Campaigning in the rural South on a progressive Democratic campaign, pt. I

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In true mainstream media fashion, all big-time outlets are sending reporters to my state of Mississippi to cover what has now become a “newsworthy” election here in the Deep South. The coverage has been predictable, to say the least, and in true national platform tradition, they miss the mark when trying to tap into what it is really like here.

Image by Ali Zifan/CC BY-SA 4.0

You cannot come to Mississippi, talk to a couple of people, and then write as if you have a firm understanding. We are not that simple, even though simplicity is an often used tone for those who write life here.

New York Times’ National Political Correspondent, Jonathan Martin, inked the most recent political opinion that deserves a big ol’ “well, bless his heart” from myself and many others on the left in Mississippi. In his coverage of the Espy/Hyde-Smith Senate special election, he wrote ‘Across South, Democrats Who Speak Boldly Risk Alienating Rural White Voters’ or more importantly: ‘I Honestly Don’t Know Anything About the Rural South’. Luckily, I do, and more importantly, I just concluded working communications for a Black progressive Democrat running a congressional campaign in South Mississippi. Not surprisingly though, Mr. Martin, failed to ask our opinion (which arguably could be the most insightful on the particular subject matter.) However, I am happy to share everything that Martin gets wrong and why he gets it wrong.

For starters, the rural South is as much Black as it is white so the idea that you have to tailor any message to the “rural white” is absurd. But if it is absolutely necessary to parse words about the “rural white” than it should be noted that rural does not necessarily equal conservative Republican. In September, five members of our campaign team (including myself) moved into an RV and traveled the country roads of our district, visiting all 14 counties in South Mississippi in seven days. We met white, Black, Democrat, Republican, independents, young and old at each stop. Never once did we roll into what is considered a rural area and felt we had to change our message. In fact, it was our message that gave us complete confidence in meeting and greeting the different people who would show up to an event or rally! In one day, we left a predominately Black luncheon in a poor rural town and headed to meet with a white Republican hospital owner in another similar town in the next county over. (It may be shocking to someone who is stranger to Mississippi to learn that our message did not change and it was received with the same acceptance and enthusiasm at each meeting.)

How could a white Republican rural hospital owner and a group of Black Democrats in a rural town both be responsive to bold political visions?

This is what Jonathan Martin, the NYT at large, and other national political voices ALWAYS seem to misunderstand. Struggling, economically starved rural communities NEED bold, progressive policies more than anyone. They are far past the point of realizing that pulling themselves up by the bootstraps is not going to work. They are awake to the fact that Washington only rewards their corporate and city friends with economic opportunities and protections, and people like the Republican rural hospital owner understands that promising to protect 2A will do nothing to keep the doors open on his critically-needed healthcare center in the middle of nowhere. He knows that he needs the government to help with healthcare, if not a child that quits breathing in the middle of the night will likely die in a rural county with no hospital.

Abortion in one rural county we visited is not something they talk about, and they positively don’t view it as genocide as our Republican governor recently suggested. However, with a population of only a couple of thousand, the town’s mayor is most concerned about the opioid epidemic because, according to him, they are nearly losing someone weekly to an overdose (the town’s mayor is also the director of nursing at the rural county hospital). According to him, if something does not happen soon to address drug addiction than a whole small town in the county could eventually be wiped out.

Tomorrow, the conclusion…

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