This past Saturday, the Jackson Free Press staff crowded into a classroom at the Mississippi Children's Museum for our annual retreat. The theme was "play"— what else?—and this retreat's purpose was to build on remarkable progress we've made in the last year as a team. Our staff is more focused, more positive and more collaborative than it's ever been, and these folks have worked hard to create a culture of excellence where we can enjoy ourselves, inspire each other, be accountable, and reach for higher goals.
That's something I want to see the state of Mississippi do, too.
But the election cycle hasn't given me a lot of hope. It's been politics as usual. Our election system is broken—weighed down by big money and outside donations; reported on as a horse race where polls and insults matter the most; and with campaigns overwhelmingly run by operatives who are more likely to deliver opposition dirt on opponents than spend quality time figuring out how to inspire and grow the electorate.
And if a candidate doesn't inspire us, then why in the world would we get excited, especially if we happen to be someone who doesn't typically vote anyway?
Being inspired is pretty much the same whether you're trying to decide who to elect or to stay excited about your career. Leaders must help us know our choices matter, both to the people around us and to the larger community. To get excited by our leaders, we must believe they are authentic people who actually like other people (and not just those who look or think like them), and we must be convinced that they want to do something other than be drunk with power or direct lucrative contracts to their friends.
Without that effort at connection and authenticity, the electorate gets cynical and apathetic (just as people will in the workplace), and all but those who directly benefit from bland, bought-and-sold elected officials will pretty much stay home. And that apathy directly benefits the small number who are running for the wrong reasons.
This problem is extremely evident in Mississippi. Our demographic should vote quite differently and elect people who don't spout "state's rights" or slam "outside agitators," but pretty much no one is stepping up to inspire people who need to be inspired.
It's all about playing it safe, and losing. Or being told to play it safe by the "experts." So we end up with candidates who seem afraid of getting out there and trying to inspire Mississippians to greatness and compassion, who spend too much time criticizing their opponent than really talking to Mississippians about what ails us and empowering us to figure out what each of us can do.
Remember: Leaders lead others, not promise that they can do everything themselves, and then inevitably fail. Former Mayor Frank Melton wasn't a leader; he promised to end crime in 90 days; the people who believed he could are now more cynical than ever because they believed obvious lies.
President Barack Obama spent his campaign inspiring people to think better about what they could do, or insist could get done. As president, he didn't (at least for too long) shy away from previously taboo topics like abortion and gay rights. Sure, he made many people mad, but most of them weren't going to vote for him anyway. And he's helped bring real, lasting change—from the sea change on LGBT marriage to Obamacare as the benevolent law of the land.
More loving people can now legally marry, and fewer people die due to lack of health care and pre-existing exclusions. These were big, hairy ideas that many elected leaders wouldn't bother to talk about and push. Obama did, and he succeeded. And that willingness brings positive change.
Mississippi candidates—especially those who aren't in bed with the radical right, such as Gov. Bryant—should take notice. Stop following the bad conventional wisdom and playing it safe. Sure, talk about how people like Bryant are hurting the state, trying to destroy the public schools, and don't care two whits about many sick people, especially if they're poor—but also show us how you can inspire us to heed the better angels of our nature, to borrow from President Lincoln.
Use words to lift us up, challenge us to collaborate to make Mississippi the best instead of the worst, tell us we can, give us ideas and then lead us to that promised land.
In the Democratic primary for governor, both Vicki Slater and Valerie Short were amazing choices, as far as I can tell, and I believe both of them could be 50 times (at least) the governor that Phil Bryant is. But I'd be lying if I said either of them really touched me during their campaigns. I wasn't inspired, and I don't think anyone who works at the JFP was either—and I can tell you that these folks like to be inspired, as do I.
I want to feel the chills of possibility when a leader talks; I want creative juices rushing through my veins. One of our staffers said this week that after our retreat, she wanted to stand up in church the next morning and inspire everyone around her. I haven't had a candidate do that for me in Mississippi in a long time.
I think there are multiple reasons Robert Gray, an unknown candidate who didn't even vote, defeated these two women. I suspect it was a combination of being the first on the list; being a man; and being the choice of at least some savvy Republican cross-over voters in order to keep Bryant from having to face off against Slater.
But none of that would have shut out both those women if they, or the party apparatus around them, would have inspired voters to know them and turn out to vote for them, no matter what. If at least one of them had really spoken to the majority of Mississippians who don't support the radical right—remember Personhood?—she could be facing Bryant in November. And had she continued along that road to inspiration, she might have beaten him.
Slater seemed to be preserving her donations for her run against Bryant—a classic case of taking one's eye off the immediate ball. I don't blame her; she seemed to be following the conventional wisdom we've watched the state's fearful Democratic Party be snookered by for years now (as it's kept losing). Instead, candidates should use the primary run to really get to know new and existing voters and vice versa—to establish a collective hope and belief that Mississippi can make different and better choices.
The irony is that we ended up with a down-to-earth, straight talker who seems to be steeped in kitchen-table wisdom. I'm actually excited about hearing more of what Robert Gray says, especially if the political machine doesn't wring the authenticity out of him between now and November. He could shake things up by being real.
On Election Day, at the JFP, I should look out into our big, colorful newsroom and see excited people who are as inspired to vote as they are to talk teamwork and collabortion on a Saturday at the Children's Museum. The sad part is that I seldom do.
Comment at jfp.ms/opinion.