The Democratic Party already faces immense challenges in Mississippi politics simply because a majority of the state’s voters are conservative white Republicans. But occasionally Democrats seem determined to make things more difficult for themselves, as a white state legislator’s experience last week showed.
Shanda Yates, who in 2019 ran for a House district that covers many white neighborhoods in northeast Jackson and next-door Madison County, stunned most political observers when she beat an eight-term Republican incumbent by 168 votes.
Yates, 37 when she was elected, presented an “unabashedly Democratic platform” to voters, as the Mississippi Today website put it. She had received financial and political support from Democrats in the state as well as from national groups, which are trying to help candidates take advantage of changing trends among white women in suburban areas.
Yates, said Mississippi Today, had “instilled hope among Democrats — not the state party itself, which has long been in shambles, but the group of individuals and organizations that champion progressive causes in the state — that change in ruby red Mississippi was possible. A white Democratic woman had knocked off a Republican icon in Jackson, and several people who helped her campaign in 2019 had already begun planning how to use it as a model for victory in 2023 and beyond.”
That model is officially on hold. Yates said last week she is now an independent who will caucus with neither party. She said on social media that she left the Democratic Party because of criticism over her vote to approve a Republican-generated map of Mississippi’s congressional districts.
Yates was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the map, which kept the area she represents with Republican Rep. Michael Guest and put four Southwest Mississippi counties into Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson’s district.
She further told Mississippi Today that “members of the Democratic Party and my legislative caucus made it clear to me that I was not welcome in the party any longer.”
Rep. Robert Johnson, the House Democratic leader, believes that one or two confrontational Hinds County Democratic lawmakers raised a fuss about Yates’ redistricting vote and prompted her departure. He had it exactly right when he observed that it’s hard to be a white Democrat in the Legislature, and other members of the party ought to recognize that.
The whole episode just perfectly illustrates the inability of Mississippi Democrats to focus on the big picture. A white Democrat comes out of nowhere to knock off an entrenched Republican legislator. How often has that happened in recent years? Johnson said Yates has been a good lawmaker who always voted with the party when asked. Yet her reward is being insulted by some black Democrats because she represented the interests of her constituents in a congressional redistricting issue?
It’s hard to envision this happening in reverse — meaning a Black Republican lawmaker catching heat from his party if he opposed the party line on redistricting. Republicans hold legislative majorities and have more voting flexibility, but there’s no way they would hound a Black lawmaker out of the party.
Maybe the Hinds County Democrats who were rude to Yates will apologize and invite her back with Democrats. Just as likely, they’ll try to recruit someone to run against her in 2023.
This is not meant to be wishful Democratic thinking. But Mississippi would benefit if its two political parties were more evenly balanced and produced more competing ideas. It’s just amazing that one party has such an ability to guarantee its continued minority status.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal