New York Times: In Mississippi, ‘The Governor Has Been So Bad That This Time It Might Be Different’
A new column in the New York Times from David Firestone highlights how Brandon Presley is the candidate that can win this year’s gubernatorial race because of his focus on kitchen table issues like cutting the grocery tax and Medicaid expansion while Tate Reeves is uniquely unpopular because of his role in the largest corruption scandal in Mississippi history.
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May 4, 2023
Nettleton, MS – A new column in the New York Times from David Firestone highlights how Brandon Presley is the candidate that can win this year’s gubernatorial race because of his focus on kitchen table issues like cutting the grocery tax and Medicaid expansion while Tate Reeves is uniquely unpopular because of his role in the largest corruption scandal in Mississippi history.
Firestone profiles how Brandon’s background of growing up the son of a single mother who worked for a living informs how he talks about kitchen table issues - from Medicaid expansion to high-speed internet access.
The contest is “already turning into one of the most interesting races of 2023.” While Brandon Presley is “funny and garrulous and is often described as the best natural politician in the state, with an easygoing manner that appeals to voters of all types,” Tate Reeves is “extraordinarily unpopular for an incumbent Republican” after getting caught up in a scheme to divert millions of dollars meant for working families to vanity projects for his personal trainer and celebrity friends.
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May 4, 2023
This year, with Mr. Reeves up for re-election in November, there are once again hopes that Mississippi could take a few steps up from the bottom and elect a governor willing to make a break from the past. And even though Donald Trump won the state by more than 16 percentage points in 2020, there are reasons to think it could happen.
For one thing, thanks to a significant scandal involving the misappropriation of welfare funds, Mr. Reeves is extraordinarily unpopular for an incumbent Republican, with 60 percent of voters saying they would prefer another candidate, according to a Mississippi Today/Siena College poll that came out last week. For another, he has a promising and energetic Democratic opponent named Brandon Presley who has been polling fairly well and is making a strong case that the state desperately needs a change, advocating a series of popular policies that could make a real difference in the lives of Mississippians, particularly those on the lower economic rungs. The contest is already turning into one of the most interesting races of 2023.
Mr. Presley, 45, is one of three elected members of the state Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, and is the former mayor of Nettleton, a small town in the bright-red northeast section of Mississippi. He talks energetically about the need to expand Medicaid and save rural hospitals, and why it’s important to eliminate the extremely regressive state grocery tax, and would rather discuss the lives of poor families than his own family ties to a certain popular singer of the same last name from Tupelo, up the road from Nettleton. (Elvis was his second cousin.)
His most effective tactic is his unrelenting attack on Mr. Reeves and the welfare scandal that has swirled around him and the previous Republican governor, Phil Bryant. A 2020 state audit found that as much as $94 million in federal anti-poverty money was improperly diverted to two nonprofit groups that used it for favors to lobbyists, celebrities and some lawmakers. The celebrities included Brett Favre, the former N.F.L. quarterback, who, according to text messages uncovered by the nonprofit news site Mississippi Today, arranged to spend $5 million in welfare funds for a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, his alma mater. At the same time, the state was rejecting a large majority of requests from families for Mississippi’s meager $170 a month in welfare payments.
Mr. Reeves was lieutenant governor when all this was going on, and several people at the center of the scandal have been his friends and supporters. Last summer, his administration fired the lawyer who had been officially assigned to investigate the scandal and recoup the money, after the lawyer issued a subpoena to the university’s athletic foundation regarding the volleyball money. Though Mr. Reeves hasn’t been implicated in the diversion of most of the money, Mississippi Today published text messages in August showing that the former state welfare director, who pleaded guilty to federal and state fraud and theft charges last fall, said he was acting on behalf of Mr. Reeves when he siphoned $1.3 million of the welfare money to a fitness program run by the governor’s longtime personal trainer, Paul LaCoste.
That was all Mr. Presley needed.
“I got in this when I saw, as all Mississippi did, millions of dollars aimed at working families got diverted by Tate Reeves and his cronies,” he told me last week. “His own personal trainer, who taught Tate Reeves how to do jumping jacks, got a $70,000 vehicle and was paid $11,000 a month, while we’ve got children going hungry in Mississippi. Well, it made me want to puke.”
Mr. Presley is funny and garrulous and is often described as the best natural politician in the state, with an easygoing manner that appeals to voters of all types. He grew up as the son of a low-income single mother and speaks with real empathy about the tens of thousands of poor families, Black and white, who can’t get clean drinking water, proper health care or broadband internet after decades of largely racist neglect by the state.
His most significant plan is to fully expand Medicaid in Mississippi, which Mr. Reeves — along with Republicans in nine other states, mostly in the South — refuses to do. As The New York Times recently reported, health care is in a serious crisis in the state, where five hospitals have closed since 2005 and 36 percent of the remaining rural hospitals are at risk of closing from lack of funds. Mississippi’s stubbornness has cost it about $1.35 billion a year in federal funds to hospitals and health care providers, money that could be used for 100,000 poor adults who now have no guaranteed health coverage.
“This will go down in history one of the dumbest decisions ever made in this state,” Mr. Presley said. “Our health care system is on fire because Tate Reeves is not willing to help working Mississippians, just because of some petty, cheap, childish politics.”
The state has a $3.9 billion budget surplus and could easily afford its 10 percent share of the expansion cost, but Mr. Reeves would rather use the money to help prosperous earners by getting rid of the income tax, which most low-income people do not pay. Mr. Presley, on the other hand, is campaigning to eliminate the grocery tax, which at 7 percent is the highest in the nation and hurts poor people the most.
“But he’s not afraid to embrace the African American vote in this state. He’s made commitments to do things that other candidates don’t do. It’s early yet, but the governor has been so bad that I think this time might be different.”
Mr. Presley has won the endorsement of Bennie Thompson, the Democratic congressman from Jackson who carries a lot of weight among Black voters, and he has one new advantage: In 2020, voters abolished the Jim Crow-era requirement that candidates for governor have to win not only the popular vote but also the most votes in a majority of the 122 state House districts, a law intended to keep Black candidates out of statewide offices. (Mr. Reeves did not support the repeal.)
“I think he can win,” Mr. Espy told me. “He’s very likable, a good retail politician, and Tate Reeves is so very, very unpopular. But he’s got a big job. He needs to raise the money and do more Black outreach.”
Mr. Presley said his campaign would do everything possible to get a high turnout among Black voters, noting that the issues he cares about, particularly Medicaid and the grocery tax, resonate well in those precincts.
Mr. Presley described himself as “pro-life and Christian.” But he quickly said that to him, being “pro-life” means being pro-hospital, pro-doctor and pro-emergency room, supporting full funding of the state education budget and ending the scams that have prevented federal and state welfare money from going to the families who need it.
His position on abortion and his support for gun rights will not win him many friends in the national Democratic Party, but Mississippi is not like the rest of the nation. Winning there and finally beginning to reverse the detestable policies of the past — an enormously difficult task — will require a candidate who can bring together an unusual coalition of voters with very different interests, and Mr. Presley may be the one to do it. It’s been done next door in Louisiana, where Gov. John Bel Edwards is a Democrat in a similar mold, and if it can happen in Mississippi, it might bring hope to thousands of other voters who have ceaselessly struggled for better lives in the Deep South.
Brandon Presley is a fighter who keeps his promises, stands up for the little guy, and isn't afraid to ruffle more than a few feathers to deliver results for hardworking Mississippi families. Brandon served as Mayor of Nettleton from 2001 to 2007, where he balanced the budget every year, cut taxes twice, and got the town moving again. As Public Service Commissioner, Brandon opened up meetings that had been closed to the public for decades, brought high-speed internet to some of the most remote and forgotten parts of Mississippi, put people back to work with the Hire Mississippi program, and saved taxpayers over 6 billion dollars.