Saturday, July 26 – 9:44am
We are sitting at the Medgar Evers Airport in Jackson, but before we say goodbye we wanted to tell you about yesterday’s adventures, which included lots and lots of driving. (Hat tip to Jason for doing ALL of it).
We started in the morning meeting Mississippi NOW President Laurie Bertram Roberts. Laurie is a wealth of knowledge about Mississippi politics, especially at the capital. In addition to being a women’s activist, Laurie also homeschools her seven kids. We were super lucky she was able to take the time to meet with us.
Next we hopped in the car for a driver to Meridian, Mississippi. There we met Chase Callahan, a past (and we hope maybe future) candidate for state legislature. Chase has already sent his application for our December training and we can’t wait to see him there!
Finally we took the very long drive to the coast for our Gulfport community meeting. Big thanks to Cardinal Flowers for letting us use their space and to Jeff White-Perkins for organizing the meeting. It was the perfect ending to our trip because we got to meet in person so many people who had helped us with setting up our trip. There was Jeff, who runs the Rainbow Center, Constance Gordan, who had introduced us to two of our previous day’s meetings, and Renick Taylor, the first openly gay national DNC delegate from Mississippi. We even met one young man who is interested in running for office – and quite a few who are interested in coming to our training to help him. We could have stayed there all night, but unfortunately it was a three hour drive back to Jackson and we had to be up at 6:00am to get to the airport.
Our time in Mississippi has been incredible and our reception has been as warm as the weather. We can’t wait to come back! Goodbye Mississippi! We’ll see you soon!
Friday, July 25 – 1:18pm
Good afternoon, loyal readers! Jason and I were up bright and early this morning after a community meeting last night that lasted 3 hours! With the energy in that room, there was no way we were going to cut it short.
But let us start from the beginning. Remember how we told you we had a meeting with a former elected official? It was Governor Ronnie Musgrove! Last year, Gov. Musgrove wrote a piece for Huffington Post apologizing for an anti-LGBT adoption bill he signed while in office. “My momma always taught me that when you make a mistake you take responsibility for it,” he told us, “It was the right thing to do.” Musgrove recently started the Southern Progress Fund to help Democrats with progressive values get elected in the South.
Next we had two individual meetings back-to-back. Felicia Holmes, a mother of 6, works two jobs while finishing her Master’s degree. A patient advocate, Felicia expressed interest in running for office to help connect her community to the resources available to them. “My dream is to build a stronger community and a system that supports families…no matter what they look like,” she told us. Felicia will be joining us at our Candidate & Campaign Training in December.
Todd Allen grew up planting rebel flags in his backyard thinking it was just a symbol of Ole Miss football. His mother founded the Mississippi chapter of the Tea Party. Meanwhile, Todd is in the process of founding an LGBT center in Jackson. “Y’all means ALL.” Allen emphasized to us. It’s a slogan he has trademarked and hopes to make available to non-profits and schools. He and his partner, Kevin, who sits on the board of the national association of black and white men together are working to bring intersectional equality to Jackson.
That’s also a priority for our next meeting with State Director of the Mississippi NAACP Derrick Johnson. Derrick is focused on working across communities to communicate a common theme of equality. “Gay rights don’t know a gender or a race or a class just like workers’ rights don’t know a sexual orientation,” he shared. Derrick is a dynamic and widely respected voice in Mississippi politics whom we look forward to working with more.
Finally, it was on to dinner with Joce Pritchett, her partner Carla, and their adorable daughter Grace. Joce spearheaded the “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling” campaign we referenced in our first update. “Three months ago it was like I woke up,” she explained. “This is the community where I’m raising my family. I couldn’t just do nothing.” Joce and Carla organized that evening’s community meeting at Julep restaurant. We had an amazing turnout with 30-40 people in attendance.
“I was born here. I’m proud to be from here. Mississippi is a great place,” family counselor and local PFLAG President Eric Wood shared with us, “but one of the things that makes it great is that change is coming.”
Everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about Victory’s mission and agreed that we had chosen the perfect time to come. “One of the things that SB2681 [the religious tolerance bill] has done is bring together the community,” one activist noted, “we’re getting together all these places and talking about different ways we can make change. For the first time I really feel like we have a community here in Jackson.”
Discussion ranged from which districts might be winnable to who should run for office. When we asked for a round of applause for a candidate whose named had been floated, the entire meeting broke out clapping. “I wouldn’t support someone just because they were LGBT, but I know you, I trust you, I think you could win,” said Eric.
Participants expressed concern about backlash against a potential LGBT candidate – but also hope. As one ally put it, “You know who’s gonna be against you. I mean I could write you a list, what you don’t know is who’s gonna be FOR you.” On top of Victory Fund, we can think of about 30 names to start.
Thursday, July 24 – 12:49pm
Between the two of us, we’ve met hundreds of elected officials, but no one quite like Mercedes Ricks. Born in Colombia, the only jobs available in the town where Mercedes was raised were in the drug trade. When her best friend mysteriously disappeared after a botched drug deal, Mercedes immigrated north and started waiting tables and cleaning movie theaters in New Orleans. “I used to collect the change that fell on the floor of the theater – that was my tip.” she mused to us.
It was in New Orleans that Mercedes met her partner of 17 years. The two of them happened to be on vacation in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina devastated their home city. With nothing to go back to, they stayed in Magnolia, a town with fewer than 2,500 residents. Mercedes went back to waiting tables and at the mayor’s suggestion eventually opened her own business, Mariposa Café. As a business owner, Mercedes began to have interactions with local government and got to know the residents of her small town quite well. After living in Magnolia for 7 years, Mercedes ran for and won the race for alderman at-large. “I’m the deciding vote among the Aldermen,” she boasted to us. “I have more power than the mayor!”
When we asked her if she faced discrimination, she said “Not really. Most people respect you if you’re honest. I’ve always been honest.”
There was one time when a regular customer stopped visiting because of the rainbow flag displayed outside Mariposa. Ricks asked if the woman would return if she took it down. They agreed and two months later the woman returned and ordered a sandwich. “Then one day I got to thinking. ‘I’ll be! If I’m not gonna stand up for myself who will? She can keep her 10 dollars!” Clearly her openness hasn’t hurt business. We visited in the middle of renovation that will double the size of Mercedes’ café.
With the recent anti-LGBT legislation that was passed in Mississippi, Ricks has been more vocal about her orientation. “People think about gays or lesbians and they think we’re monsters. Then they meet us and they realize we’re no different. Sometimes you just need one person to stand up so that everybody can see. Now we have drag queen bingo!” bragged Ricks, who is close friends with RuPaul’s Drag Race winner Bianca DelRio from their time in New Orleans.
As we entered and exited the café there was a car parked outside with a homemade magnet announcing, “Baby Killers, Homo’s, Islam, Catholics, God Haters, Stop Sinning or Hell Fire.”
“The way I see it we’re all God’s kids. The people who think that, let them come talk to me.” says Ricks, whose mother now works with her at the café.
Mercedes is as engaging and as humble as anyone we’ve ever worked with, but she also recognizes how special her story is. “I’m an immigrant, I’m a lesbian and I’m a small business owner. I am the American dream.”
Wednesday, July 23 – 10:33pm
Wow! We had an amazing (packed) day today! It’s after 10pm on the East Coast and this is our first chance to catch you up.
We started our day with a breakfast meeting with Rob Hill, HRC’s new Mississippi state director. Rob is a former minister who was not allowed be open in his position. He is now able to “live out loud” (as he puts it) and was kind enough to share his insight and contacts as a native Mississippian.
Next we were invited to the State Democratic Party Headquarters. Our favorite moment from that meeting was when the party chair told us “running LGBT candidates isn’t just good for the state, it’s good for the party.” Well said, sir.
Then it was on to Magnolia, Mississippi (population: 2,420) to meet Mississippi’s only openly LGBT elected official, Alderwoman Mercedes Ricks. Mercedes deserves her own blog post (if not her own novel) but for now we will just tell you that for five solid minutes after our meeting all Jason or I could say was “wow.” Truly a highlight of both of our times at Victory.
Afterwards we headed South to Hattiesburg for a community meeting at the Spectrum Center, Hattiesburg’s recently opened LGBT community center run by Sara and “L.B.” Bell. We met three (three!) potential Victory candidates and fielded questions ranging from “What does Victory do?” to “Where do I start?” (Also “have either of you ever run for office?” Answer: “Heck no!”)
We put 248 miles on the car today, worked 15 hours and ate fast food for two out of three meals. Now we’re on the road back to Jackson so that we can be ready for a 9am meeting tomorrow! Whew! Reminds us of campaign life. It’s a long day but we’ve never been more energized.
As they say in Mississippi, “we’ll talk to y’all soon!”
-Nancy and Jason
Tuesday, July 22 – 9:00pm
Hello from Mississippi! Today was the lightest day on our itinerary, but we wanted to touch base as promised and let you know that we arrived safely and are already excited about the prospects for openly LGBT candidates in Mississippi.
As excited as we were about our trip, and as wonderful as our reception had been when we started talking to locals about coming down here, something happened beforehand that made us a little apprehensive. Earlier this week we arranged a meeting with a prominent former elected official (more on that later) who we were told had recently “come out.” It was only upon further inquiry that it was explained that he had “come out” in favor of equal rights (notably marriage) for LGBT families, not as LGBT himself. Apparently there are places in our country where you have to come out as an ally. With that in mind, when we boarded the plane we were prepared to turn my watch back an hour – and possibly 20 years.
It was relieving and heartwarming to meet with two young up and comers in Mississippi politics, one of them straight, the other gay. The latter told us about growing up in a conservative family with a father in local electoral politics. He came out when he was 16 and his parents still don’t acknowledge his LGBT identity. That said, he is quickly becoming a local political powerhouse himself, albeit for another party. A meeting that was scheduled for 45 minutes lasted almost two hours! (Good thing today was our light day!) Both were extremely enthusiastic about partnering with Victory to train and support LGBT candidates and to find the best districts for our candidates to run.
Finally, no trip to the south would be complete without us at least sampling the food. Nancy texted an old campaign coworker who grew up around here and he recommended Jackson’s Parlor Market for “upscale American/Southern cuisine.” What do we see when we walk in but the sign above. “If you’re buying, we’re selling” is a campaign spearheaded by some of the very individuals we are meeting with later this week. They created these signs to allow local businesses to voice their opposition the restrictive “religious freedom” bill that recently passed in Mississippi and attempt to maintain a welcoming atmosphere for LGBT individuals and allies. We certainly felt welcomed!
We can’t wait to tell you more about our adventures! Day one was, literally, a good sign.
Beginning on July 22, Victory’s Jason Burns and Nancy Leeds will be in Mississippi speaking with LGBT advocates, potential candidates, and allies. Stay tuned for their daily updates from the Magnolia State!