A white woman who lost her Mississippi House of Representatives seat to a black woman challenger is asking the Republican-dominated body to overturn the election results.
On Dec. 4, House District 40 Rep. Ashley Henley, the incumbent, filed a petition with the Mississippi House of Representatives' clerk, contesting her 14-vote loss to Democrat Hester Jackson-McCray, who is African American. In her complaint, Henley cites technical errors, including DeSoto County election officials' failure to staple a list of voter signatures to the voter receipt book and incorrect dates listed on some documents. She also accuses 11 voters of "voter fraud," claiming they do not live in the district.
"Hester ran an honest and fair election. She won fair and square. ... Her opponent does not say she did anything unfair, and yet they are trying to take this historic win from her," Kelly Jacobs, one of Jackson-McCray's campaign advisers, told the Jackson Free Press Monday morning.
Jackson-McCray's win in November marked the first time an African American woman had won a House or Senate seat in North Mississippi's DeSoto County. The district is situated within the Memphis suburbs.
'I'm Worried That This Is All About Race'
Jacobs said she does not consider Henley's challenge legitimate, but is nevertheless concerned that the House, where the Republican Party holds a supermajority, could overturn the results anyway.
"I do not see the Republican Party as being a group that stands up for what is fair. So I'm worried that this is all about race," said Jacobs, who is white. "The black woman beat the white woman. And we can't have that. So we've got to overturn the election and give it to the white girl. I don't see her having any argument for why she should be declared the winner."
Henley's complaint alleges multiple technical errors in ballot counting, including two uncounted paper ballots with Henley's name marked. She also accuses 11 people of "voter fraud," claiming they voted despite not currently living in the district.
Jacobs said Jackson-McCray will likely have to raise money to pay for representation in the challenge—and she will likely have to defend the DeSoto County Republican election commissioners and their poll workers' ballot counting.
'I'm Gonna Fight 'Til the Very End'
In social-media posts, Henley points out that Mississippi judges are hearing election challenges in eight other elections, too. Henley is the only one who is asking the Mississippi House to hear a challenge, though, instead of taking her case before a local judge, Jacobs said.
"Republicans will primarily be judging the hearing, and they will decide whether to declare House 40 vacant," Jacobs said.
In a Facebook video message, Henley defended herself against accusations that she is a "racist" or a member of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. She said she has drawn those criticisms since she filed her petition.
"The floodgates of hate are wide open, accusing me of being a one-percenter, a typical racist white Republican, trying to steal an election. People are gonna believe whatever they wanna believe, but the truth is what matters," she says in the clip. "So here's some truth for you."
Her video then shows a clip of the Lakeview Mobile Home Community sign, followed by a shot of a mobile home next to a tall tree. "I planted that tree when I was 8," she says, before panning to a shot of a rundown old shed.
"There is my second home, not the house, but the shed. I lived in that shed from the time I was 16 until I was 20," she says.
Henley's video then shows a shot of an apartment complex in DeSoto County with a sidewalk running across the bottom half of the frame. "This is where my grandmother died, right there on the corner," she tells viewers.
Finally, the video pans to a shot of a modest one-story home with a truck in its driveway.
"This is my home. It's nothin' fancy, it's old, it needs a little tender love and care—like most of us who live here. But it's where I call home," Henley says. "I love it. Just like I love all of District 40. Y'all can keep hatin', but I'm in this. I'm gonna stay. I'm gonna fight 'til the very end so that the people of District 40 know the truth."
The Jackson Free Press was not able to get in touch with Henley by press time on Monday.
'Let's Reject the Radical Republican Agenda'
Henley first won her seat in 2015, with backing from Empower Mississippi, which supports school privatization and advocates for shifting public-education funds to vouchers to pay for private-school tuition. Jackson-McCray was her opponent that year, too, but Henley beat her in that election by 36 points. This year, though, House District 40 saw significantly higher voter turnout.
Jackson-McCray ran on a pro-public-education platform, which drew a contrast with Henley's support for "school choice" policies.
On Nov. 6, Henley posted a campaign mailer on Facebook that Jackson-McCray sent out during the election. "Let's reject the radical Republican agenda and elect Democrat Hester Jackson-McCray for State Representative," the mailer urged across its top.
Jackson-McCray's mailer promises three policies: "Fully funding our public school and raising teacher pay"; "Expanding Medicaid to provide affordable healthcare for working families"; and "Ending the corporate tax cuts to mostly out of state corporations and using those funds to repair our crumbling roads and bridges."
In her Facebook comment, Henley disparaged Jackson-McCray's policy proposals, warning that, if her opponent won the election, "the agenda in the attached photo will direct the course of our district's representation in the state legislature."
"We're just so proud of her," Jacobs told the Jackson Free Press, referring to Jackson-McCray.
Jacobs said McCray's daughter and six grandchildren live with her, and she helps take them to the local public school they attend. Jackson-McCray was a nurse until she was laid off after suffering injuries to her knees several years ago. Jackson-McCray has had surgery on one knee, but still needs another that she has not yet been able to afford.
"She is just a person of perseverance. Because most people, when they are so poor because they're having to choose between having a house and having a car, they don't run for office. But she had a platform for supporting people," Jacobs said.
Follow Jackson Free Press state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].