Robert Gray can’t explain how he defeated the trial lawyer who was the favored candidate of the party establishment in Tuesday’s primary.
Gray, who has lived in the Jackson area most of his life, visited the state Capitol on Wednesday for what he said was the first time — and it was at the request of reporters trying to answer the biggest question in this Republican-dominated state: Who the heck is this guy?
“Everybody’s been trying to figure out who I am. I guess I’m a quiet person, by nature,” said Gray, who uses the CB handle “Silent Knight,” because, well, he’s not exactly chatty.
Democrats controlled Mississippi politics for decades, but they’ve been steamrolled in most governor’s races for a generation. Now, many longtime Democrats worry that Gray will simply be the next hapless victim of a well-funded Republican machine.
“Does anybody know or has anybody ever seen Democratic gubernatorial nominee Robert Gray?” Marty Wiseman, a Democratic-leaning retired political scientist, said on Facebook.
Wiseman questioned how someone who made few appearances could carry most counties and win a three-person primary without a runoff: “Something ain’t right about all this.”
Gray has driven a big rig since the early 1990s and said he is making his first run for office because Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is failing to help improve life in a state where poverty is a persistent problem. Gray said he wants to expand Medicaid and spend more on schools and highways. He has never worked on legislation, but he listens to a lot of public radio while he’s driving, and he uses the word “infrastructure” as casually as any policy wonk.
Bryant, 60, has held office for about 25 years, a little longer than Gray has been hauling freight. Bryant moved up from state representative to auditor to lieutenant governor and then to governor.
Gray said he’s not daunted by Bryant’s $2.8 million campaign fund: “I hope he spends it, because, believe it or not, that helps the economy.”
Other low-budget candidates have won Democratic nominations in the conservative South in recent years. In 2014 in Tennessee, Democrat Charlie Brown, who had no campaign organization, lost the governor’s race by a wide margin to Republican incumbent Bill Haslam. In 2010 in South Carolina, unemployed Army veteran Alvin Greene won the Democratic primary for a U.S. Senate seat with few public appearances and no campaign cash; he lost the general election to Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
Mississippi Democratic chairman Rickey Cole met privately with Gray on Wednesday at the party headquarters, and said he believes that the nominee will appeal to voters who are sick of slick politicians.
“He brings to the race an authenticity that’s totally unscripted,” Cole said.
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