/Q&A with Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak

Q&A with Democratic Party Chairman Bobby Moak

We interviewed six dozen Democrats to find out about their past, present, and future after the devastating 2019 defeat for Mississippi Democrats. Part one explains how the Mississippi Democratic Party was disorganized and dysfunctional leading to the historic 2019 defeat. Part two shows how the party’s political identity crisis is affecting candidates on both the up- and down-tickets. Part three demonstrates how the party’s leadership failed to support and allocate resources to black Mississippians who account for at least 70% of its voting base. Mississippi Today spoke with Bobby Moak, Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party, Monday about several issues raised in those articles. This transcript is a transcription of the conversation with Moak. This transcript has been edited to improve clarity and length. Mississippi Today: What was the 2019 election cycle like, from the top to the bottom? Bobby Moak: This was coming off of a 2018 election where the president visited I don’t know how many times. It was about voter participation. It was a missed chance. We saw Kentucky win. We saw Louisiana win. Because they had sitting governors, U.S. senators or whatever the case may have been, we saw a tremendous amount of money spent on their Democratic Party candidates and their party. The money was not just given to the candidates, but also to the party. Mississippi was deprived of this ability for the 12-16 years that we didn’t have those elected officials. What role should the Democratic Party play in Mississippi? Moak: It’s supporting Democrats and our elected officials. How can the Democratic Party have success again in Mississippi? Moak: Start at the bottom. We brought together many Democrats to run for municipal office in 2016. There wasn’t much competition from the other side. We reached out to different programs during the 2019 election to include more candidates. This was a success. It is getting people in the game. It is a call to the bench and a signal that it is time for everyone to play. It’s time to rebuild the party starting from the bottom. You must have the financial capability and the ability to collaborate with local elected officials. All of these are essential. What have you done to rebuild the party since becoming chairman? Moak: We started by placing almost 600 Democrats on our ballots that wouldn’t otherwise have been on it. This helped us get a lot more votes in many additional counties. This was a success in many places. Similar to my county, Lincoln County, which saw a 10 percent increase in Democratic turnout. Although it may not seem like much, this is huge. Similar results were seen in DeSoto County and Rankin County. We also saw an increase around Tupelo. Despite the fact that the ticket was losing its top spot, people still voted for Democrats. We also saw white voters and independents returning to the party. Concerns have been raised regarding staffing and the overall infrastructure of the party. There is no finance or executive director. Why are these two vacant positions? Moak: It is all about money. We have a digital director as well as a data director. People from the executive committee also help with things such the ones you mentioned. It’s all about getting enough money to hire an executive director. An executive director isn’t someone who answers the phone and has a pleasant conversation with you. An executive director is someone who has the contacts to raise these funds. It is difficult to find the funds in Mississippi so you will need to look elsewhere in the country to get those funds. It’s necessary to raise the money. As in all other states, you need to know how data systems are used in this state. These skills are required, but they come at a price. There is a plan to make the job descriptions in Mississippi a bit more specific. These will be available by May 29th and we’ll work out how to proceed. It is difficult to raise money in Mississippi, as you mentioned. How can you raise the money needed to do these things as a party? Moak: That’s been an issue for a long time. Our Republican friends have an easier path to follow because they have U.S. senators. When asked, people who give to them also support the party. We’ve received a lot of financial support (Democratic National Committee) but we need to show people who are willing to invest money in Mississippi that we have viable programs that can match up with other states. With our data program, I believe we are doing that. We were one of the 10 first states to be contacted by Biden’s campaign to join their joint efforts. It was due to the relationships we have in the state with national figures. We are on the right path with this and it will happen. We know it will happen because you can see the difference in where this party was three to four years ago. Concerns have also been raised regarding miscommunications with county-level volunteers. They claimed that the state party was not always responsive. What would you tell them? Moak: At the local level, we have tried to answer these questions. We’ve also tried to give some of the money that we raised back to candidates. We have put them through training and we have put them through the VAN program. This is our list of all voters in each state, with contact information. We are becoming more involved in the county level, letting them know what we have. I believe we are making progress. We are seventh in the country in training matter signups. There are also some county organizations in the party that would like to lead this effort. Whether that has been happening or not, it’s the reason why the party’s become more involved in the county level. There are clear ideological differences within the party, from moderates to conservatives to progressives. How do you balance the various factions of the state and maintain the party’s chairmanship? Moak: First, you must realize that you can’t please all factions. That’s a fact of politics, whether you’re in the state party or the state legislature. It’s not easy to be a Democratic leader over there. I know that because I have had it. My view is that the party is not there to make policy decisions. This is for the elected officials at the county, state or city level. They want to push the issues when the party can come in and say, “Let’s make this happen.” You support them. After 32 years in the Legislature, the hardest thing was that I didn’t believe the party should be allowed to speak before our elected officials. They see things from a wider perspective than we do, and should have more information than they do. They need to be supported by the party. Right now, not many elected Democrats have the power to set this policy. While you have legislative leadership, Republicans hold a supermajority of both the House and Senate. While Congressman Bennie Thompson is the leader of legislative leadership, he also has federal duties. How can elected officials set policy and take on issues if they don’t have the officials? Should the party take over? Moak: In these circumstances, I would answer yes. In our role as Chairman of Homeland Security, we try to pick up on issues Congressman Thompson has been sending us in weekly and daily email blasts. We do this by using some form of messaging. We will check out what is happening in the Legislature, especially lately regarding COVID-19 and prison issues. Then, we’ll reach out to our local people to assist them. If there is going to be a void somewhere, and no one wants to take up the issue, it could be that they are not the ones to fill it. In such a situation, I believe the party should take over that role. How do you decide what message to send given all the factions within the party? Moak, a moderate Democrat: You should also say that there are no coincidences when it comes to politics. This was something I discovered a long while ago. If you notice the party leapfrog our elected officials, that’s because someone, somewhere, has had a conversation. This is where you will see the party rise above some elected officials. It might not be the direct message coming from the party, but coordination behind-the scenes with elected officials. Moak: Politics is not a series of coincidences. That makes it easier for the party’s message to be heard. What would you say the majority of regular Mississippi Democratic voters are? Are they more progressive or more moderate? Moak: They are all over the board, you know. They are a small sample of the many people out there. Your question is beyond my reach. There are many people who want to return home, and we see that there are many independents. We’ve probably seen the polling data on that. They tend to be more middle-of-the-road. They are not far left or right. As you can see in the 2019 post-election analysis precinct survey, they’re returning. You saw between 8-15 percent and 12 percent returning to the party in different parts of the state. This is an interesting fact. Jim Hood’s strategy was clearly geared towards white independent voters. Janis Patterson is a progressive black woman who ran for the state House in Prentiss County. This was the core of Jim Hood’s more moderate message. She spoke out about the disconnect between Hood’s policies and hers. They received the same number votes in her district. How do you balance these two ideologies and how did they fare in the end as a party leader? Moak: In that case, I am familiar with the candidate. She was a great candidate and was supported by many friends, including my family in north Mississippi. Hood was also a victim of the same fate. One thing is certain about her race: She knew it was difficult to win that district. But she stepped up and ran, and these are the people you should appreciate more than any candidate for office. Hood was probably asking himself if those voters would vote in his favor, which they didn’t do for (Mike Espy), in 2018. It didn’t work out that way. It became Democrat versus Republican, not candidate. As a party, you need to look at the numbers before you run for office. If they are willing to accept the help, you have to say “Here’s how we can help you win the Democratic base.” This is part of the data and digital program that we’ve been creating for the past three-and a half years. The Republican Party excels at messaging and getting on the same page from all levels. What is it going to take for Mississippi Democrats to be on the same page? Moak: I don’t think Democrats will follow the Republican lead. Republicans can do it because they have U.S. Senators, governors and a speaker in the house. They can also call them and say “If you don’t vote this way, we’re going to run someone against you in primary.” Democrats never were that free-thinking. They are more open-minded. They are more open to their own ideas. Republicans tend not to project that type of aura. We all know this. They are more aligned than Democrats. They will fight each other and, at the end, they will almost always come back together. That’s the thing about Democrats. Can we get Democrats to do this? Do Democrats think they will follow their lead on issues that matter to them? Yes. That was evident in the last election regarding issues such as healthcare, roads, bridges, and education. These are the issues that bring Democrats together. There are certain issues that could keep Democrats from coming together, but we must be fair. I think of abortion, state flag, and economic development. Moak: Fair enough. These are issues Democrats have to deal with, and that is why you need to create a Mississippi party platform. Republicans have had it so easy to say “Oh, you’re a Democrat. Here’s your national platform.” But no. This is Mississippi. Here’s what we do. Because we believe that this is the best thing for Mississippians, we look at it that manner. As I mentioned, education, healthcare and infrastructure are all important. The Mississippi Democratic Party is very conscious of race. How can you ensure that black Mississippians are adequately represented when 70% of Democratic voters in Mississippi are black? Moak: First, let’s be clear: There are certain people who wouldn’t have approved of me being hired four years ago. And there are others who would rather see me leave the position. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that this party has emerged from the financial straits it was in over the past three and a half years. We have brought back independents and we have brought back white voters. One thing that I stand by is that we cannot stand if we stand on our own. All of us must be present: all blacks, all whites, and every mix of moderate, far left and far right Democrats. All of these people must be coming in. You cannot forget about the base of your party. I have tried my best to put the focus on this and give back to the counties. This is something we haven’t seen. It is to rebuild the party at the county level. This is one thing that you must do and it’s something you have to keep doing. You should also be aware that I have faced resistance in recruiting candidates for 2019. People who are open to diversity don’t like it when it is made open for everyone to speak. Everybody gets a chance and everyone has a voice. You have to look after your Democratic base but you also need to work to increase it. You want to find a balance between keeping black voters happy and reaching out to those who have recently left. This has not been a common strategy. How do you do it? Moak: It’s not a tightrope. It is your responsibility to take care of the base. We have seen that there is a base there. We need more accountability and more training. We need more volunteers on the ground. We have tons of volunteers in the air force. In 2018, we made 4.2 million phone calls, emails and direct mail messages. It’s also difficult to put that on the ground. We’re working on it. Repaying counties the money they have spent. We want the counties to lead in getting that vote out at the local level. Is there enough support for the party and enough attention on its base of black voters? Moak: I don’t believe anyone has done enough. This is evident in the fact that some races are losing that they shouldn’t. One example is the Mississippi Delta. There was a minor candidate who should have run for the office straight away, but instead we had a runoff. The runoff was a failure of the state party to join the effort with other groups. We wouldn’t have been able to win the seat in the special elections. We are in transition, but there is no way to go.
You currently have two staffers. One is a white man and one is a Hispanic. As chairman, you are a white man. How do you make the party more representative of the people of the state and the Democratic Party in the future? Moak: Late last year, we lost a black woman to the party. Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams’ group, is now under our roof. This group is led by a wonderful black woman. We make sure everyone is represented when we look at the structure of our constitution. Can you become a strong leader for the Mississippi Democratic Party in the future? Moak: I believe that I have been. The proof is in my pudding. Check out our three-part series about the Mississippi Democratic Party._x000D