Robert Gray’s victory in the Democratic primary for governor of Mississippi illustrates to some degree the forlorn state of affairs for Democrats in the South.
JACKSON, Miss. — Only three people who had ever met this man, Robert Gray, knew that he was running in the primary for governor of Mississippi.
There were the two volunteers who took his $300 filing fee and qualifying papers several months ago at the state Democratic Party office and the candidate for agriculture commissioner who happened to be in the headquarters at the same time.
Otherwise, no one — not even Gray’s mother, with whom he lives — knew.
At least she voted for him when she saw his name on the Aug. 4 ballot. Gray, 46, a round-faced, soft-spoken long-haul truck driver who lives on a quiet country road south of Jackson, was too busy working on his rig to vote himself.
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He would, nonetheless, go on to win, taking 79 out of Mississippi’s 82 counties.
Gray beat two other candidates, who unlike him spent money and campaigned. Democratic Party officials were stunned. The news media were stunned. Gray, now Mississippi’s Democratic nominee for governor, gave some interviews and then set off with a truck full of sweet potatoes for a potato-chip factory in Pennsylvania.
Gray’s victory — like the bizarre primary wins of Alvin Greene, South Carolina’s 2010 Democratic nominee for the Senate, and Charlie Brown, the 2014 Democratic candidate for governor in Tennessee — illustrates to some degree the forlorn state of affairs for Democrats in the South.
The party that was once the alpha and omega of Southern politics is now having to explain that its headline candidate in Mississippi was elected on the following platform: “He was the first name on the ballot, and he was a man,” said Jacqueline Amos, executive field director for the state Democratic Party.
Both of Gray’s primary opponents were women. Gray is black — the second black Democratic nominee for governor in a row in Mississippi — though some Democratic operatives suggested he might have been helped in the primary by having a name that does not immediately suggest a racial identity.
For Mississippi Democrats, who have to pick their battles, the focus this year has been on regaining control of the state’s House of Representatives. A curiosity candidate who kept a low profile would not complicate that, but to the exasperation of some party officials, Gray has been granting interviews to most any news outlet that tracks him down, from MSNBC to RoadKing, a magazine for professional truckers.
State Democratic parties can accomplish only so much in a part of the country that votes overwhelmingly Republican in statewide races and where partisan identity falls ever more precisely along racial lines. Gov. Phil Bryant, the Republican incumbent, was going to be a heavy favorite for the general election no matter what.
The party’s previous dominance may even be a reason for Gray’s victory, said Jake McGraw, public-policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation in Mississippi.
The Democratic primary was once the de facto general election in Mississippi. Even now, after decades of extensive partisan realignment, the Democratic primary remains the critical contest in many rural counties, where people choose their coroners, tax assessors and other local officers.
A large number of those primary voters are reliable Republicans in statewide and national elections, however, and pay little attention to state-level Democratic politics. In Mississippi, voters do not register by party.
“So much of the Democratic primary is composed of people who are not Democrats,” McGraw said.
And that is how you end up with Gray, a genuine unknown even in the tiny town of Terry, where he lives.
Dorothy Jones at the laundromat, who is said to know everyone, had a vague memory that he dropped off some clothes once, though she did not recall Gray ever coming back to pick them up. At the Terry Barber Shop, Sam Anderson called out to the crowd, asking if anyone knew the black fellow running for governor.
No one there had met Gray, but Gary Downing, who was getting a little off the ears, chimed in, “Can’t do no worse than what we’ve got.”
This may be the central plank of the Gray campaign, such as it is. His campaign staff for now consists mostly of his sister, Angela Gray, 45, who works in real estate in Georgia, and Dwight Utz, 57, an engineer who moved here three years ago from Idaho. Utz, who is white, sees the campaign as the stirrings of a new civil-rights movement.
Gray does not talk too much about race. He cites no specific issue that prompted him to run for governor. He emphasizes a more general conviction that the state has been foundering for far too long and that it could be thriving if only the governor would expand Medicaid and spend more on infrastructure and education.
“Say there was a race car available and the person driving it didn’t know what to do with it,” Gray said over a plate of ribs with Utz at Bully’s Restaurant, a well-loved soul- food place in Jackson. “If you want change, somebody’s got to do it.”
Voters are intent on keeping money away from the poor and working class, Gray continued, but in doing so they are only hurting themselves. He acknowledged that other candidates had found this a hard-sell in conservative Southern states. But he said he had simplified his pitch.
“People complain about our governor,” he said. “I’m basically going to do the opposite of what he’s doing.”
This appears to be true, though somewhat to Gray’s detriment. Bryant’s campaign reported $2.8 million on hand in its latest filing, and he is talking up his record to groups around the state. Gray, by his own admission, is not much of a campaigner. He is hesitant to approach strangers because, he says, he does not want to interrupt them.
“You have one of the best free publicity deals going, and you’re not capitalizing on it,” said Jerry Moore, a county constable who met Gray after his meal at Bully’s. Moore took a minute to explain how it all works, saying he runs one of the largest back-to-school giveaways in Jackson and tells everyone he sees his name and what he is running for. Moore then pushed a reluctant Gray to speak to two young women who had just sat down for lunch.
Gray gave the women his brief pitch: There are two people running for governor, he said, and he is the one who is not the incumbent. The women did not seem moved. “But who are you?” one asked.
John Brown, one of Moore’s fellow constables, handed some cash to Utz and wished the campaign luck. Afterward, in his pickup, Gray acknowledged that he had a lot to learn about glad-handing. He spends most of his time behind a wheel, he said. Truckers do not make great communicators. But he still has two months to adjust.
“It’s going to take a minute to get used to it,” he said.