JACKSON Laura Clark was leading former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour on a tour of Sacred Heart School in Southaven, Miss., in May 2003, when he surprised the Catholic school principal with a remark that dusted off a longtime favorite instrument for Mississippi politicians: the dog whistle.
"Head Start is a godsend in Mississippi," the Republican candidate for governor said, referring to the federally funded early-childhood education program that prepares low-income children ages 5 and under to enter elementary schools like the one he was touring.
"Some of those kids in it would be better off sitting up on a piano bench at a whorehouse than where they are now," Barbour said, taking a jab at what he imagined those children's home lives with their parents must be like.
Most politicians manage to avoid painting images of preschool age children working in brothels, but in a state where African American children accounted for more than 80 percent of the kids in Head Start, the future Mississippi governor's comment also evoked stereotypes about poor, black Mississippi families.
That same week, then-Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole exoriated Barbour for the remark, accusing him of an "elitist attitude" that equated "poverty with wickedness."
"The families who put their children in the Head Start program do so voluntarily because they want their kids to have a better life," Cole told the Associated Press at the time. "But Haley Barbour is so stuck in his 19th-century plantation paternalism that he can't see that."
The stir typified an racial undercurrent that permeated Mississippi's elections in 2003, as two black Democrats with impressive résumés made historic runs for statewide office. With President George W. Bush's party ascendant in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, incumbent Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, elected in 1999 as a Democrat, had switched to the Republican Party in November 2002.
Though incumbent Tuck remained the favorite, her party switch drew a serious challenge from Democratic nominee Barbara Blackmon, an African American woman who had served as a state senator since 1992 and held a law degree, a Master of Business and a Master of Laws. That summer, Blackmon told the Jackson Free Press she considered herself a "progressive," opposed business-friendly tor-reform efforts Republicans were pushing, and supported abortion rights.
The state treasurer's race, which would elevate Tate Reeves to statewide office, was also infused with race dynamics.
'I Don't Think It Would Be a Contest If Gary Anderson Were Not Black'
Gary Anderson emerged that year as an impressive Democratic nominee in the race for state treasurer. That position typically draws significantly less fanfare than other statewide races, but the election for treasurer that year, coupled with the attorney general's race, paved the way for the governor's race taking shape in 2019.
Anderson boasted an unrivaled set of qualifications. In 2000, Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove appointed him to serve as the director of finance and administration, where Anderson was in charge overseeing hundreds of state employees in the branch that handles state government purchases. Altogether, Anderson had 22 years in finance under his belt, including seven as a senior vice president at Union Planters bank and then as the chief executive officer of his own mortgage company.
His Republican opponent, on the other hand, brought with him a comparatively meager résumé. At 29 years old, political neophyte Tate Reeves could point to the economics degree he had earned at Millsaps College six years earlier and his intervening work as an investment banker in Jackson, but that was no match for Anderson's depth of experience.
"Looking at the two candidates side by side in 2003, there was really no contest based on the qualifications and experience at the time," Cole told the Jackson Free Press on March 8. "Nobody had ever heard of Tate, Tate had done nothing of note, and he was just strictly propped up as a Republican anointed for that position."
Reeves' defenders, though, argued that his lack of entrenched experience in the financial world, combined with his youth, was a boon to him. Rather than casting him as inexperienced, his supporters hailed him as "new blood" that could shake up an old system.
While the GOP now dominates all levels of Mississippi politics, Democrats held the majority of statewide offices in 2003. At that time, Democrats, Republicans and political observers alike had good reason to believe the significantly more qualified Anderson held an electoral advantage over Reeves—except he was African American.
No black Mississippian had held statewide office since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the late 1800s. In the state with the highest African American population in the country, the odds for even a highly qualified African American candidate running for statewide office remained steep.
"I don't think it would be a contest if Gary Anderson were not black," Leslie McLemore, a political science professor at Jackson State University and former Jackson City Council president, told The Clarion-Ledger just days before the election.
In an Oct. 31, 2003, editorial ahead of the election, The Sun Herald opined that it appeared that "at least one" black candidate had a "very good chance" of breaking that barrier.
"Whether it is four days from now or four years from now, it is only a matter of time before an African American serves in one of Mississippi's eight statewide offices for the first time since the 1870s," the editorial read—a failed prediction that remains unfulfilled nearly 16 years later.
Anderson's Loss 'Cannot Be As Easily Attributed to Non-Race Factors'
In the lieutenant governor's race, Tuck beat Blackmon in a 61-37 landslide. In an editorial, McComb Enterprise Journal Editor Tim Kalich hypothesized that Blackmon torpedoed her own campaign when, while defending her pro-abortion views on Sept. 29, she dredged up rumors from the 1999 race that Tuck, a self-described pro-life conservative, once had an abortion. Blackmon signed a letter declaring she had never had an abortion, and called on Tuck to do the same. The move drew widespread condemnation.
"I've seen a lot of low-road politics in my time, but this beats all," Tuck told the Associated Press days later.
That misstep helped explain why Blackmon lost, Kalich wrote.
"Anderson's defeat, though, cannot be as easily attributed to non-race factors," he continued. "He had by far the better and deeper qualifications of the two major-party candidates. He had worked for both Democratic and Republican administrations. He went out of his way to downplay his race."
Reeves beat Anderson by a narrower 52-46. While the GOP swept most state offices that year, with Barbour unseating Musgrove as governor, a decisive turn toward the Republican Party that alone cannot explain the result in the treasurer's race, either. In the same election, 63 percent of Mississippi first voted to elect Jim Hood, a white Democrat, as the new attorney general.
The day after the election on Nov. 5, Cole accused Barbour and the state Republican Party of using the tactics of Richard Nixon's "southern strategy" by making "subtle winks and nods to white racism in the South" and "playing upon race from the beginning of the election season."
Reeves' campaign, though, countered that Anderson's campaign raised and spent far less money. In an interview with the Jackson Free Press years later, Anderson admitted he was short on resources.
"We knew we were running a poor man's campaign," Anderson said in the 2007 interview. "And right at the end, Tate had a lot of money dumped into his campaign. We weren't able to combat that."
But the influx of money in Mississippi campaigns was something new in 2003, Cole told the Jackson Free Press on March 8.
"That was the year Haley Barbour really came back home and brought Washington politics to state politics in terms of how money was used and the rise of professional consultants in down-ticket races," he said. "Until that year, most of our elections for state office were homemade operations. A lot of them were done on a shoestring budget and not a lot of money was involved."
'Race Is Always a Factor in Mississippi Politics'
In the days after Anderson and Blackmon's loss, Joseph Parker, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, joined several other political scientists in the state who said race factored into the outcome.
Barbour's tactics, Parker told the Mississippi Link on Nov. 19, 2003, included making the divisive state flag with its Confederate imagery a constant presence in the campaign. He also pointed to mailers the Barbour campaign sent out with images showing Musgrove and Blackmon side-by-side.
"They were linking Blackmon and Musgrove together as some kind of ticket—putting them together in a little heart on mail-outs," said.
Similarly, the Reeves campaign ran attack ads against Anderson that, while never mentioning his race, included images of his face.
Reeves "made sure voters hadn't forgotten Anderson's race, prominently featuring his opponent's photo in an attack ad that ran in the campaign's later stages," Kalich wrote in the Nov. 11 McComb Enterprise Journal editorial.
Anderson reflected on his loss in the 2007 interview with the Jackson Free Press.
"Haley Barbour took full advantage of the flag issue," he said. "He put signs out everywhere saying, 'Keep the Flag, Change the Governor.' That appealed to some (people's)—I would say—darkest thoughts, and it caused a number of people to come out who don't normally vote in the elections."
Tuck, who had been silent on the issue in 2001 when Mississippi voted to keep the current flag with its Confederate imagery intact, suddenly staked out a position on it in 2003. That year, she took the stage before a mostly conservative audience at the Neshoba County Fair and said she had never been in favor of changing it.
In his March 8 interview, Cole recalled the use of the flag as a wedge issue in the 2003 race. One GOP group, he said, produced "thousands of yard signs" with the same "Keep the Flag, Change the Governor" slogan.
Anyone who says race was not a factor in the 2003 election is being "dishonest," Cole said.
"If you took Tate Reeves' resume from 2003 and Gary Anderson's resume and did a blind test without anyone knowing anything about them except their qualifications on their resume, Anderson would have won," he said. "Race is always a factor in Mississippi politics, and anyone who says any different is being disingenuous. That's just how Mississippi politics works, and we all need to be grown up enough to admit it."
'Haley's a Master of the Dog Whistle'
The kind of "dog whistles" used in those 2003 mailers and ads, Cole said, reminded him of the infamous "Hands" ad that Republican U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina ran in his 1990 re-election bid. That 30-second attack ad began with a pair of white hands crumpling up a rejection letter.
"You needed that job, and you were the best-qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota," a deep-voiced narrator intones. "Is that really fair? Harvey Gant says it is."
The ad transitions to a split screen showing a photo of Harvey Gant, Helms' African American Democratic opponent, next to a photo of the white incumbent. Gant was "for racial quotas," the graphic read, while Helms was "against" them.
"Any time Republicans feel like a race is tight, you can go all the way back to Jesse Helms and Harvey Gant in North Carolina," Cole said. "You know, Haley's a master of the dog whistle ... so the southern strategy and the dog whistle is nothing new."
GOP consultant Alex Castellanos produced the Helms ad, and has since worked for numerous Republican presidential candidates, including George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush. In 2016, Castellanos pulled out his old tricks when he helped lead Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump Super PAC that spent millions producing ads that similarly dog-whistled to white racism.
In one of those ads, titled "Redskins," four white men sit around a television, enjoying drinking beer and watching football.
"Yeah, you thought you were safe, sitting in your recliner in your man cave, cold beer and a bowl of chips," the narrator intones. "You thought you'd escaped politics by focusing on football. Wrong. Hillary Clinton wants to mess up your football, too. Hillary wants to change the name of the Redskins."
For years, many white American football fans have taken umbrage at Native Americans who suggest the Washington Redskins' name should be changed because "redskins" is a racial slur. The ad sought to identify Clinton as a source of that outrage.
"Her priorities are not your priorities," the narrator concludes.
Barbour: 'A Hugely Powerful Force ... He Built the Party'
Castellanos knows Barbour, with whom he shared space in the upper echelons of Republican politics for years. After Barbour's tenure as governor ended in 2012 and he returned to lucrative lobbying deals in Washington, D.C., Castellanos told The New York Times that Barbour remained a "hugely powerful force" in the party.
"He built the party that we have today from Reagan on, so there isn't a better fundraiser, a better organizational leader in the Republican Party," Castellanos said.
On March 8, Cole alluded to Barbour's role in the GOP of the 1980s.
"Never forget that Roger Ailes, Lee Atwater and Haley Barbour came up in this process together, and they're all cut from the same cloth," Cole said in early March.
Roger Ailes, who died in 2017, was the chairman of Fox News, helping mold it into the GOP-aligned and now Trump-aligned cable network that the president consumes daily. In an exposé in The New Yorker last week, Jane Mayer reported that Ailes allegedly fed questions to Trump ahead of Republican debates in 2015 and that the network allegedly buried a story about the candidate's affair with Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.
Lee Atwater worked on Reagan's presidential campaign, in the White House, and later became the chairman of the Republican National Committee—the same position Barbour later held. In a now infamous 1982 recording, Atwater described the GOP's "southern strategy."
"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N--ger, n--ger, n--ger.' By 1968 you can’t say 'n--ger'—that hurts you, backfires," Atwater says in the recording, which emerged in 2012. "Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites ... 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N--ger, n--ger.”
The three men's paths converged in the Reagan administration, where Barbour served as the White House political director, Ailes served as a consultant, and Atwater served as an adviser.
Aside from flags, mailers and ads that perhaps drew from southern-strategy-style tactics, race was at play in other ways during the 2003 campaign. In the early 2000s, Republicans, and Barbour in particular, launched a campaign for business-friendly tort reform policies that painted "greedy trial lawyers" as the villains.
Tort-reform efforts often emphasized, either directly or indirectly, black plaintiffs getting large payouts—which tort-reform lobbyists referred to as "jackpot justice," playing on racist "freeloader" myths. Blackmon was among the "trial lawyers" targeted for criticism in the campaign because of her opposition to the reforms.
'If Anybody Is Implying Tate Reeves Is A Racist, I Categorically Say Different'
In the years since the 2003 race, Reeves has proven more adept at avoiding racial minefields than either Barbour or Gov. Phil Bryant, but his past rendezvous with groups promoting racist imagery and ideas have drawn scrutiny.
In February 2019, Reeves' time at Millsaps came back to haunt him after old yearbooks and newspaper articles from his time there surfaced showing members of his fraternity waving Confederate flags and wearing blackface. Reeves' campaign said he was not among those pictured and never wore blackface.
He also faced criticism in February when a photo he posted on his official Facebook page years ago resurfaced. It shows him speaking at a Sons of Confederate Veterans event in Vicksburg in 2013, surrounded by Confederate flags. Cotton-plant arrangements sat on either side of the podium as well, though they are not visible in the photo.
Last month, the Jackson Free Press unearthed a video from the event in which one speaker compared "Yankees" in the Civil War to the Nazis who murdered millions of Jews in the Holocaust.
Reeves' spokesperson said he was not present during those remarks, and the Reeves campaign quietly deleted the photo from his page.
George Flaggs Jr., the Vicksburg mayor, also spoke at the SCV event that year, though he told the JFP in February 2019 that he left after giving a short greeting and suspected Reeves did the same. In the same interview, Flaggs, an African American political independent who previously served in the Mississippi Legislature as a Democrat, said he "emphatically" rejects the idea that Reeves is a racist.
"If anybody is implying Tate Reeves is a racist, I categorically say different," he said. "I served on the appropriations subcommittee when he was treasurer of Mississippi and during his first term as lieutenant governor. He has never done anything but treat me with the utmost respect. I've been with him in private and public, and in debates over the issues, and I have never seen anything that would make me not be proud of him."
Flaggs said he has seen racism among lawmakers and has "been called some names," but never from Reeves nor anyone currently serving. The culprits, he said, are "dead and gone."
"I've never seen him display anything that would make me question his integrity and his honesty," he added. "And likewise to Jim Hood. I think we need to learn to forgive, allow people to repent and move on. Because when we spend time on emotional issues, that's all we get. We don't focus on funding education or on access to health care."
Reeves has raised eyebrows repeatedly on his stance on the Mississippi flag, which draws on rhetoric that whites have long used toward proponents of civil rights and opponents of the state flag. In 2017, he said that Mississippians should "stop apologizing," presumably for our brutal civil-rights past.
"I believe our state is home to great sports giants, literary legends and never-before-achieved scientific breakthroughs," Reeves said then. "I believe strongly that in many instances we need to stop apologizing and start bragging about Mississippi's many great accomplishments."
He has also criticized "outsiders" for trying to get the state to change its flag—reminiscent of racist Mississippi leaders calling civil-rights proponents "outside agitators" during the Civil Rights Movement. "If the citizens of our state want to revisit that decision, and I am sure at some point we may, it will best be decided by the people of Mississippi, not by outsiders or media elites or politicians in a back room," Reeves said in a statement about the controversial flag in 2015.
'I Think A Qualified African American Can Win Statewide'
In November 2018, Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Mike Espy, who is black, nearly matched Anderson's 47 percent in Mississippi when he lost to U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith by a 54-46 margin. Though it was the closest a Democrat has come to winning a U.S. Senate seat in Mississippi in decades, it followed a remark Hyde-Smith made about how she would sit "on the front row" at "a public hanging" if a supporter invited her. Many took her remark as a reference to Mississippi's history of lynching African Americans, but she denied the accusation.
After Reeves' swearing in as treasurer in 2004, he sat for an interview with The Clarion-Ledger and criticized journalists who explored the racial aspects of the election. He was "disappointed," he said, that "several qualified, intelligent journalists just wrote a story, even though the facts and numbers did not support their argument."
An African American candidate can win in Mississippi, he said in the same interview, but not a candidate like Anderson or Blackmon.
"I think a qualified African American can win statewide, but that person must believe in the ideals and principles that the majority of Mississippians hold dear to their hearts," Reeves said.
In 2011, then-popular Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree ran as the Democratic nominee for governor. The black Democrat hewed so close to those conservative "ideals and principles" that, during a debate with Republican nominee Phil Bryant, DuPree mused that it hardly counted as a debate because he and the then-lieutenant governor agreed on so much.
On abortion, DuPree ran to the right of most of the state's voters when he joined Bryant and endorsed the Personhood Amendment, which would have banned abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
The Personhood Amendment failed at the ballot box on election night, and so did DuPree. Bryant beat him 61-39, a result strikingly similar to the margin by which Tuck beat Blackmon in 2003. That same night, Mississippians promoted Reeves to the office of lieutenant governor.
Reeves' office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email story tips to [email protected].