JACKSON Hit with a wave of anger from his own party after he voted for a bill that essentially bans abortions after six weeks, Mississippi House Rep. Jay Hughes offered a defense: He did it so white Democrats like himself don't go the way of the dinosaur.
Yesterday, the Oxford lawmaker, who is a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, voted with eight other Democrats and most Republicans to pass House Bill 732, which bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected. Doctors can detect heartbeats as early as six weeks, making it a de facto ban on almost all abortions.
The heartbeat bills include exceptions for cases where a pregnancy imperils a woman's life, but an effort by some lawmakers to amend the Senate bill to also include exceptions for rape and incest failed.
Nicki Nichols is a health-care advocate from Brandon who volunteered for Hughes' campaign and says she was "a huge supporter" in the past. This morning, she tweeted photos of her Jay Hughes yard sign with his name X'd out. Above it, she wrote the words, "MISSISSIPPI WOMEN MATTER."
In an open letter, she told Hughes he had lost her support.
"It doesn't matter that your one vote wouldn't have changed the end result. It does matter that you told women all over Mississippi that a 6 week embryo has more value than we do," she wrote. "Your vote told me that you care more about a 6 week old pregnancy than you do the life of my daughter, who has (Type 1) diabetes. You may not know that diabetes can cause complications for both a mother and a fetus. That the results could lead to kidney failure and death for my daughter, even if she does everything right."
Cindy Hornsby, a Mississippi voter who supports abortion rights, confronted Hughes in a Facebook message. In response, he told her he "voted pro-life before and did again yesterday." She posted screenshots of his reply.
"The Mississippi House has just ten white Democrats remaining, in a body of 122 members," Hughes wrote. "Eight of us are moderates and trying to avoid the Republican goal of eliminating all white (Democrats), so it will fit the claim that you can't be white or moderate and be a Democrat in Mississippi. This deception would further the goal of absolute control and further repressive laws against all, and in favor of a few."
"The bigger question," he continued, "is whether "you would rather elect someone you agree with 95 percent of the time, or see elected someone you disagree with 95 percent of the time, like the good ole boy crew in charge and Delbert."
He was referring to Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is running for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.
A failed 2018 U.S. Senate bid by Mississippi House Minority Leader David Baria, who ran as a "pro-choice" Democrat, suggests white Democrats cannot win while running in favor of abortion rights, Hughes wrote. Last November, Baria earned just 39 percent of the vote against incumbent Roger Wicker.
Mississippi Voters Rejected 'Personhood' in 2011 By 17 Points
In 2011, though, the Democratic nominee for governor, then-Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree, also managed to win just 39 percent of the vote—despite running as an anti-abortion Democrat who favored the Personhood Amendment.
That was a ballot initiative, pushed by Gov. Phil Bryant, that would have defined a fertilized egg as a person in the Mississippi Constitution, banning all abortions, some forms of birth control, and potentially in-vitro fertilization. DuPree thought he needed to embrace it to have any chance of beating then Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant in the race for the governor's mansion.
On the same night DuPree lost, though, voters rejected the Personhood Amendment by a 17 point margin, 58-41, surprising the nation. Last November, Alabama voters approved a Personhood initiative there.
Personhood drew a strong grassroots alliance of women from different parties opposing the initiative in 2011, many of whom are now speaking out against the heartbeat bill passed yesterday, as well as the vote of Hughes, who many have expected to be the Democratic nominee for the powerful lieutenant governor's seat. Prospective primary candidates face a March 1 filing deadline to jump in the race.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Baria accused Republicans who point to a 2001 referendum to justify keeping the current state flag of hypocrisy if they also voted to ban abortion, despite the 2011 referendum.
"Ironically, the #msleg passed the 'Heartbeat' bill yesterday despite the state having rejected an identical proposal in Prop. 26," Baria wrote. "We ask to change our state state flag and are told 'the people already voted on that.' Haven't the people of Mississippi already voted on this?"
'I'm More Than Just Pro-Birth: I'm Pro-Entire Life'
In his message, Hughes did not address the state's long list of failed Democratic candidates who ran on anti-abortion platforms. Even back in 2003, when Amy Tuck and Barbara Blackmon faced off for the lieutenant governor's seat, abortion arose as a divisive wedge issue during the campaign, which the Democrat-turned-Republican Amy Tuck eventually won.
Blackmon, who is still a Democratic state senator, was unapologetically in favor of abortion rights, and threw down a controversial gauntlet just over a month before the election, saying she would sign an affidavit swearing she had never had an abortion, challenging Tuck to do the same. That move resuscitated a rumor that had swirled in Tuck's 1999 campaign for the seat as a Democrat that she had previously had an abortion.
Hughes did point to other Democrats, like Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, as examples of Democrats who won seats in the Deep South while running on anti-abortion platforms.
"In that position, he has been able to expand Medicaid, increase ... mental health access, and address the real needs of real people," Hughes wrote.
In 2015, Edwards did beat embattled GOP candidate David Vitter, a former U.S. senator who had paid for prostitution services through the notorious "D.C. Madame." After his victory, Edwards accepted federal dollars his Republican predecessor had rejected to expand Medicaid in the state. In the first year, a study found, expansion saved the state $317 million, created 19,000 new jobs, and more than 470,000 people gained health coverage.
As a candidate for lieutenant governor, Hughes wants to expand Medicaid in Mississippi, too. Around 300,000 Mississippians who make too much for traditional Medicaid and too little for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act could gain health coverage if the state accepts expansion money. Last month, Hosemann told the Jackson Free Press that he is interested in looking at the possibility of expansion, too.
"I have taken the position and voted that I'm more than just pro-birth: I'm pro-entire life," Hughes wrote. "This means supporting both the lives of the mother and the baby even after the baby is born. It also means realistically addressing Mississippi's high infant mortality rate, high teen pregnancy, access to healthcare, public education, mental health, addiction, criminal justice reform, and living wages. None of that can be accomplished if my Republican opponent is elected."
In Mississippi, the lieutenant governor doubles as the president of the Senate, giving lieutenant governors not only executive powers, but broad powers in setting the legislative agenda.
"Without 50 percent + 1 of the popular vote ... I am relegated to being just a keyboard cowboy," Hughes wrote.
He urged Hornsby not to "let them divide our party, like usual, over a single issue."
Besides, he wrote, no matter how he or any other Mississippi legislator voted on the heartbeat bill, federal courts—not Mississippi's lawmakers—will ultimately decide abortion rights.
Conservative Lawmakers Hope for a Supreme Court Case
Last year, after Mississippi passed a bill banning abortions after 15 weeks, a federal court quickly struck it down. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democratic candidate for governor, is currently appealing that ruling.
On Monday, Hood, who is a Democratic candidate for governor, also said abortion would be up to the courts to decide. While he is "personally pro-life," he said, he will not promise voters that he will have the power to end abortion in the state like other politicians.
"Now, they'll get out here and run and dupe people," he said. "It's awful to try to mislead good, church-going people who vote on one issue—mislead them, and tell them, 'I'm going to stop it,' and we're going to do this, rah rah rah. I'm not going to be that kind of governor."
During debate over the state Senate's version of the heartbeat bill, though, some Republicans suggested things may have changed, thanks to President Trump's Supreme Court picks.
Conservative Sens. Chris McDaniel, R-Ellisville, and Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, both alluded to Trump's recent appointment of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Kavanaugh replaced former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy who, Fillingane noted, cast the swing vote in the 1990s that stopped the court from overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that made abortion a constitutionally protected right.
During his confirmation hearings last fall, Kavanaugh suggested he would not overturn Roe, calling it "settled law." But Fillingane pointed to a decision last week in which Kavanaugh voted to allow a highly restrictive Louisiana abortion law to take effect while it makes its way through the courts. But conservative Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals to block it.
During Senate debate, McDaniel openly suggested he hopes this bill, or another like it, goes all the way to the Supreme Court in order to give the court a chance to to grapple anew with Roe and abortion rights.
Not all Republicans voted for the heartbeat bill, however.
'As a Christian, As a Woman, As a Mother'
Rep. Missy McGee, a Hattiesburg Republican who voted for the 15-week ban last year and describes herself as "pro-life," explained her vote against it in a Facebook post Wednesday evening.
"This was a bill that was pushed through committee last week at the 11th hour on a deadline day," she wrote. "No hearings. No exceptions for rape or incest. No exceptions for if a 100% fatal genetic abnormality is found later in the pregnancy."
McGee said she "struggled" with her decision, and spent the past week talking to her pastor, doctors, attorneys, friends and constituents about the bill. Ultimately, she decided to vote no.
"As one of only 15 women in a legislative body of 122 members, I cannot support legislation that makes such hard line, final decisions for other women," she wrote. "Because, in fact, there are painful and heart-wrenching circumstances that do arise and should allow a woman to confer with her faith, her doctor, and her family to make what will surely be one of—if not THE—most difficult decision of her life."
In 2017, McGee won a special election for her House District 102 seat. The last woman to hold that seat was Evelyn Gandy, a Democrat who won the seat in 1947. In 1959, she became the first woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi. In 1975, voters elected her lieutenant governor.
Perhaps with the legacy in mind, McGee wrote that she could not vote for the bill, "as a Christian, as a mother, as a woman, and as someone who believes in the limited role of government...."
Women from McGee's district responded with an outpouring of appreciation.
"Thank you, Missy," wrote Hattiesburg resident Wendy Atkins Sayre. "I didn't agree with your previous vote, but I really appreciate that you saw a difference and stood your ground. There were far too many people who voted without thinking today and I'm happy to say that our representative isn't one of those."
"Really appreciate your vote on this one," wrote Alyson Brink, another constituent. "Thank you for supporting women."
Lawmakers in the House and Senate will still have to agree on a single bill. When they do, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant will sign it, he said.
"I've often said I want Mississippi to be the safest place for an unborn child in America," Bryant, who has signed numerous anti-abortion bills into law only to be foiled in the courts, tweeted on Wednesday.
Aside from Hughes, the following House Democrats voted for the bill: Rep. Otis Anthony of Indianola; Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth; Rep. Bob Evans of Monticello; Rep. Michael Evans of Preston; Rep. Kevin Horan of Grenada; Rep. Tom Miles of Forest; Rep. Thomas Reynolds of Charleston; Rep. Preston Sullivan of Okolona.
With the exception of Anthony, all are white.
If Hosemann and Hughes win their respective party primaries for lieutenant governor this summer, they will face off at the ballot box in November, when Mississippians will also elect a new governor and other statewide office holders.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected]. Read related reporting at jacksonfreepress.com/abortion.