Mississippi Democratic Party Needs to Overhaul Strategies, Outreach, Diversity | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Mississippi Democratic Party Needs to Overhaul Strategies, Outreach, Diversity

Best-selling author Angie Thomas, a Jackson native, is leaving Mississippi because she cannot stand to live among the toxic politics that hurts so many people. Photo by Anissa Photography.

Best-selling author Angie Thomas, a Jackson native, is leaving Mississippi because she cannot stand to live among the toxic politics that hurts so many people. Photo by Anissa Photography.

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Donna Ladd

Prominent novelist Angie Thomas is planning to leave Mississippi due to the toxic politics here, which was on prominent display in last night’s election outcome. The wildly successful graduate of Belhaven College grew up in Georgetown in Jackson and travels frequently to Atlanta, Los Angeles and beyond. Her first novel became a popular feature film, and now her second adapted film is in production. She told me in a recent Let’s Talk Jackson podcast that she is turning her career attention toward the film world as well as writing books.

But, as of now, Angie doesn’t plan to make films in her native Mississippi, even as she is investing in her old neighborhood, fixing up playgrounds and working to inspire kids, much as her hero Nipsey Hussle did in L.A., as she explained in our podcast and a recent cover story by JFP Culture Writer Aliyah Veal.

“I once considered putting my production company in Mississippi, filming projects in Mississippi,” Angie tweeted last night. “But I also realize the money from those projects would benefit politicians who don't see me as an equal. Money talks, and mine walks.”

The Real Root of Mississippi ‘Brain Drain’

Many of the same politicians who won statewide offices last night by pandering to Donald Trump love to talk about stopping Mississippi brain drain, of course. There's even a "Mississippi Brain Drain Commission" with an ugly website. But it’s always about anything but reversing hatefulness and intolerance of anyone not just like those in power.

Angie wasn’t the only one tweeting about this last night: Smart Mississippians crowded into my mentions to say they don’t think they can stay in the state much longer, while the election outcome discouraged many ex-pats who want to return home.

I and my staff have worked mightily to convince young people to stay in the state and use their energy and resources for progress here since I returned 18 years ago and then started this paper. It’s extremely common for me to be out in public—the last time at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum a couple weeks ago—and a young professional I don’t know walks up to me to tell me that they were uncertain about moving to Jackson for a job or whatever, but picked up the Jackson Free Press while visiting and realized that the state has people who don’t fit the hateful stereotype. This has happened hundreds of times since the Jackson Free Press launched in 2002.

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It’s getting hard to ask Mississippians to stay or return now, though. Just the tweets last night showed that their pain is real. A former Mississippi Youth Media Project student I worked with—a brilliant young white woman who attended Murrah High School and now goes to college out of state—tweeted last night that while she loves Mississippi, she doesn’t like it. As much as she was engaged here in trying to lift up the capital city and its public schools, while helping educate others about the state's racist history, I’m not going to hold my breath that she will return to live, perhaps ever.

She is following the path I and so many others chose: Get out before the state killed me with its sexism, racism I’m supposed to share, and cruelty to the less fortunate.

This is especially true for bright young minds because so much of the legislation out of the GOP supermajority is designed to hurt them, especially if they are young people of color, women, an immigrant or LGBTQ. And the state’s leaders disparage them at every turn for thinking differently. If we disagree at all, we are a horrific “liberal” or “socialist” monster—labels that Republicans here hurl around to mean anybody who isn’t a lapdog for Donald Trump or, frankly, someone who believes in true diversity at all tables and race and gender equity in our society.

Free, critical thinking is unacceptable. As Gov. Phil Bryant tweeted yesterday, "Here in Mississippi we are conservatives" ... except we're all not conservatives, and it's our state, too. This language is designed to run off those who don't agree, taking their votes and potential with them, and too often works.

The Problem with Mississippi Democrats

Then there is the Democratic Party in the state—which, truth be told, has been the real culprit, over all, since I returned in 2002. Compare what just happened in Kentucky as I tweeted last night—a state with 87% white population turned blue. Here, the state with the highest proportion of African Americans in the U.S. at around 38% got redder.

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Republicans counter now that the Kentucky incumbent wasn't liked there; well, no one actually likes Tate Reeves here, either, it seems, so that doesn't explain it.

I’ve talked about this for years now—a timid, closed groupthink infects the Mississippi Democratic Party from the top, especially among the white men who traditionally control, fund and strategize for it. Certainly, many of them are well-meaning from a macro level; they talk a lot about education funding, which is vitally important but clearly cannot alone carry this party to victory in pretty much any election. Some burn through a lot of often-quiet funding for good causes—trying to change the Mississippi flag, funding fights for public-education laws—but often won’t put themselves out in front of the issues to take the direct hits and model what it looks like to weather them.

Many Democratic leaders here are afraid of offending white conservative voters to a ridiculous fault. I guess they really believe that voters they would lose by actually supporting women’s rights or learning to speak intelligently about racism to black people are the very ones who would turn around and vote for them if they shoot enough guns in TV ads. It’s theater of the absurd, not to mention funny math.

That ship has sailed, gentlemen. This Democratic race to oblivion found the bottom last night.

Ignore, Belittle Women at Your Peril, Dem Men

But here’s the thing: Women can help you right the ship, Dems, just as they are doing in other states, as last night’s results around the U.S., especially white suburbs, showed. You’re going to have to listen to women and invite us to all the tables, though, even as we start creating more forums of our own that are going to challenge all of you, regardless of party.

If there is anything I learned from visits and conversation with so many women over the last year while I recovered from breast cancer is that we’re all fed up, if we’re not the obedient ones already in cahoots with Pat Robertson or the Family Research Council. Starting with the desire to allow a mother to die rather than having an abortion, the state’s leadership is not on women’s side. Any woman.

Women are also talking to each other about the direct slights from men in power, including in the Democratic Party. While I’m not a partisan type by nature (I actually hate the concept of political parties), I have women friends who work with the party in various ways. Most talk about the sexism they encounter when trying to bring new ideas to the table. They are ignored, patted on the head, treated like they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Last night I texted one of my black women friends who volunteers with the party as the writing on the Mississippi wall became clear. She has a brilliant strategic mind and understands politics and what motivates voters backward and forward.

“We coulda told em,” I wrote.

“They wouldn’t listen to me,” she responded. “I don’t know what I’m taking about.”

But she does know. No matter. When it comes to legislation or campaigns targeted to “rural whites” to the exclusion of others, Dem leaders here expect women, African Americans and other people of color to suck it up and vote for the party, even though it keeps losing.

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"Mouth Off Y'all," a sock-puppet Twitter account, took sexist offense when Donna Ladd criticized Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes' vote for the six-week "heartbeat" bill in Mississippi, accusing her of a "girl crush."

A major moment in this campaign cycle was when the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, Jay Hughes, voted for the anti-abortion “heartbeat bill” last session—in the very state where women came together in a grassroots campaign like we've never seen here before or since to defeat the personhood amendment at the polls in 2011. I later saw male strategists trying to take full credit, of course, but it was the bottom-up momentum by women meeting in living rooms that made the difference. My paper ran many columns by women from different backgrounds and political beliefs coming out against personhood that went viral in the state. Women came together like we must do more often.

Like the ads he ran for over a year on a conservative anti-women and racist blog here—the blogger calls women "sluts" and says breast implants should explode and ranks "hottest" young women reporters—Hughes’ reasoning on the heartbeat bill this year was absurd. It was something about making sure white Democrats wouldn’t become extinct. Then last night he took in fewer voters than attorney general candidate Jennifer Riley Collins, a black Democrat the party virtually ignored.

I criticized Hughes' vote rather mildly on Twitter after his heartbeat vote, and got hit with a barrage of personal insults from a sock-puppet account. Apparently, my criticism of his heartbeat bill meant I had a "secret crush" on Hughes.

"Mouth off Yall" tweeted: "It's just been amusing to watch the girl crush that @DonnerKay has had on @Jay4Mississippi over the last year." (Earlier, I had criticized Democrat Hughes for advertising on the misogynistic blog.) He went on: "It's like he dumped her or something. Maybe she's been paid off by the Russians to attack him on everything he does. Just calling balls & strikes here."

My criticism of Hughes couldn't be because I'm a woman, have a degree in political science and a master's in journalism, have watched and commented on politics in Mississippi for years, or because I'm a woman with intelligent opinions. No, it was a "crush." And this one is mild compared to insults I've gotten from Democratic men here with their real names attached. One even lunged at me in a bar one night due to my mayoral endorsement.

This, sadly, is not uncommon for women here. I’ve been called every name for speaking out loud about politics, especially if it is not in lockstep with Democratic leadership logic, which it pretty much never is. Too many men in our state care more about being told they're wrong than actually getting it right.

Many women tell me they are afraid to speak up because they see how men talk to me when I do. They fear losing jobs and opportunities or public smears. Let that sink in.

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Sucking It Up for the Party Won’t Work

What I and many other women have been saying for years is now flashing in neon: sucking it up for the party won’t work. What the Dems in Mississippi must do is start today—not in three-and-a-half years—to pack away their defensiveness and create a new kind of welcoming party that doesn’t pander to racists and misogynists. Just go ahead and let the GOP own that. I don’t mean a hard shift to the Bernie Sanders left. I mean the kind of collaboration that can result when more not-white men are invited in, asked for feedback and listened to respectfully. If there’s anything the Mississippi Democratic Party needs right now, it is to put hats firmly in hand, get out into our communities and really listen to people. All of them. The time for timidity and fragility is past.

What must come first is a welcoming attitude to the Democratic tent if that party is to survive here. And, yes, allow a Stacey Abrams into Mississippi to help get out the vote, as well as engage prominent African Americans right here in the state. I mean, look at the mailers and TV ads—Republicans are going to associate Dems, and even reasonable Republicans, with people like Sanders and AOC anyway and call the candidate “socialist” or such no matter what you actually believe. So at least try to get another 50,000 votes out of forming real multiracial coalitions.

Angie Thomas was still tweeting this morning about her decision to leave and take her money with her, even as she still plans to invest back into her community here. “I have plans to create jobs, affordable housing, and recreation. I’m already putting things into place. And I don’t have to live there to do it. What are YOU doing besides Tweeting?” she told people who were complaining about her decision to leave.

She also retweeted @kaykaypolitiks who supported her decision as a way to explain how hard the toxic politics are on black Mississippians not considered welcome here by Republicans. “These elections take a toll on black bodies... creatively, mentally, spiritually, physically etc. I say go where you can be well, @angiecthomas. Much love," @kaykaypolitiks wrote.

I then asked Angie this morning if any Democratic leaders had reached out to her to help them connect to her fan base in the state—kind of an obvious ask for a party that so desperately needs to grow its voter base. The brilliant best-selling author’s answer, sadly, did not surprise me.

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“Lol nope. They’re scared to even follow me on social media,” Angie answered.

That just says it all. It's time to wake up, Democrats, to the potential and new voters all around you in Mississippi. Clearly, the alternative is a loser’s game.

But there’s hope in such a dramatic loss for actual Democratic change here to rise from the ashes; the excuses are over. I saw a tweet today from a white male Democrat I’ve tangled with after past elections over the need to hire new strategists in the state who understand the faulty logic of pandering for the same white conservative voters. In our last engagement, he was condescending and dismissive to me.

This morning, he tweeted a mea culpa to his followers: “All is not lost, but things will go SO. MUCH. SLOWER. if white men in this party, including myself, do not directly advocate for more diverse leadership.”

Exactly. Women have been saying that here for a long, long time. It's well past time for men to start listening.

Donna Ladd is the editor-in-chief and CEO of the Jackson Free Press. Follow her on Twitter at @donnerkay and read her blog at donnaladd.com.

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