It’s election year in Mississippi, and for the first time in a long while, we have a gubernatorial candidate who appeals to Democrats, independents and centrist Republicans. He even has a famous last name that strikes a sweet chord in every Mississippi heart: Presley. Brandon Presley. On Nov. 7, Elvis’s second cousin hopes to unseat GOP Gov. Tate Reeves.
I first became aware of Presley when he responded to Reeves’s January State of the State address, which featured the standard chest thumping, calling 2022 “the best year in Mississippi’s history” and railing against “the expansion of ObamaCare.” Presley spoke from a “closed down emergency room inside a shut down hospital” in Newton, Miss., the hospital where I was born.
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Reeves opposes Medicaid expansion, which would bring millions of federal dollars to Mississippi, improving health care, keeping hospitals open, creating jobs, increasing tax revenues, and maybe even keep people from moving away. Mississippi is one of only three states to lose population over the last decade, according to the 2020 Census, and most of those who leave are young and educated. The brain drain is a real problem.
Presley says he will fully expand Medicaid in Mississippi on his first day as governor. He’s been traveling the state, talking about expanding health care, cutting taxes and — most importantly — cleaning up Reeves’s corruption.
Here’s the simple truth: When he was lieutenant governor, Reeves oversaw Mississippi’s welfare department, which misused and squandered at least $77 million in federal funds meant to assist the state’s poorest residents, most of whom are Black. When Reeves became governor, he fired the attorney investigating the case.
While the state was rejecting a large majority of requests from struggling families for monthly welfare payments of $170 in 2017, Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre is accused of using politically connected friends and family — including Reeve’s brother, Todd — to steer $5 million from the Mississippi Department of Human Services to build a volleyball court at his alma mater, the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter Breleigh played volleyball. Apparently Farve, who made nearly $140 million in the NFL, had promised to fund the stadium himself, then decided he’d rather have someone else actually pay for it (taxpayers).
Until now, Tate Reeves has avoided scrutiny in the case. The details get complicated and exhausting for the average citizen — I suspect Reeves is counting on that as the election draws near. But texts released recently show that Todd Reeves coordinated with the auditor to help Favre, suggesting Gov. Reeves may have lied about his role in the multimillion-dollar scandal.
I loathe all the money in politics — there are no limits in Mississippi on campaign giving, which is part of the problem — but I donated to Presley’s campaign, twice, because Mississippi God Damn.
I’m not alone.
Even though he entered the race at a disadvantage to Reeves’s enormous $9 million war chest, the race is tightening. Some polls have them in a virtual tie. Sixty percent of Mississippi voters say they would prefer a new governor in 2023. Twenty-one percent of Republican voters say they would vote for Democrat Brandon Presley over Reeves. Presley leads among independents 57 percent to 28 percent.
I recently came across a letter my mother wrote to her parents in 1958, shortly after she moved to Newton, Miss., from Washington, D.C. “Newton is another word for paradise,” she wrote, telling them about the pine forests, the sound of crickets, and her struggle to make cornbread and turnip greens to please her new Mississippi-born husband.
But my mother also wrote about the day she registered to vote.
She arrived at the courthouse with her citizenship papers. My mother became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1942 after she and her parents escaped Nazi-occupied Austria. In the letter, my mother wrote that in order to be allowed to vote, she had to write about the duties of a citizen in a democracy and her interpretation of the 14th Amendment — “no person shall be deprived of liberty, life, property without due process of the law.” She said that no one even read her answers, while the Black woman in line behind her, who’d lived in Mississippi all her life, was turned away, disqualified.
Though Mississippi has come a long way since the 1950s, my mother’s experience reminds me that we still have work to do. The burden of corruption is felt by Mississippi’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, suffering obscene police brutality, closed bridges and crumbling roads, and undrinkable water. It’s time we elected a leader committed to cleaning up our state government.
It’s now or never. That’s the way a lot of us here feel about this upcoming election.
Margaret McMullan is the author of nine award-winning books. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Bulwark, The Morning Consult, The Morning Edition, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and Glamour, among others. She received an NEA Fellowship and a Fulbright in Hungary to research her memoir, “Where the Angels Lived.”
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