It's been a busy day for congressional candidate Jeramey Anderson. Earlier, he met with the family of Vernon Dahmer, the Forrest County civil-rights leader who died in 1966 after the Ku Klux Klan firebombed his home. Now, sitting at the local Shrimp Basket just across from the University of Southern Mississippi on Sept. 21, the 26-year-old state representative marvels at a supporter's Facebook comment.
"He commented, 'I couldn't be there but I'm excited about this guy,'" his press secretary, Melissa Garriga, reads aloud while gesturing at the comment on her phone as if she's rediscovered the Dodo Bird. The comment shouldn't be extraordinary; Anderson is on day six of his seven-day, 14-county, 19-city "People's Tour" of the 4th Congressional District in southern Mississippi, and he has met excited voters along the way. But this show of support is different.
"Look at it," Garriga says, navigating to the commenter's profile. "There's a pro-Chris McDaniel profile picture, and they like (Texas Sen.) Ted Cruz."
"It's weird," Anderson says, with a mixture of bemusement and appreciation. "I am so far—like super far—in policy from Chris McDaniel," he says of the U.S. Senate candidate.
Indeed, the Moss Point native is a black millennial and progressive Democrat who, in 2013, became the youngest African American elected to any state legislature in U.S. history. McDaniel, 47, is a white, conservative Republican state senator and, in a separate race, U.S. Senate candidate whose harsh rhetoric on immigrants and women combined with his cutthroat policy on social programs makes him controversial even among state GOP voters.
Anderson supports expanding Medicaid in Mississippi; McDaniel last month suggested the state's black residents have been "begging for federal government scraps" for 100 years. Anderson considers the state flag that bears the Confederate symbol retrogressive; preserving the state flag is a central tenet of McDaniel's brand. "Super far" apart puts it mildly.
It's incumbent Rep. Steven Palazzo's history of evading voters, though, that explains the strange confluence. In Hattiesburg eight years ago, then-Congressman Gene Taylor, a Democrat, stood before a crowded, cinder-brick room alongside libertarian challenger Tim Hampton and an empty podium. Taylor's Republican challenger, Palazzo, was supposed to join them for an AARP debate forum, but ditched out last minute, citing an emergency (which, it turned out, included shaking hands with voters in Eastabuchie). The 20-year incumbent forged ahead, engaging his minor party challenger—who was destined for under 1 percent of the vote—with all the gusto of a major party insurgent.
"Where's Palazzo?" USM political science professor Marija Bekafigo asked when the forum was over. "Usually, the challenger is trying to get a debate with the incumbent."
Exactly one week later, voters narrowly ousted Taylor and chose Palazzo as their new congressman, and "Where's Palazzo?" became a daily question for voters in the district. In the years since, Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats alike have engaged in protests outside the offices of "No Show Palazzo," as they call him, demanding access to a congressman who hasn't held a town hall since 2012. Town halls "are no longer used for elected officials to share information and take questions," Palazzo explained in a 2017 statement.
Anderson, who as a state legislator holds multiple town halls a year in his legislative district, believes that his willingness to avail himself to voters in contrast with Palazzo's lack of accountability is why some Republicans he's met, including Garriga's mother, support him. "It's not like he pops in every now and then," Anderson says. "He's never here."
The Jackson Free Press caught up with Anderson at the Shrimp Basket, where he had just finished taking questions from voters to discuss accountability, policy and possibility.
What are you hearing in the district?
No matter which community you go to, there's a lack of opportunity there, and that's been the number-one thing we've heard—folks have to travel out of their city to get good-paying jobs. They want to know about getting back to the days where public servants actually care about the people they represent. You have constituents voting for people they've never even seen before. We've got an opportunity to really restore hope in our communities, and I'm going to do that for them.
Gene Taylor, a "conservative-lite" Democrat, held this seat until 2011. Why aren't you using the traditional strategy for Democrats in the state?
Well, one, I'm a Democrat. When I decided to run for this seat, I decided that I don't want people questioning our office when we take principled, Democratic stances on issues. Because I campaigned on this; I told you from day one where I stood on these issues, so there should be no confusion.
My principles and my policies are what they are, and in my opinion, they are more beneficial to Mississippians than Republican policies. When you vote for Jeramey Anderson, you're voting for a Democrat. That doesn't mean that I'm not willing to reach across the aisle and admit when I'm wrong on some issues. If the other side has a better policy for our community, our state, I'm gonna do it.
If you win, you'll be the first black congressman elected from a majority-white district in Mississippi and the youngest congressman ever from the state.
It'd definitely be huge. And it speaks volumes to folks inside and outside the state of Mississippi that we're ready for change. Mississippi is much more "red" perception-wise than in reality. No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, policies are policies, and they either work for you or they don't. Everywhere I go, I always say, "I can't promise you we'll always agree. But what I can promise you is that we can sit down in meeting rooms and talk about issues."
Where do you stand on campaign-finance reform?
We've got a couple large contributors, but for the most part, we run on small-dollar donations. And I tell everybody, when we get $10 contributions from USM students over here, those are the ones I pick up the phone and say, "Hey, look, I appreciate you giving." Because in college, $10 was all I had. We've got to get away from corporate money influencing our lawmakers, because that's why they no longer feel the need to be accessible or accountable to the people.
Republicans and Democrats alike complain that Palazzo doesn't hold town halls.
We heard that this entire week. We've had Republicans come to our events, our meet and greets, because they understand the importance of accessibility, the importance of accountability, and we don't have that. Since I've been in the statehouse, I've held around three or four town halls in my state house district a year, and that's how you keep your district together. My commitment is that, when I'm in Congress and Congress is in recess, I'm going to be in my congressional district holding town halls. I'm not going to be on vacations or in Washington kicking back somewhere. You've got to have an engaged constituency. And in two years, if they say, "Rep, you didn't do what we elected you to do," then fair enough.
You've had Republicans say they'll vote for you?
We've got Republicans saying they've never voted for a Democrat before, but they are this time. And the reason is accountability. They can't get to him. I can't get to him. I'm sure many of us can't get to him. It's not just Democrats. It's Republicans. I think the lack of accountability from this congressman is what's driving that. They've never seen him. He doesn't come here. He stays in Washington.
What's your position on abortion?
I'm pro-choice. I believe that a woman's decision is between her and her doctor. I will never have an abortion, obviously. But oftentimes we find ourselves as men taking strong stances on abortion. You won't have an abortion ever, so why is that your single most important issue?
Palazzo's been criticized often for his LGBT stances. What's your position?
Support. You can't help who you love. We've attended Pride Fest on the Coast. When we went, there were some Democrats who said they couldn't go to Pride Fest. But we went, and I spoke there because I believe in folks being able to love and marry who they love. It's the same reason my mom and dad got married. Because they love each other. It's the same situation. They should be entitled to the same rights.
What do you say to evangelical voters who say they can't support you because of such stances?
It has to transcend that. Those same people are being suppressed economically because Republican lawmakers are providing more economic benefits to the upper 1 percent of Americans.
How would you be better than the current congressman?
I'd be better on the environment, equal rights, accountability, accessibility. We're willing to talk through issues and make concessions to get something done. I'm a better employee for this district because I understand that I don't know everything, and I'm not afraid to ask for help when I need it. And that's what this district deserves.
What have you learned since you've been in the Legislature?
We still have a very big divide in this state. Our generation is slightly removed from that because it's not in our face. But we just went to the Dahmer residence here in Hattiesburg, and not often do you get to hear and be face-to-face with folks who went through bombings in their own communities. We've come a long way in Mississippi, and it's a great state, but we get the bad end of the stick because we've got some bad people in leadership. And I think we can do better.
One of the biggest things I've pushed is a phasing out of the grocery sales tax, because to me that's the most regressive tax around, and I've tried to phase it out over seven years. On education, I supported moving our school board from appointed to elected, and that actually passed. Everybody has to be accountable to somebody.
How do you feel when you see the state flag?
It reminds me of those regressive policies that we continue to push. But we have people all across this state—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—who are coming out against our current flag. You know, the governor talks about 2001 when Mississippi last voted to keep the flag. You weren't old enough to vote on that, were you?
I was 11 years old.
See? That's a whole generation cut out from having a voice on the state flag issue. So I think that if you were to put that to a vote, it'd be a different outcome today.
Do you think young voters will turn out in larger numbers this year?
I do. I think the momentum and the energy is there, but we've got to make sure that we do our part to make sure that they're not just registering to vote, but actually casting ballots on Election Day. That's where our generation falls short. We have protests, and we'll talk about issues and talk about change, but we fail to maximize on election day.
Have you tried to reach out to Palazzo about the possibility of a debate?
Yep. We've offered a debate in a press conference. One organization sent us requests for a debate later in October. We've accepted; he hasn't. I don't think he will.
What is one of the first things you'd do as a congressman?
My first task when I get to Washington is to support initiatives that are going to be beneficial to the people of Mississippi and to fight like hell to make sure that I stop legislation that is detrimental to Mississippians—no matter which side of the aisle it comes from. Our current congressman doesn't do that. If it comes from his side, he's all for it. If it comes from the other side, he doesn't want anything to do with it, and it shouldn't be that way.
What's your position on Medicare for All?
I support it. I support the Affordable Care Act, under which Mississippi unfortunately hasn't expanded Medicaid, and hundreds of thousands of Mississippians go uninsured today. I support defending folks with pre-existing conditions.
How did you get into politics?
My grandfather was very integral to our community. He was an educator and a coach, and everybody wanted him to run for office, but he never would. He was like, "I don't need a title. I can do service without running for anything." While I agree, I always wanted to be president—even in elementary school. And a lot of kids have those aspirations. They want to be doctors. They want to be lawyers. They want to be president. They have A, they have Z, but they have no idea what comes in between that.
I ran to give my generation hope. When we talk to USM, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, I tell them, if you don't like something in your community, change it. Run for office. And nobody at any of those three campuses could tell me "why not?" They can't answer that question.
Do you still want to be president?
I do still want to be president. I've got a long way to go, though.
Elections for Mississippi's four congressional seats and both U.S. Senate seats are Nov. 6. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Follow Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Email him story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more 2018 campaign coverage at jfp.ms/2018elections
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CORRECTION: In the original version of this article and the abridged version that ran in the Oct. 3-18 print edition of Jackson Free Press Magazine, we incorrectly identified Jeramey Anderson as Pascagoula native. Anderson is a native of Moss Point, but he represents both Pascagoula and Moss Point. We apologize for the error.