Like a middle school student at a family reunion, many Mississippians have felt misunderstood and overlooked by the rest of the country when it comes to state politics. Between the presidential and state elections, the COVID-19 pandemic and the fight for racial justice, 2020 and the first four months of 2021 have been a hyper-political time to exist in any state. Due to Mississippi's sometimes unfair reputation and inarguably broken history, politics in the Magnolia State are an especially complex affair.
Dallas Breen is the executive director at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government as well as an assistant research professor for the department of political science and public administration at Mississippi State University. Breen has been a Mississippian for 25 years and has worked at MSU for 21 years. His time spent studying and experiencing state politics has given him the perspective needed to spot political trends. He explained that in the last 10 years he has seen a steady rise in conservative votes.
"The state, as far as the state-wide elected officials, is actually completely Republican in the state-wide offices. It's been almost that way for quite some time ... Over the course of probably the last 10 years, we've seen a steady concentration of votes going conservative for both statewide and for presidential races," Breen said.
Mississippi has a reputation for being a place where time has stood still, in all the wrong ways. Between the remnants of Jim Crow-era laws, failing education systems and a recurring top ranking for the highest poverty rates, Mississippi's problems have always taken center stage. However, according to Mississippi state senator Jeremy England, the tides of change are stirring, as Mississippians on both sides of the aisle work together to better their state.
"Mississippi has a long history of not wanting to change a lot of things. The flag is an obvious issue, but there have been others. That's not a conservative or a liberal statement, but a lot of times it's hard to do anything really big in Mississippi quickly. That's a good thing in a sense because we let the laboratory of democracy work around us, and we can come in and make some changes. But I think that atmosphere is changing a little bit with newer people coming in ... here in Mississippi you really do have across the political spectrum a willingness to listen and work together," England said.
On the 2020 election ballot, Mississippians voted to change the electoral vote requirement for gubernatorial and state office elections and to legalize medical marijuana. According to Ballotpedia, nearly 73% of Mississippians also voted in favor of the New Magnolia flag. According to Breen, the new flag symbolizes a truer Mississippi to the rest of the country.
"The flag vote was one that crossed political lines and political leanings; you saw people rallying together for change. Mississippi sometimes gets that reputation of not being open to change or being slow to change, and this was a big megaphone into the country saying that Mississippi is ready to move forward," Breen said.
As many changes have rolled through the state, one thing has remained constant in the past year— the looming presence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Cases have been on a steady decline since early January, and have continued to decrease by 23% according to data reported by the New York Times. As of March 16, all Mississippians are eligible for vaccination, and according to data reported by Mississippi Today, 18% of the population has been fully vaccinated.
COVID-19 also drastically changed the way state governments fulfilled their responsibilities. Jeremy England's first session as a state senator for the 51st district did not look at all as he thought it would, as the pandemic shifted and intensified his duties. According to England, this clear sense of purpose highlighted state leaders' passion for service.
"We have some of the best people here in this chamber. Every community in Mississippi is represented well, many may not agree with that, but I can say I've been super impressed with the kindness and the intellect and the overall love of state and community which I've found here in both the senate and in meeting with the house numbers. I don't know if that would have come across if my first year wasn't one where we were dealing with a pandemic," England said.
Breen echoed England's emphasis on the importance of engaging local leaders in the state in regards to the trajectory of future Mississippi. He praised Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill for her dedication to active community engagement.
"To have a mayor like we have here, who is active, who is engaging, who will actually respond to positive and negative tweets, is encouraging ... If people want something to look forward to or to keep their eyes on, it's the response to more engaging politicians around the state. I think that as you watch this you'll start to see things take shape that you thought wouldn't happen in the state of Mississippi. A lot of that, I tend to feel, is the result of people having a voice in the state," Breen said.
Spruill is a Starkville native and MSU graduate who has served as mayor for four years this July. She is running unopposed for the next four year term.
Along with being an active Twitter user, Spruill is also a Democratic mayor. She shared what it is like to be a more progressive-leaning leader in an overwhelmingly conservative state.
"Starkville has a large contingent of Democrats and Republicans. The split is very close, so our elections are very close. But local politics is potholes and water leaks and traffic. It is not the divisiveness you see on a national level, and we try to keep it that way because we still all have to work together. It's challenging only when it comes to getting elected, but once you're elected you're elected to do the same things," Spruill said.
As Mississippian leaders on both sides of the political aisle work together, there is real tangible change which improves their beloved Magnolia State. On the local level, Spruill is very excited about several current projects she is working on in Starkville. These include a cornerstone sports tourism project, a new industrial park, a new annexation to bring more people into the city limits as well as infrastructure improvements.
England shared that one big change to watch for on a state level is workforce development, which would bring more high paying jobs to the state. This in turn would encourage college graduates and young professionals to stay in Mississippi.
Breen shared that as the state government engages with individuals and improves the quality of life in Mississippi, more and more people will pursue a life here.
"As a state who is currently working on trying to keep people here, one of the best ways to keep some of the young talents in the state is to show them that they have a voice in their local communities and in the state. Other places may pay more, but if you show people that they have a place and that they matter, I think people then start looking at other things like the communities and the people. And the state of Mississippi has great people," Breen said.
Spruill echoed this hope for a brighter Mississippi, and added that this is only attained through a commitment to change.
"The state of Mississippi has nowhere to go but up and I am very hopeful that we will continue to work to improve our statistics in things like healthcare, and poverty and education. All the things that keep us behind other states have got to be improved. We will continue to work on that," Spruill said.