Governor likes to criticize the City of Jackson where the planetarium is located.

To be clear, the Governor (and the Republican state legislature) have a pretty soft commitment to public safety outside of the planetarium threat. State policies around COVID contributed to among the highest death rates in the world here in Mississippi and the near collapse of the health care system, which is starved for resources in part because of opposition to Medicaid expansion. The legislature is slow to spend infrastructure funds which could help provide reliable and safe water service in Jackson, nor does it do much for the city except occupy it a few months a year when the legislature is in session.

I conclude that these Republicans care about public safety from some threats but not from others. They like beating up on the majority African American capital city but don’t do anything helpful about public safety unless it helps make their, shall we say, “anti-urban” argument.

Next, two of the three Republican members of Congress from Mississippi were forced into run-off elections for what appear to be opposite reasons. Representative Steven Palazzo has been the subject of multiple accusations that he struggles with both truth-telling and campaign finance law. His failure to win 50 percent was predicted, although he came in first. He faces a local Sheriff in the run-off.

Representative Michael Guest, on the other hand, in whose district I reside, was forced into a runoff by a newcomer to Mississippi, Michael Cassidy, who accuses Guest of being a RINO because he voted for a January 6th Commission. So Guest, a conservative former prosecutor is accused of failing to represent Mississippi by a guy from the DC area whose principal complaint was that the prosecutor wanted to investigate a crime. Whatever.

That brings me to the main event of the week, the January 6th Committee hearings. Dramatic. Fact-based. Headed by a Mississippian (a real one; not like me and Cassidy) who acknowledged in introducing himself that Mississippi’s history and his own had prepared him for the moment. The hearing also featured two very tough women: the extraordinarily clear-headed daughter of a Republican Vice President, and a law enforcement officer who had put her life on the line for her job and for her country. The Committee presented hard evidence of a carefully planned and executed coup against the United States government and its peaceful transfer of power.

The Republican leadership response? They would rather address inflation than sedition. That seems non-sensical. Like announcing they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. Or that Jackson’s crime rate means it can’t have a planetarium. High inflation does not make the attempted coup OK.

Representative Cheney’s statement that their dishonor will remain was the central quote of the night. And I really don’t know what the Republicans think they stand for. Its not public safety. I am clear on that. Chaos and violence? Greed and unchecked power? Or what I have euphemistically called here “anti-urbanism”? They really aren’t leaving themselves with much else.

At least most Republicans aren’t leaving themselves much else. I am sure I have many disagreements with Representative Cheney on matters of policy. But I admire her courage, toughness, clarity, and patriotism. I hope in the coming months to see that our country and my adopted state honor those qualities.

The Press, the poll, and the Governor

So, for those who aren’t from Mississippi, here is the state of play: The state is about to overtake Louisiana, if it hasn’t already, as the number one COVID hotspot. Our Republican Governor, Tate Reeves, has been very clear that he will not issue a statewide mask mandate including in schools, although he does (kinda) encourage vaccinations and allow local mandates. Then there is Dr. Dobbs, our telegenic and media savvy State Health Officer who encourages mask-wearing, sporting one at press conferences while standing right next to the naked-faced Governor.

Some of the state press are going ballistic on Reeves. I appreciate our more progressive press – they make it a lot easier to know what’s going on. They clearly care about the crisis we are in – and, perhaps, care more than the Governor does. I fear, however, that they are giving him the upper hand. Some elements of that:

1. Readers of this blog know I get frustrated by bad polling. That is no less true when it is making a point I agree with. Trumpeting an opt-in poll, with a non-representative sample https://www.sunherald.com/news/coronavirus/article253462859.html really doesn’t help your credibility.

2. Reeves impresses me as very smart. He seems generally well informed but is making ideological decisions I disagree with. He is unwilling to take federal money if it requires even a small state expenditure; he doesn’t believe the state should mandate individual behavior; and he sees his job as running the mechanics of the government rather than leading people toward better behavior. He basically articulated all of those policy-laden precepts in his last press conference but because he also said one of you was “virtue-signaling” you gave him a free pass on the rest. Perhaps you took his bait?

3. Y’all seem to love Dr. Dobbs, and he does speak for the science and is far better than the Governor at demonstrating empathy. But it also appears to me like a well-orchestrated dance. He is a state employee – appointed by the Board of Health, although most of its members were appointed or re-appointed by Reeves. Dr. Dobbs took a good long while to address the equity issues in vaccine distribution, and his dance with the Governor serves to limit political opposition to Reeves. Looking at them as some kind of yin and yang, fails to lift up other political voices that may be critical of Reeves. Rely on Dobbs for the science, by all means, but maybe give a few column inches to political opposition as well – like the Mayors, supervisors, and school board Presidents who might just tell you Reeves is making their jobs harder.

The bottom line for me as a reader is that there is a lot I would like to know that I am not hearing about. Reeves is not the worst Republican Governor – a toss up between his colleagues in Florida and Texas in my view. But he is also using the polarization of the moment to avoid discussion of some basic issues of governance. While there is a squabble about virtue signaling, he is failing to use resources available to him, and defining state government responsibilities as narrowly as he can. If he believes in local decision-making, how do local leaders respond to those policies? At least one enquiring mind would like to know…

Two States of Mississippi

Earlier this month I offered some reflections on Mississippi and why I am here. There are many things about the state and about living here that I love – the music, story telling, hospitality, and food – several of which derive from the cultural heritage of African Americans. The statewide politics and leadership sadden me all the more as a result of what I love about living here.

Just this week the Jesuit Social Research Institute of Loyola University published a new report on Mississippi (http://www.loyno.edu/jsri/sites/loyno.edu.jsri/files/StateOfWorkingMS2020.pdf). Here the most common job title is “cashier” and the median household income is one third lower than the national median – and less than half the median income in Massachusetts. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate in the nation, more than 10 percent of its people have no health insurance whatsoever. The state is 50th in education attainment, in part because so many young people with college degrees leave the state.

Just about the same time this report was released, Governor Tate Reeves gave his State of the State address.  Since he couldn’t point to much success, he praised the state’s resilience. The few straws of improvement at which the Governor did grasp, do not stand up well to a fact check (https://mississippitoday.org/2021/01/26/fact-check-gov-tate-reeves-2021-state-of-the-state-address/).  The Governor’s main policy initiative was to call for ending the state’s income tax, which would effectively reduce Mississippi’s already low investment in its people.

How did we get here? To some degree, the problems of Mississippi reflect the problems of the south, but more so. The south was left with a decimated economy after the Civil War. The federal government truncated Reconstruction after the election of 1876 (the same election Senator Ted Cruz referenced in the lead-up to violence at the Capitol). The end of Reconstruction meant the military no longer monitored Mississippi elections. The white minority then led violent efforts to suppress the black majority and deprive them of the right to determine the future of the state. White violence against black people was worse in Mississippi than elsewhere because it had a black majority, which was more threatening than the black minority in other states.

The south did not benefit from the Gilded Age of the second industrial revolution as it still had a primarily agricultural economy and lacked the natural resources to make steel or the infrastructure for manufacturing. And the federal government and big business allowed the economy to languish and invested instead in the west.

Some southern states thrived in the latter half of the 20th Century and since then through state and local investment – the Research Triangle in North Carolina, the Atlanta airport, Historic Charleston, in South Carolina, as examples. In contrast, Mississippi had slow growth throughout the 20th century (https://www.macrotrends.net/states/mississippi/population). Its population did not quite double while the national population quadrupled. Mississippi’s GNP growth rate is barely half the national average as it turns out that population growth is good for the economy and vice versa.

Voter suppression efforts continue as Mississippi was the only state where there was no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic and, just today, the House Apportionment and Elections Committee voted for a purge of the voter rolls. Mississippi is almost 40 percent black, but no African American has represented the State of Mississippi since Blanche K. Bruce left the U.S. Senate in 1881. If there is voter fraud, it’s pretty clearly not from black people.

I don’t believe the state’s leadership wants economic growth. New people would change the politics so current leadership has a stake in the status quo. Taxes are low here now, with no real upper bracket, which voters virtually everywhere support. There is no tax on retirement income regardless of the amount. The only high tax is the tax on groceries, which at 7 percent is the highest in the country. If low taxes and lack of investment were a successful growth strategy, Mississippi would be booming.

The second paragraph of the JSRI report reads: “Mississippi is among the states with the highest unemployment, poverty, and uninsured rates and the lowest wages, education spending, and educational attainment. Such statistics are a recipe for poor statewide economic development and long-term hardship for workers and families even before the health and economic onslaught of COVID-19.” The report ends with a series of recommendations that have the potential to transform the state and grow its economy through investment in its people and its infrastructure.

After 150 years of the same policies, it might be worth exploring a little change – perhaps investing in the people who make the state so special. Otherwise, while the state may remain a good place to retire, Mississippians shouldn’t expect their kids to stay where there is little opportunity for growth.

P.S. Earlier this week, my friend Debbie Weil interviewed me for her podcast. She asked great questions about polling, politics, and living in Mississippi. Do check it out: https://gapyearforgrownups.simplecast.com/episodes/diane-feldman

Georgia, the mob, and Mississippi

The picture of the horrific mob that attacked the United States Capitol – encouraged by the President of the United States – will be the indelible after image of his presidency. There is irony in mob violence the same week in which the Democrats won the Senate and Georgia elected its first black Senator, the scholarly minister of Dr. Martin Luther King’s church. Among the underpinnings of the Trump presidency is a late growl of white supremacy as the demographics of the country change. The old still clings to power over the new but it gave way to change in Georgia.

Senators-elect Warnock and Ossoff won because Georgia grew and changed, and with the leadership of Stacey Abrams’ New Georgia Project and the African American community. The Georgia win also traces back to Mayor Maynard Jackson. Atlanta’s first African American Mayor, Jackson helped build Atlanta as a mecca for the black middle class by spurring minority contracting. He invested in the airport, creating tremendous growth for the whole region. ATL wasn’t always the biggest airport in the world. Maynard Jackson did that. And Atlanta grew and prospered and Georgia with it. That would happen in other southern states if they elected more people like Maynard Jackson.

The peaceful transition of power in Georgia this week is such a stark contrast to what happened in Washington.

Which brings me to Mississippi. Mississippi was majority black until the 1940s and now has a larger percent black population than any other state. It has also historically had the most concentrated racial violence in the country and even now seems to have the fewest progressive white people (although there are lots of progressive white people here, and strong and dedicated African American leaders).

If you are unclear how to reconcile those things, ask the mob. Like the Trump mob, there are too many white people in Mississippi who feel threatened by the notion that it might become a black state. So one of our two Senators and three out of our four members of the House voted not to certify a 7-million vote win by President-elect Biden. That same crowd, while crowing about voter fraud, approves of the state’s ongoing voter suppression techniques. Mississippi was the only state in the country that had no option for no-contact voting during the pandemic. We have among the worst schools and health care following a myth that investing in those things would somehow help the black minority more than the white majority.

So if I feel this way, why am I here? I love the state – the peace and quiet, the rural nature, the warm winters, and large parts of the culture, which is arguably rooted more in West Africa than Western Europe.

People here love southern food, including grits which have their origins in Native American hominy and West African fufu. Fried chicken has some claim to Scottish ancestry because the Scottish fried their chicken in fat but batter dipped fried chicken is West African. So are greens. Mississippi had “Birthplace of America’s Music” on its license plates for years, and it is: the rich traditions of gospel and blues music, often with West African syncopation; then combined with Appalachian hill country music (accompanied by banjos – a West African instrument) gave birth to rock and roll.

There are more extraordinary writers from Mississippi than most anywhere else – from Richard Wright, to William Faulkner; Eudora Welty to Jessmyn Ward. One reason is that the state gives them so much to write about but also the rich storytelling tradition of the South flourishes and it, too, has its roots in West Africa.

Mississippi is already black. But instead of Maynard Jackson, we have elected leaders who vote with the mob.

Demographics are on the side of progressive change in America – and in Mississippi. But demographics are not destiny. We have not seen the last of reactionary governance. Not all the people who voted for Trump are part of the white supremacist backlash – economic stagnation and the elitism of Democrats also contributed – but it could all happen again. Georgia is the hopeful sign. With a little help, other southern states will follow. And, like the poet said, America can be America again.