HATTIESBURG, Miss.—"Hey Mr. President, this is Cory Booker," the U.S. senator and New Jersey Democrat said to the selfie camera on the smartphone he was holding up.
He was not referring to President Donald Trump, though, or any other U.S. president. Next to him stood Brandon Rue, the 20-year-old president of a student organization at the University of Southern Mississippi called Common Cause.
It was Nov. 19, and with Mississippi just over a week away from the runoff for the state's most contested U.S. Senate election in over a decade, Booker had come to the Hattiesburg's USM campus to rally for Democrat Mike Espy. Rue had organized Booker's visit on behalf of the Espy campaign. For months already, he had led efforts to register USM students and get out the college vote. By the registration deadline, Rue had helped register more than 1,000 Southern Miss students.
With Rue and Espy's adult daughter, Jamilla Espy, also in the smartphone camera's frame, Booker thanked them for their efforts. "I want to tell everybody in Mississippi, define yourself, not by your party, but by your actions, by what you do for your country, and the most basic act is voting. OK, now listen to the president," Booker said, putting his hand on the shoulder of a grinning Rue.
"Go vote!" Rue said to the camera, drawing joyous laughter from the senator.
Earlier, Rue had confided to Booker a burgeoning ambition: He wanted to run as a Democrat for Mississippi House District 102, the state legislative seat that represents much of Hattiesburg, including Southern Miss. That seat, which incumbent Republican House Rep. Missy McGee now holds, would be a difficult feat; McGee won it with nearly 68 percent of the vote in a special election in 2017, albeit with lower-than-usual turnout.
Rue is African American, and Booker, who is one of just three currently serving black U.S. senators, encouraged him to make the run. Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick also encouraged Rue to run during his visit to support Espy in September. In 2007, Patrick became only the second black governor of a U.S. state since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.
"When I met Senator Booker, I had already been thinking about it, and you know when you are in a room with people like them, it's just a failure if you don't mention it," Rue told the Jackson Free Press on Jan. 31—the day he officially announced his candidacy. "So I definitely mentioned it and they said, 'Run.' They were in my shoes at one point in time, too, so they know exactly how I feel."
The day after Rue's announcement, on Feb. 1, Booker launched his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president of the United States. He already has Rue's support.
'The Time Is Always Right to Do The Right Thing'
The biggest boost to Rue's campaign, though, came on Feb. 22, when Mike Espy traveled to Hattiesburg to throw his support—and resources—behind Rue.
"He's got the energy of youth, the passion of youth, and that's what we need more of here in Mississippi," Espy, the 65-year-old former U.S. secretary of agriculture, told a room of about 30 people gathered at the Shrimp Basket, a seafood restaurant across the highway from USM.
Rue, he said, reminded of himself when he first won a race for a U.S. House seat in 1986. That year, Espy became the first black congressman elected from Mississippi since Reconstruction.
Not only did Rue help register voters, but on Election Day and then the runoff in November, he led hundreds of students to vote in his "March to the Polls" events. Though Espy lost his race to Republican U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, he came closer to winning that Senate seat than any Democrat in Mississippi since 1982.
"I ran for a congressional seat and won at age 29 in Mississippi, and back then they said to me, 'You're too young,' 'You've got to wait your time,' 'The time is not right,' 'You've got to wait and let others handle it,' 'You'll get your opportunity later on.' Don't listen," Espy told Rue. "The time is always right to do the right thing."
On Election Day this November, Rue will be 21—the age legally required to make the ballot for a state House of Representatives race. One of his inspirations, Moss Point Democratic House Rep. Jeramey Anderson, was about a month shy of 22 when coastal voters made him the youngest African American voted into a state Legislature in U.S. history. If he won, Rue would be even younger.
At the Shrimp Basket, Espy handed Rue a check, and offered something few startup House candidates could hope to get: data, metrics, voter names and donor names from what Espy claims was "the most modern data (operation) in Mississippi's history."
"I think our campaign built a bridge, and we didn't burn the bridge," Espy said. "The bridge remains so others can cross."
Most candidates take months to build up lists like those will Rue will start with, and because of prohibitive costs, few of those lists ever reach the level of sophistication as those the Espy campaign owns—especially not for candidates in the cash-strapped Democratic Party. But the fruit of Espy's multi-million dollar run will allow Rue to immediately have contact information for thousands of the Democratic-leaning voters he will need to activate in order to topple McGee.
"I want to use that for good people who are running, and I'm doing that for free. I'm not charging," Espy said, hinting that he might use his campaign data to help other candidates, too.
Espy, himself, could benefit from his 2018 data operation in a rematch against Hyde-Smith when she is up for re-election in 2020. He has already filed to run.
'It Can Only Get Better'
Weeks before the runoff, Hyde-Smith sparked a national outcry after a video emerged of her using an unusual phrase "of endearment" (as she called it) to praise a supporter at a stop in Starkville.
"If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row," she told the crowd.
Though Hyde-Smith insisted she meant "no ill will," Mississippi's history as the state with the most lynchings in the period between Reconstruction and the civil rights era led even the president of the conservative Mississippi Tea Party to condemn Hyde-Smith, a white woman, for cavalierly evoking the spectre of lynching.
"I don't know what's in your heart, but I know what came out of your mouth," Espy later told Hyde-Smith at a debate, after she tried to blame him for stirring up the controversy.
At USM on Nov. 16, Rue assembled a group of student leaders near a fountain in Shoemaker Square on campus where they called for Hyde-Smith's resignation in the aftermath of the "public hanging" remark. That comment, as well as statements her campaign put out calling President Obama "anti-American" and referring to Booker and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris as "extremists" are the result of a "white supremacist attitude," Rue told the Jackson Free Press.
Espy's loss to Hyde-Smith, he told the Jackson Free Press last month, helped push him even further toward a run.
"The fact that we had a senator who said what she said it still got elected, that just kind of lit a fire under me because I'm like, wow, Mississippi, is that the best we can do?" he said on Jan. 31.
At his announcement, where a crowd of around 60 people—mostly USM students—gathered to support him, Rue asked how many planned to leave Mississippi after they graduate. More than a dozen hands went up.
Reversing Mississippi's exodus of talented young people, he said, is one of his top priorities, and comments like Hyde-Smith's do not help. His campaign slogan reflects his reality-grounded sense of optimism: "It Can Only Get Better."
That phrase is not new, his best friend Zykimbreia Fields, who is managing his volunteer staff, told the Jackson Free Press on Jan. 31. Fields, a sophomore nursing student at USM, said she heard him it many times, long before it was ever printed on campaign literature.
"I have a lot of stuff that goes on in life where I just want to just stop," she said. "And he's like, 'No. No matter how bad it gets, it can only get better from here.'"
'I'd Rather Be Known As Innovative'
On Feb. 22, Rue said he is running for people like his LGBT friends who feel targeted by bigoted legislators and for the teachers who are struggling to get by, even as the Republican-dominated Legislature this year offers only a meager pay raise that does not keep up with inflation.
But Rue is a first-generation college student from a family of eight, among which he is one of just two to graduate from high school. He is fighting for kids like he was, he said.
"I think that the state Legislature is trying to sabotage public education so they can have a reason to privatize it," he said.
Earlier this month, Republican efforts to expand the state's voucher program to allow almost any parent to use public funds to send their children to private schools fizzled out. But public-education advocates are trying to stop a bill that would expand the current program, now set to expire in 2020, to 2024.
Much of those funds go to schools that began as segregation academies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where white parents would send their children to avoid court-ordered integration. Though they no longer prohibit students based on race, most of them are still overwhelmingly white, many do not sufficiently serve disabled and special-needs students, and some have discriminatory policies that affect teen girls and LGBT students.
Education is just one front Rue hopes to fight for change if elected, he said. He also cited two USM student suicides as part of the impetus for his passion for another issue—Mississippi's mental-health crisis. In recent years, the Legislature has cut back on mental-health funding.
At USM, Rue said, students seeking on-campus counseling are often told they will have to wait as long as three weeks for an appointment. He is "passionate" about funding for staff who can serve students when they need help, the candidate said.
While the Legislature has not proposed funding increases for mental-health services like those at USM this year, one bill would establish mental-health courts in the state to help the mentally ill avoid jail, should it become law.
Rue said he does not identify as a "progressive" despite his support of such progressive causes.
"I'd rather be known as innovative," he said. "Mississippi has so many problems ... we just need to start figuring out answers."
Rue: McGee's Abortion Vote Does Not Make Her a Moderate
First, though, Rue will have to overcome the problem of beating Rep. Missy McGee. She is an increasingly popular Republican incumbent who received bipartisan accolades this month for her vote on a bill that would ban all abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected, with exceptions only for the life of the mother. Though McGee describes herself as a "pro-life" Christian, she was the only Republican in the House to vote against the bill, which essentially bans abortions after six weeks.
"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," McGee wrote on Facebook after the vote on Feb. 13. "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."
Two nights later, McGee arrived for the opening of a new brew pub in Hattiesburg, and the room erupted into applause.
At the Shrimp Basket on Feb. 22, though, Rue disputed the idea that she is a moderate, calling it "completely false." Last year, she voted for a bill that bans abortions after 15 weeks. After that bill became law, a federal judge struck it down, but the State is appealing that ruling. Democrats should not be lulled into supporting McGee as a show of goodwill for her most recent abortion vote, he said.
"You have a candidate who, by the way, would have also voted no on that bill, but also would vote your way or the way that you like every other time as well—not just 1 percent of the time," Rue said.
Rue, who is a youth minister, said he would have voted against the 15-week ban, too.
"Religiously, I don't believe in abortion," he said. "But politically, my mindset is that I don't believe the government should control what a woman does with her body. People don't elect me to follow my religious beliefs. They elect me to follow the beliefs of the people."
Because separate but nearly identical heartbeat bills passed both chambers, legislators will have to decide on one to send to the governor's desk. Gov. Phil Bryant has signaled his eagerness to sign either one into law.
McGee is one of just 15 women in the House. The last woman to hold the seat before her was Evelyn Gandy, a Democrat who won it in 1947. In 1959, Gandy became the first woman elected to statewide office in Mississippi as state treasurer, and in 1975, voters elected her to be lieutenant governor.
Rue would not be the first USM student to win the House District 102 seat. At age 25, current Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker won the seat as a Republican in 2007, and held it until he ousted Johnny DuPree as mayor nearly two years ago. Barker, now an independent, supported McGee in 2017, and hailed her vote on the heartbeat bill as a sign of her commitment to be "the people's representative."
Other candidates could still jump in the race to challenge Rue or McGee in their party primaries. The deadline is March 1. Mississippi will hold party primaries for legislative seats, as well as statewide offices like governor and secretary of state, on Aug. 6. In Mississippi, voters must be registered 30 days before an election to vote.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter at
@ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected].