The Black Vote and Mississippi

Posted July 29, 2008 at 6:46pm

Just weeks before Mississippi’s 2003 statewide election, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D), the state’s most prominent black elected official, told the New York Times that he was lukewarm when it came to then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), who was running a tight re-election race against Republican Haley Barbour.

Musgrove lost to Barbour, but he’s back in the Magnolia State’s political limelight this year in a bid to win the Senate special election to fill the remaining four years on retired Sen. Trent

Lott’s (R) term. And these days it seems like Thompson, whose political influence has only grown over the past five years, remains rather tepid about Musgrove.

“I’m going to vote for him because he’s the Democrat, but beyond that he has to win his election,” Thompson said in an interview Tuesday. “If there are party events held in my district, then I plan to go as the Democratic nominee, and if he’s there then that’s fine, but there’s been no discussion about a coordinated campaign or anything like that.”

In a race that national Democrats are targeting — polls have shown Musgrove running close to Sen. Roger Wicker (R), who was appointed to take Lott’s place — black turnout could be critical. But what does it say to Mississippi’s black voters, who make up about one-third of the state’s electorate, when a top leader like Thompson is ambivalent about the Democratic Senate nominee? And does this mean there is an opportunity for Wicker to siphon off African-Americans who reliably vote Democratic?

Thompson, who became chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee after Democrats took over the House in 2006, said that when it comes to politics this fall, he’s concentrating on his own election — even though he’s expected to win handily.

“I’m excited about my race,” Thompson said, referring to his contest against teacher Richard Cook (R). As for Musgrove, “it’s his race to win or lose, and how he chooses to work in the African-American community is his choice,” Thompson said.

Back in 2003, Thompson told the Times that Musgrove still had work to do if he wanted to get the state’s black voters as excited for his campaign as they had been when he was elected in 1999. In that election, Musgrove won a narrow victory over Republican Mike Parker in a race that was so close it was finally decided in the Mississippi House of Representatives.

Asked Tuesday where his lukewarm feelings about Musgrove came from, Thompson said that Musgrove’s tenure as governor left some hard feelings in the African-American community.

“The issue of tort reform was a major issue in our state and there were a lot supporters of African-American elected officials who where hurt by tort reform in the state of Mississippi and a lot of those individuals continue to be friends of mine, and at one point they were friends of Ronnie Musgrove until he called a special session solely for the purpose of tort reform,” Thompson said.

This fall, for Musgrove to pull off a Democratic victory in what was a safely Republican seat under Lott, he’ll have to motivate the vast majority of the state’s black population, which made up 34 percent of the electorate in the 2004 presidential race, according to CNN exit polling data.

Musgrove’s campaign said Tuesday that African-American voters will be drawn to Musgrove’s message of change this cycle.

“I think the African-American community has a lot of the same concerns as the rest of the state: improving education, making health care affordable, the economy, gas prices,” Musgrove spokesman Adam Bozzi said. “These are issues that touch all Mississippians every single day, and Gov. Musgrove certainly has a strong record, particularly on education.”

But Wicker is looking to peal off some of those black voters this year, particularly in the northern section of the state, where he spent seven terms in the House and was generally well-liked and known for his focus on education as well as his influence on the House Appropriations Committee.

“We’re actively working with the African-American community to get votes,” Wicker spokesman Ryan Annison said on Tuesday. “We have a solid minority outreach program,” which is being led by the same strategist who headed Barbour’s minority outreach effort during his successful 2007 re-election campaign.

But former Rep. Ronnie Shows (D) — who briefly sought the Democratic Senate nomination before deferring to Musgrove — pointed out that the former governor has several factors working in his favor when it comes to locking down the black vote in Mississippi this fall.

First, the black turnout in Mississippi this year is expected to be significantly higher with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at the top of the ticket. Though Republicans contend the white turnout in the state is also expected to increase this year, Democrats are confident that the “Obama factor” will be a net benefit for their candidate.

And that would help Musgrove regardless of Thompson’s personal take on the former governor.

“If Obama weren’t on the ticket, Bennie would certainly play a huge huge role” in motivating the black vote, Shows said. “But with Obama on the ticket, it’s not going to take that much motivation to get the African-American vote to turn out.”

But attorney Carlton Reeves, a Musgrove supporter and the former president of the historically black Magnolia Bar Association, said on Tuesday that Musgrove can’t just rely on Obama’s coattails this fall and not spend time reaching out to the African-American community.

“He does need Congressman Thompson … and a whole cadre of black elected officials,” Reeves said. “It would not be possible for Musgrove to diss Bennie Thompson and ride on the shoulders of Obama to the Senate.”

Shows said he expects that Thompson, whom he considers a friend, is going to be a positive force for Musgrove this time around.

“Bennie has been in politics a long time. … The Congressman does what he needs to do to win for Democrats,” Shows said.