With all the attention paid to young voters in the 2004 presidential election, a new political phenomenon began taking root in Mississippi, beginning in 1999 and accelerating during the early 2000s: More and more 20- and 30-something Mississippians were moving higher and higher up in state politics.
Marty Wiseman, executive director for the Stennis Institute at Mississippi State University, said that the rise of a true two-party system in the state is one of the factors leading to a rise of younger candidates and policy makers in positions of power.
“You had a monolithic Democratic Party where the party leaders would anoint new leadership when they felt they were ready. So you have a long line of people waiting their turn,” said Wiseman. “And beginning with Haley Barbour’s decision to run for governor, that ushered in a new way of doing politics that hadn’t been seen in Mississippi.”
With so many political offices decided by elections in Mississippi, young people can get involved in politics at any level they choose to do so, whether local or statewide, Wiseman noted. “That gives tremendous opportunity not only to be elected to office, but to help elect someone else to office,” Wiseman said.
For the Stennis Institute’s students who think they might want to pursue a career in politics, opportunities abound for young people to work internships at the centers of power in Mississippi politics, whether it’s aiding Congressman Chip Pickering in Washington or serving in various capacities at the Governor’s Mansion or the Legislature in Jackson.
“Some get up there and find out they really do like it, and they stay in the mix for good,” said Wiseman. “Others decide it’s not what they thought it was when they watched it on TV.”
Over a period of several weeks, the Mississippi Business Journal interviewed several of the state’s rising political players to get an idea for how they got involved in politics and what they hope their generation can accomplish for Mississippi.
From the Delta to north Mississippi to Jackson, from local office to the power centers of the Legislature and the Mansion, from party operatives to elected officials to freelance opinion makers, all agree that their generation is poised to completely change how politics is done in Mississippi, from the use of technology in campaigns to breaking of traditional barriers that hold Mississippi back.
Twenty-nine-year-old Greenville Mayor Heather McTeer Hudson looks back on her first year of elective office with pride after becoming the city’s first female African-American mayor, particularly the plan developed in conjunction with the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Supervisors to lower Greenville’s $2- million operational debt.
“The city’s not bouncing checks like it was before I came in,” Hudson said.
It’s an important (if unglamorous) accomplishment for a candidate that not many believed could succeed in the mayor’s job even if she managed to get elected over a two-term incumbent, Paul Artman. “I had women come up to me and say a woman couldn’t do this job,” said Hudson.
Her response to the naysayers reflected a resolute belief in her own experience, education and knowledge, augmented by her childhood love for Greenville, later stints at Spelman College and Tulane University Law School, and her study abroad programs in the Dominican Republic and Kenya.
“What in the world could make me think that I couldn’t do the job?” Hudson said.
Daughter of Greenville attorney Charles Victor McTeer, Hudson spent a lot of time volunteering on other Democratic campaigns in Georgia and Louisiana as well as for Congressman Bennie Thompson before she ran her own contest for mayor.
“Everything from passing out flyers to encouraging young people to vote,” is how Hudson characterized her early political experiences on the various races. She continues to support Democratic campaigns, working for the Democratic presidential ticket as well as offering support to other candidates during the recent elections.
But some considerations trump simple-party politics — witness the widely circulated photograph of Hudson celebrating at the podium with Republican Gov. Haley Barbour at the Faurecia plant opening announcement in early 2004. The rapport she seems to have established already with the Governor’s Office is based on his support of her goals for Greenville and the Delta, Hudson said.
“Without help from the governor, the Delta cannot be progressive and move forward. And guess what? If we don’t do well, he doesn’t look good either,” Hudson pointed out.
That kind of work across traditional partisan, economic and racial lines is important to Mississippi’s future success, Hudson believes. “We all may be in different political affiliations for various reasons, but there has to be a point where we all recognize we’re working for the same goal — the forward motion of the state of Mississippi.”
In February 2003, Brian Perry of Madison needed someone who was well-versed both in Mississippi politics and the technical aspects of running a Web site and e-mail list to continue publishing Magnolia Report.com, a political Web site, as well as an e-mail document filled with backroom details and political chat published biweekly. Perry was moving to Washington to become communications director for U.S. Rep. Chip Pickering.
So he hit upon Josh Gregory, an old friend who was also a freelance technology consultant and political junkie all rolled into one. Ever since then, the Mississippi College graduate has been staying on top of the controversies, issues and elections throughout the state. The operation was originally circulated by Nick Walters through e-mail beginning in October 2000.
Perry took it over in July 2001 and added the daily-updated Web site. Gregory continued to maintain the links page after he took over, reading 30-40 news sites per day and adding any links that look interesting, unusual, or informative to the site each morning.
The e-mailed Magnolia Report is Gregory’s summary of who’s up, who’s down, and who’s twisting in the political winds. If Mississippi politics is our favorite spectator sport, the Magnolia Report is the equivalent of a weekly scouting report.
Gregory admits he operates in a bit of a gray area: He’s not exactly a traditional media outlet, so he feels less constrained about reporting on rumor (carefully identified as such) than a regular newspaper might be. He doesn’t always worry about getting confirmation of his scoops from his multiple sources in the Capitol and the media.
“I guess I trust some (sources) more than others,” Gregory said.
And he’s not shy about calling them up when the rumor mill starts turning. “I know exactly who I’m going to call because they trust me not to reveal my sources, and I trust them to give me good information,” said Gregory.
Long interested in both politics and computers, Gregory is one of the people making technology serve the interests of politicians by using it to predict trends, forecast political outcomes and communicate information rapidly to those who are interested.
Gregory spent much of 2001 working for the Republican National Committee on redistricting software that provided computer models for various voting patterns for the party to use in developing new voting lines after the 2000 Census.
“I drew about 300-400 maps for the Mississippi Republican Party,” Gregory said. He also worked on Web-based projects for Rep. Pickering’s office and interned at the White House
The demands of his new marketing firm, Frontier Strategies, put the Report itself on a less-updated basis, although Gregory continues to update the headline portion of the site. With Quinton Dickerson, former communications director for the Barbour gubernatorial campaign, as a partner in the firm, Gregory works on technology and interactive media campaigns for the firm, staffed largely by a mix of freelance and independent media professionals. In 2004, the firm landed the marketing contract for the state’s tourism division, coordinating radio, TV and print ads designed to lure visitors to the state.
Gregory still gives ambiguous answers when asked about his role in Mississippi politics and media and how he feels about the notoriety he’s gotten since taking over the Magnolia Report. “Honestly, I see myself as a computer nerd,” Gregory said, not quite taking the bait when asked how close he sees himself as being to the Republican Party in Mississippi.
He says that using technology to continue the digital revolution transforming political campaigns in the state is what interests him the most. “It’s the quickest way for campaigns to get their message out the way they want it out — where they can control it. It’s made it a thousand times easier for politicians to communicate with their constituents and their base,” said Gregory
According to Gregory, more than 5,000 people signed on through Gov. Haley Barbour’s Web site to volunteer for the campaign, while about the same number were plugged into Barbour’s database for e-mail updates on the campaign’s progress and message.
“As young people get more interested in politics, they feel more comfortable with doing their own research on the Internet,” said Gregory. “The strength of the Internet will continue to effect each election more and more.”
The New Face in the Crowd
Jackie Richmond, 32 years old, recently returned to her Mississippi roots after eight years of working in graphic design and marketing in New Orleans and Chicago. Even before she came back to her home state in 2003, Richmond followed the hotly contested Mississippi Supreme Court races in 2002.
“I’ve always been interested in politics, and I wanted to get involved in it at some level,” Richmond said.
After moving into the Belhaven neighborhood in Jackson and continuing to freelance as a marketing consultant and graphic designer, the Belhaven College art graduate began working on a volunteer basis for Judge James Graves in February 2004, developing campaign materials for the upcoming election.
“I was doing logo design, how all the print materials were going to look-a branding approach,” said Richmond.
Her role gradually grew until she was selected over several other candidates to become the campaign manager after the March qualifying deadline had passed.
“I think he took a chance on me having good instincts, organizational skills and an understanding of organizational structure,” Richmond said.
But she admits that although she had never before been involved in a political campaign, she felt she had enough real-world management experience to put together an effective team to manage the 22-county campaign.
“A campaign isn’t that dissimilar from a business in the start-up. It’s a lot like running a small business,” Richmond noted.
The hard work came in the face of a lot of naysayers; most of whom believed that Graves, appointed to his post by former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and targeted for defeat by tort reform supporters, could not win a four-man race, particularly if it went to a runoff, as it subsequently did. “It definitely made it harder,” said Richmond. “It was interesting, but it did make it difficult. But that was part of the attraction-because I did think he could win.”
The campaign was hard-fought, with Richmond reaching out to diverse audiences to pull together a winning coalition of younger families, women, supporters of education and African-Americans with a campaign largely built on family and values messages. Richmond feels she departed from conventional tactics in keeping the campaign’s message consistent across the various audiences they were appealing to.
“We didn’t say one thing to the black community and turn around and say something different to the white community,” Richmond said. “Judge Graves wanted to stand on his own record.”
Graves wound up garnering 48% of the vote, pitting himself against Rankin County candidate Samac Richardson in the runoff.
“We anticipated the possibility of a runoff, and we had a framework in place in the event of a runoff, but we threw everything at November 2nd. We spent all of our money, we used all of our printed materials, we put it all out there because we couldn’t count on making it to a runoff,” Richmond said. The message and tactics stayed consistent with a focus on getting voters to return for the vote in two weeks-which resulted in Graves’ ultimate victory.
Richmond classifies herself as a political independent — the judge’s race itself was officially non-partisan. She’s now occupying herself with clearing up details from the post-campaign cycle and rebuilding her freelance work. She doesn’t discount the possibility that she may take on another campaign.
“I’d like to do it again with a little bit of a break,” Richmond said, noting the traditionally crowded election calendars in Mississippi. “You know we have the mayoral races.”
The 20- and 30-somethings are poised to make a difference in the next few years, Richmond believes, mostly because they bring new thinking to the table.
“We’ve been last in so many things for so long that it’s going to take a new way of thinking for us to move ahead. I hope that our generation and the one that follows will be able to make this change. It’s going to take a lot of different viewpoints coming together to solve those problems at this point,” she said.
State Senator Merle Flowers, a Republican from fast-growing DeSoto County, remembers precisely what motivated him to run for City Council at age 19 in Section, Ala.: he came home from his freshman year at Auburn University and realized that the city swimming pools and basketball courts were closed for the summer with no explanation. Flowers won that race, making him the youngest elected official in Alabama history.
He continued to serve his four-year term while studying for an agriculture, business and economics degree before going to Ole Miss to continue his education in their MBA program. He then worked for First District Congressman Roger Wicker for six years as his district manager, coordinating services for all 24 counties in Wicker’s district-handling inquiries about taxes, immigration and all manner of issues from constituents. Wicker’s dedication to his constituent concerns set a pattern that Flowers still follows today, making Wicker one of his most influential mentors.
“He’s very good at that kind of thing, and I saw the importance of doing that,” said Flowers.
After working in his own real estate business for a few years afterwards in Southaven, he realized that the Census-based redistricting was going to be very favorable to the DeSoto County area. “It was obvious that DeSoto County was going to gain another senator,” Flowers said. He announced his candidacy on January 10, 2003, and began putting together a carefully designed campaign.
In March, Flowers discovered he would have a unique luxury for a newly-minted candidate — the qualifying deadline passed without anyone else wanting to run for the newly-created seat, guaranteeing his victory in early March. “I ran hard until March 1!” Flowers said. But he decided that since it was likely he had the job nailed down, he’d spend time learning about as much as he could about how to do it.
“Where most people were running hard from March to November, I commenced to visit every senator in their home district — those who had no opposition or were guaranteed to win their seats, whether Republican or Democrat — to get to know them.”
He also worked as volunteer chair for Gov. Haley Barbour’s campaign in DeSoto County.
Flowers works with the same intensity now as he did then, attending all the budget meetings between the Appropriations Committee and the Legislative Budget Office on his own time in September and working as a member of the PEER Committee.
His biggest surprise after coming to Jackson?
“I guess it’s just how voluminous our state government is — layers and layers of bureaucracy,” he said.
Watching the budget hearings showed Flowers how many different places money appropriated for a state agency winds up going once the budget heads get through with it. “I’m not so extreme as to think that all we need to do is protect the borders and deliver the mail, but it makes it real. You can put a face to (the agency) and a purpose for the funding,” he noted.
The new faces coming into state government can’t be easily categorized into partisan categories, Flowers maintained.
He points to Democrats Rep. Dirk Dedeaux from the Coast and Rep. Erik Fleming from Clinton as proof that the 20- and 30-somethings aren’t all faceless clones.
“We’re about the same age, but we just have philosophical differences. We respect each others’ opinion; we just differ in how we view it. You have working relationships with other legislators even if you disagree with them.”
Editor’s note: Part two of this story will be published in next week’s issue.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at email@example.com.