It was not until 7:36 on the morning of Aug. 5 that anyone found out what Robert Gray looked like, much less how he wound up being the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee for Mississippi governor.
Yet there he was in a tweet from a WLBT reporter, seated on a bench outside the Capitol. Up until that day, he had never been inside the building even though he grew up in the Jackson area.
Given the narrative that is emerging about the dark horse, who has hauled freight for more than 20 years, Gray seemed to have stepped right out of central casting. He literally wore a blue collar, sporting an untucked Oxford with the sleeves rolled halfway up his hairy forearms. That morning, Gray was none of the things people expected he might be. He wasn't a prankster who'd pulled a fast one on Democratic voters. He wasn't a nut job in a tin-foil hat foaming at the mouth about conspiracy theories.
Nor did Gray seem like someone who woke up and realized that he was in over his head.
Gray shocked political watchers around the state by finishing first among the three Democratic candidates with 51 percent of the vote, which would not necessitate a runoff if the totals hold up, and his lead doesn't drop lower than 50 percent plus one vote. Most pundits believed Vicki Slater, who had a robust and active campaign, would capture the nomination, but she only drew 30.2 percent. Dr. Valerie Short, a retired physician, received 18.8 percent.
Because his campaign-finance reports reflect no fundraising nor he did have a campaign website or social-media presence, Gray surmised that it might have been his common-sounding name that made 146,387 people vote for him over two opponents Gray admits worked hard and ran better campaigns than he did.
Gray said he attended two rallies, one in Meridian and another in Biloxi, neither of which he believes gave him the kind of exposure needed to pull off the upset he did.
"Robert is kind of a common name, and most people have a Robert in their family, so it comforts them to see a familiar name. It might have had something to do with it being two women, but I hope that wasn't the case," said Gray, who shares a name with the chief executive officer of a public-relations services company, an emeritus professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and an 18th-century merchant sea captain.
Perhaps because it occurred to no one to do it before Election Day, journalists and pundits have lined up wanting to vet the 46-year-old—a process that started on election night as journalists and amateur sleuths alike searched his business and other personal records, sharing whatever they could find on social media. Then for almost four hours the next morning, reporters sped over to the capitol, where they found Gray hosting an impromptu media availability on the third floor, outside the governor's office, answering many of the same questions whenever a different news outfit showed up.
Gray—who told a reporter that he uses the moniker Silent Knight on CB radio because he listens more than he talks—admits that he is not a gregarious glad-hander. He seemed to think it was strange that news photographers snapped so many pictures of him. But he's anything but passive, even when people start throwing shade and making jokes about his inexperience.
(One reporter even asked Gray if he knows what Gov. Bryant looks like.)
On the morning of Aug. 6, Gray went on a radio program hosted by conservative talk-radio host Paul Gallo, who apparently thought he would eviscerate Gray in short order and turn him into a laughing stock.
Right out of the gate, Gallo pressed Gray on his support for Medicaid expansion, implying that it would be a burden to taxpayers. Gray responded that thousands of new jobs experts have said the expansion would create more taxpayers and provide an economic spark.
Uninterested in pursuing the Medicaid issue any further, but staying on the topic of the economy, Gallo set his sights on the Obama administration, blaming the president for 91 million people being out of the workforce. (The Washington Post fact-cheker blog found the claim, repeated by several Republican officials, dubious because it includes 70 million people who have retired or permanently left the workforce).
"It's going to be more than that if these Republicans keep getting their way," Gray offered, arguing that the economy has rebounded under Obama's leadership and that the Republican-led Congress's de-authorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which helps American companies do business overseas, would destabilize the U.S. economy.
Gray, as this story goes to press, is currently running a load of sweet potatoes, one of Mississippi's largest agricultural exports, to Pennsylvania.
On illegal immigration, Gray, who is black, brushed aside a Gallo comment about immigrants taking jobs from African Americans and said people come to the U.S. for better opportunities and that the U.S. should focus on helping other countries build their economies.
"If those countries start doing things like we do, they'll have a bigger stronger economy, and people wouldn't leave," Gray told Gallo on the radio show.
Before the segment ended, Gallo had one final piece of red meat to serve up to his listeners: whether Gray's positions are in line with national Democrats on abortion and the recent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood. Gray's response was more clear than even some women who run for office under the Democratic Party banner: "If you want to stop abortion," he said, "keep these people working—these women ain't having abortions for the fun of it."
Before we could get to know Robert Gray, the policy positions he supports and whether he'd park his rig at the Governor's Mansion, he had to get back to his day job as an independent trucker operating under the company name Fancy Horse Transportation Inc. Owning and driving his rig has provided Gray the kind of perspective on economic issues that has eluded statewide office seekers of recent memory (and exposed him to enough years of conservative talk radio to easily dispense with a character like Gallo).
Part of the reason Gray supports Medicaid expansion is because he currently lacks health insurance, but is shopping around for a plan. Like many Democrats in Mississippi, Gray also sees it as simple mathematics: Increasing the number of people receiving health care increases the volume of services and thus keeps costs from rising. It's a principle he has observed since the early 1990s, during the robust Clinton years, the lean recessionary years that started under the Bush administration and since.
"I used to have more loads and get paid more money. The cost of operating was way cheaper, and everything was just better," he said of the years before the Recession.
"Now fuel cost is high, the insurance is higher, tires and things that keep my vehicle running are a lot higher. I used to buy a brand-new tire for $200 or $300; now it costs $500 or 600 (for new tires)."
Gray has been tight-lipped about his life before the primary election. He grew up in Jackson, where he attended Raines Elementary, Hardy Middle School and Provine High School. He later worked as a courier for Trustmark and, for a time, sold insurance. He then attended Southern Drivers' Academy in south Jackson and started driving a rig in 1992 or 1993, sometimes hauling loads as far away as California.
Gray is unmarried and has no children, and told some media outlets that he didn't tell any of his relatives that his name would appear on the ballot. Gray's own mother thought she was just voting for a man with the same name, not her own son.
In her only media interview since the election, a stunned Slater told Associated Press reporter Emily Pettus that Gray was a "mystery man." Slater, who until press time has declined interviews, has not conceded the election nor announced plans to contest the election, which Democratic Party officials expect to certify Tuesday, Aug. 11. Addressing her supporters at Hal & Mal's the night of the primary, she remained on message, attacking Gov. Phil Bryant.
"Phil Bryant's leadership has failed the state of Mississippi. We're sick of being 50th. We want our schools fully funded, we want Medicaid expanded, and we want jobs in this state. We are going to keep fighting, keep working together, and we are never going to give up on our state that we love."
Murmurs of sexism understandably circulated among the Slater faithful. By Mississippi Democratic Party standards, she had a sophisticated campaign operation and hired seasoned Democratic operatives, such as Roosevelt Daniels, a familiar face on the Jackson political scene.
She also drew the endorsement of the Jackson Free Press, was a fixture at political functions around the state and raised $235,068 during the cycle. She spent $197,142 on staff, media advertising and printing costs.
Gray's mystique was fueled when reporters visited the address listed on his campaign-finance report, at 2010 West Capitol St., and found what appears to be a vacant home. Gray said he's in the process of renovating the house, for which he has paid property tax on since 2013.
Rickey Cole, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, told the JFP that the party checked Gray's Terry residency and voter registration in March when Gray filed paperwork announcing his intentions to run.
"He meets the qualifications to be a candidate for governor based on our process of vetting," Cole told the JFP. Those qualifications including being at least age 30, a U.S. citizens for two decades and a resident of Mississippi for five years. A $300 fee to the state party is also required, which Gray paid, but party candidates are not required to gather petition signatures; independent candidates must collect 1,000 signatures to run, but do not have to pay a fee.
Cole conceded that voter turnout was low across the state despite more Democrats casting ballots in the governor's race than Republicans, 287,000 to the GOP's less competitive 274,000.
"They're not there for the governor's race. They came to vote in the supervisor's race or the sheriff's race or a superintendent's race," Cole told MPB.
"So when they see these three names, and they say, 'I don't know any of these folks,' they just check the first one, and then they move to the race (that) they've got some information about. That's basically what happened in this instance, in my opinion."
Lackluster turnout yielded confusion further down on the Democratic ticket. For example, voters weary of constant headlines of jail escapes swept Hinds County Sheriff Tyrone Lewis out of office just four years after he became the county's first black sheriff and replaced him with Victor Mason, whose own campaign seemed to stall at times.
Yet, the crime-and-punishment electorate spared Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith who faced a serious, seasoned prosecutor in Stanley Alexander. Alexander, who said he will return to the Mississippi Attorney General's Office to head the public-integrity division, told the JFP that his campaign spotlighted problems he sees with the DA's office.
"I hope the people will remember this, and I hope the DA's office will work a little harder," Alexander said.
At Alexander's election-night party, he and his campaign staff wondered aloud why so few people had shown up to the polls. Jared Turner, a political consultant who worked on Alexander's campaign, said the Aug. 4 primary felt different from the moment he left his home in west Jackson. Unlike most election days, Turner noticed the paucity of volunteers standing on street corners waving signs.
Coming off the 2013 City of Jackson elections, the 2014 special election for mayor and a Republican senatorial primary that drew a lot of local interest, Turner said he feared voter fatigue might cause people to stay home even though this year's gubernatorial primary was also competitive. In Turner's early analysis, roughly 10,000 fewer people voted two weeks compared the 2011 primary.
"When you've got 10,000 people who stay home, that'll throw a monkey wrench in things real fast," Turner said. "I think there's something to be said about when you have so many people running. The average citizen tunes out. It sucks for us (as strategists) because our job to pull our votes."
Cole, the Democratic chairman, echoes Turner: "The Republican turnout around the state, and Democratic turnout was anemic in a lot of places. There weren't vocal down-ticket races—there wasn't really something driving people at the local level."
Brandon Jones, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Trust, which supports Democrats running for the Legislature, said that while he understands the frustration of many Democrats, he disagrees with the idea that party voters failed to deliver a victory for their handpicked candidate.
Both his group and the state party decline to endorse candidates in the primary.
"Since when have you known Democrats to be go-along-to-get-along?" Jones said. "As a rule, we're not the party of back-room deals."
Jones says the Democratic Party is still rebuilding, similar to that of the Republican Party in Mississippi up until Gov. Kirk Fordice's victory in 1991. Jones said even though he's heard only a little from Gray, he's impressed with the candidate.
"If people get frustrated enough to get involved, then I'm all for it," Jones said.
That frustration is why Robert Gray decided to fork over $300 to put his name on the ballot to be the Democratic Party's nominee.
"No one was concentrating on what needs to be done even though we have all the tools to do it," Gray, who points out that even with the recent economic slowdown, the U.S. is wealthier today than at any time in the nation's history.
He met Gov. Bryant the morning he appeared on the Paul Gallo's show and, comparing the race to a heavyweight championship boxing match, looks forward to getting in the ring to debate Bryant.
"You would think he would want to," Gray said of debating. "I figured that was part of the deal."
On his decision to enter the race, Gray offered: "I said I could do better than that. And it's like any other thing, you do what you've got to do to go down there and get involved. It's one of those things where you've done it before you know you've done it."
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