Surprising Stories in the Most and Least Progressive States

Poverty is disenfranchisement

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Last Friday, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued a ruling that was simultaneously shocking and entirely unsurprising. After a broad coalition of the state’s voters approved a ballot initiative to legalize medical marijuana with 74% of the vote, the court decided to strike down the state’s entire ballot initiative system based on an absurd technicality.

In short, the Mississippi constitution mandates that a ballot initiative petition can collect no more than a fifth of its signatures from any one of the state’s congressional districts. The clause was written when the state had five congressional districts, a number that stayed the same for about 150 years. Mississippi lost that fifth district in 2003, but the ballot initiative process continued, with petitions requiring an equal signature split between the four remaining districts.

The medical marijuana initiative was a grassroots triumph, signaling that Mississippi could emulate several other red states by enacting significant progressive policy by going around the GOP-controlled legislature and giving voters the final say. As I’d written here before, left-leaning organizations and the state’s hospital association were already working on getting Medicaid expansion on the ballot in 2022, while a movement to put serious voting rights reform on the ballot that year was afoot as well.

Instead, medical marijuana has been thrown out the window and the Medicaid expansion initiative coalition has thrown in the towel.

It’s tempting to believe that what’s past is prologue in Mississippi and that things will never really change in such a deep-red southern state that just last year removed a tribute to the Confederate battle flag from its own state flag. Despite the name of this newsletter, I was certainly tempted to do so. But then I began to read a long Twitter thread by a Hattiesburg-based journalist named Ashton Pittman, which opened my eyes to the political realities and possibilities in Mississippi. The state’s sky-high poverty and disenfranchisement rates are policy choices, not inevitabilities.

I followed up with Ashton this week to learn more about the Supreme Court decision, the state’s peculiar politics, and where the Democratic Party stands right now. He’s a senior reporter for the Mississippi Free Press, but he was speaking to me not on behalf of the newspaper, but as an independent and nonpartisan observer of the politics of his home state.

Progressives Everywhere: Is the state Supreme Court always this conservative?

They’re generally pretty conservative. But you look at the vote and how it broke down, there's only one woman and there's only one black justice, but the one woman on the court and the one Black justice on the court both actually voted with a conservative majority. The woman is a conservative — there are two liberals on the court, one voted with the majority and one voted with the two dissenting conservatives. 

If you look at the makeup of our state, the fact that it's a nine-person court and there are only two liberals and only one black member in a nearly 40% Black state shows the level of voter suppression and lack of organization. The gerrymandering is inherent here, so that’s not shocking. If our court was proportional, our Supreme Court would probably be more liberal than the US Supreme Court is right now.

The Mayor of Madison filed the lawsuit to end the ballot initiative process. Is she typical of Republicans in Mississippi?

I don't think she's necessarily a great example of your average Republican leader in Mississippi. She’s been the mayor of that town since the 1980s, after white flight really took off out of Jackson in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. She’s a mayor who is in this suburban area and basically the whole idea is to make the place feel safe for white people who don't want to be in a majority Bllack city. But most Republicans in the Mississippi legislature, at least the ones I've talked to, they've kind of moved past that. They're not really in that 1980s and ‘90s crime and safety mindset. 

I see crazier things out of Republicans in Florida and in Wisconsin a lot of times than I do out of the ones in the Mississippi legislature. I think part of it is that Republicans here have a supermajority, they dominate everything, so there's not as much of a need to go to real extremes. Even going back to when this state was dominated by Democrats, I think they just felt really comfortable. We basically went from a place where you couldn't win if you were Republican to a place where you can't win if you're a Democrat.

How is the party perceived?

Democrats here have just been lost in the wilderness for the past probably 30 years. They’re asking, “Am I conservative? Am I'm pro-life? Or am I liberal? Am I trying to not scare white people and trying to get white people to vote for me or am I trying to be a candidate for Black voters?” They haven't really figured out in a lot of cases what they stand for here. 

But it's really not about the Democratic Party. I think it has to be about democracy, about really making voting and voter enfranchisement the goal, not making a blue wave the goal here, because that's just not an attainable goal right now. 

We've had Democrats control the state before and they were segregationists. So it's not about which party controls the state, it's about whether or not people in the state have a voice, that their voices are reflected by those who are elected. Because Black voters certainly weren't reflected in the past when Democrats had control of the state.

Mike Espy ran for Senate in 2018 and came pretty close, much more so than some other Democratic candidates thought to be contenders over the past few cycles. Did his campaign signal a way forward?

Espy would have been the first Black senator from the state since 1880. We had the first two Black US Senators in the state before Jim Crow laws. He came closer to winning a Senate seat than any Democrat since the 1980s, which was the last time our segregationist Democratic senator won re-election. He got 46.5% and he ran as a pro-choice candidate. He didn't try to hide the fact that he was Black and he talked about issues that affect the Black community, while we’ve had past candidates who tried to avoid that. 

But then the next year, in 2019, you have Jim Hood, who had been the last Democrat in major statewide office. He was our attorney general, he's white, and he’s very out there being pro-life, defending the six-week and 15-week abortion bans. He made ads with guns. He supports Medicaid expansion and those issues, but culturally, he goes for the conservatives. Well, he got 47% of the vote. 

So you have two different strategies, and both of them did better than any Democrat running for those seats has in at least 15-20 years, but they both also just kind of hit a wall because there's just so far you can go. So it’s hard to know which strategy is the best for Democrats when there's this brick wall they run into on just basic voter disenfranchisement.

Would passing the For the People Act help? If it overrode these Jim Crow laws and instead created early voting and universal mail-in voting, fixed gerrymandering, and protected access to the polling place?

I still think you have a systemic problem with poverty. Because you saw that one district that had way more than the average of the state and white voters are way wealthier packed into the districts. And the result was this huge gap in turnout, because poverty results in lower turnout. As a state, I think about 31% of our black population is in poverty and it's about 12% for our white population. Both are high, relative to national rates, but white people have a much lower poverty rate. 

If I'm watching CNN or MSNBC, when they talk about rural and urban voters, by rural they mean white, and by urban, they mean Black. But if you look in Mississippi, we have counties that are nothing but rural farmland and are 70-75% Black. They don't have access to broadband, and there's not great access to schools. All these systemic issues in a way and there are higher poverty rates in these counties. So it’s hard to get those people to vote. They don’t have hospitals in a lot of these counties. Undoing our voter suppression laws and getting rid of our Jim Crow laws on felon voting ban would probably make a difference, but at the end of the day, it's also about overcoming other systemic hurdles.

Is the state Democratic Party just in shambles, architecture-wise?

it's quite decimated. It's very bad. They're down to just mostly fighting for a handful of House and Senate seats and municipal seats. Eight of our top officials are white Republicans now, and three years ago it was seven white Republicans and one white Democrat. So the party's infrastructure is terrible. I think that helped Espy some because he was able to raise so much money and get so much data during his race, which he shared, but I still don't know that the Democratic Party of Mississippi has a definition of who it is. 

When the transgender student sports ban came up, there were seven Democrats [in the state House] who voted for it and seven [in the state Senate] that just didn't vote. Six or seven Democrats in 2019 voted for the six-week heartbeat abortion ban. One of them actually sent someone a message that got tweeted publicly in which he said that we only have a few white Democrats left of the legislature and Republicans want to make the Democratic Party the Black party, so that was why Democrats had to vote for these abortion laws. Otherwise, he said, there’d be a Black party and a white party. 

We have several people in the legislature right now who were Democrats a few years ago and are now Republicans, because their districts just keep getting harder and harder to win as a Democrat. Even [US Senator] Cindy Hyde-Smith, she was a Democrat until 2010.

Democrats have lost mostly rural states and have become far less focused on taking on big agriculture, which dominates all aspects of the industry and is putting independent and small farmers out of business. Do you think running a populist campaign on those issues might help?

Mike Espy really tried to run on being pro-farmer because he was the Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton. It may have helped him because he did better than other Democrats. But Democrats’ ideas are popular here — if you don't tell people that those are Democratic ideas. Medicaid expansion had 60% support, 74% voted for medical marijuana, there was an early majority supporting raising the minimum wage to $12 majority in polls. 

The Democrats’ problem is that their message is going to get drowned out by people who are better funded, but also people who all they have to do is talk about social issues and put out flyers with pictures of AOC, Nancy Pelosi, and Hillary Clinton photoshopped next to a Democratic candidate. 

And that isn't just used against Democrats. Tate Reeves was pretty unpopular among both Republicans and Democrats during the gubernatorial primaries [in 2019]. And he was running against two people who were very well known. One was the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Bill Waller, who's a conservative. He forced a run-off in the primary, and while he’s a conservative, he supported Medicaid expansion (like most Mississippians), so Tate Reeves just bombarded Republican voters with these flyers showing Waller with Obama nearby and Obamacare and socialism, flyers in Waller with AOC’s face and Nancy Pelosi’s face. 

Bill Waller is not a supporter of any of these people. He has no affiliation with them, and I’m sure he doesn't like any of these people. But it just works here. You put socialism and you put the faces of some national Democrats that people hate and that's what he's always done. Waller ended up getting 45% of the GOP and Tate got 55%. And then Tate then sent pretty much the exact same mailers out for Jim Hood, who was barely more liberal than Bill Waller.

Are there any rising stars on the Democratic side in Mississippi that we should keep an eye on?

Shanda Yates won a suburb that had been held by the number three Republican in the House, who had held the seat since Yates was six years old. She challenged him and she beat him in 2019 and it’s not often that a Democrat unseats a Republican in Mississippi.

Then in North Mississippi, Hester Jackson-McCray is a Black woman who unseated a white Republican woman. She became the first Black woman to win a House seat in DeSoto County, a suburb of Memphis. It used to be like a 90% white area, and now I think it’s 30% Black because a lot of people are moving into those suburbs from Memphis, and they're younger and they're people of color.

There are also a few younger Republicans in the Mississippi House who are almost freer to be more liberal than Republicans in the US House. Missy McGee is a Republican and she sponsored an LGBT hate crimes bill and voted against our last abortion ban when we had Democrats voting for it, too. Two other Republicans actually worked with Shanda Yates to try to get early voting in the state. They also said nice things about Kamala Harris being the first woman Vice President.

So there are more opportunities for Republicans to do things that are a little more progressive in the state legislature than in the US House, because it's not as polarized. Of course, you have leaders who are very determined to block these things. Our Speaker of the House is Philip Gunn and he's on the board of ALEC.

While the federal minimum wage still sits at a pathetic $7.50-an-hour, it’s even lower in industries that include tips as a prominent part of transactions. For workers who make more than $30 a month in tips at restaurants, bars, hotels, salons, and other service industries, the national minimum wage is an unconscionable $2.13an hour.

When the tipped rate was instituted in 1968, it was equal to 50% of the regular minimum wage, but because the number hasn’t increased since 1991, it now makes up just 29% of the current miserable federal minimum.

In 15 states where the federal minimum wage prevails, the tipped wage is also just $2.13. There are 29 states that have a tipped minimum higher than the federal number but still keep tipped workers lower than the rest. Some of those states require a complicated combined minimum wage; in Arizona, for example, an employer must pay a service worker at least $9.15-an-hour, but if tips don’t take the worker up to $12.15-an-hour, the employer technically has to make up the difference.

Anyone who works in the restaurant industry can tell you that this rarely actually happens, while enforcement is even rarer.

It’s an absurd system built on centuries’ worth of racial and gender inequalities and conventions, which led to carve-outs in New Deal-era laws that persist nearly 100 years later. They have created not just an income disparity between workers on both sides of that divide, but also between people who work for that tipped minimum wage — even within the same workplace.

New York is one of the states that still sentences many of its workers to second-class citizenship. In early 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order that lifted certain lines of employment out of that classification but abandoned others, including restaurant and food service workers, leaving over 288,000 workers making just $10-an-hour instead of the regular $15. They’re supposed to make up the difference in tips, but more than half of waiters and bartenders in New York City make less than $15-an-hour.

This systemic shortfall in wages has a disproportionate impact on women, who make up 63% of the 288,000 workers earning that tipped minimum wage — 179,000 in total. There are 204,000 tipped food service workers, and 73% of those workers are waiters and bartenders. That’s nearly 150,000 waiters and bartenders, 62% of whom are women.

“A tremendous amount of the work government does is under the assumption that it's gender-neutral, and it's not,” Nancy Cohen, the president of the Gender Policy Equity Institute, tells Progressives Everywhere. “So we feel that to make real progress across the board, we need to start really focusing attention on the gender and intersectional gender impact of policies.”

In theory, there should be no real pay gap between workers in the same field, earning the same starting wage, but as with everything else in our society, the social dynamics tend to favor men. They get the busier hours on the restaurant floor and behind the bar, people tend to tip men more than women (and especially women of color), and promotions go to men more often, as well.

Men waiters and bartenders in New York make on average 25 percent more than women waiters and bartenders. Women waiters average $18,748 a year, while male waiters take in $25,000 annually. The difference is even starker amongst waiters, with women making $20,716 to $33,000 for men.

New York’s One Fair Wage Act would end the two-tier minimum wage system and bring everyone up to $15-an-hour. The impact would be dramatic — according to the Gender Policy Equity Institute, most women waiters and bartenders would have their incomes increase by more than 40%, while full-time women waiters and bartenders would experience a more than $10,000 boost. The increase on a percentage basis would be steepest for women of color, whose take-home pay would jump over $9,000.

The bill has been introduced in both the state Senate and House in Albany, and given the partisan make-up and other accomplishments of the state’s progressive Democratic majority this year, it should in theory have little trouble getting passed. It would provide an extra boost to workers in an economy that has already finally given workers a modicum of bargaining power thanks to the American Rescue Plan.

Conservatives and the Chamber of Commerce have moaned endlessly about their inability to force workers to take poverty wages right now, especially in the restaurant industry. They’ve also trotted out the usual pablum about how raising pay will lead to a spike in prices and/or the shuttering of small businesses, two myths that have been used for time immemorial.

Cohen, who worked as a historian for many years, isn’t buying it.

“In America, there have always been bottom-feeders among business,” she says. “The dispossessed slaveholders said they couldn't afford to pay the free men and women wages to work on their plantations. The robber barons said that they couldn't afford an eight-hour day or minimum wage. We have always had this push and pull of needing regulation to create basic, sustainable wages for the majority of the population, because there are bad actors that take advantage of the system when they can.”

The goal of the Gender Policy Equity Institute is to supplement the obvious moral argument against gross inequality with a sound economic one.

“At some point, there's no incentive to take a job or work a shift if your subway fare and your train ride and your gas and your babysitter bill is going to come out to more than the amount that you take home from that shift,” Cohen says. “It’s reasonable to assume that people will work more hours when they can be assured of bringing home from that shift a decent amount of money.”

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