Bold New Party?

<b>New Dem Head Wayne Dowdy on Faux Elephants and Young Voters


It's hard to get past Wayne Dowdy's name. Through no fault of his own, the new head of the Mississippi Democratic Party—a Millsaps grad, a grandfather and a U.S. congressman from 1981-1989—just sounds a bit like a fuddy-duddy. When I first heard his name surface as a possible replacement for Rickey Cole, I thought, "Hmmm, he sounds, well, dowdy." It's easy to think that a lawyer from Magnolia—way down by the Louisiana border, past the metropolis of McComb, off I-55 and through one red light and on the first corner with his name on the door—ain't exactly going to set off a firebomb in the BVDs of the state Democratic Party. After all, when you're on hold waiting to talk to his secretary, secretary, mind you, the hold music is twangy, old-style honky-tonk. Yes, honky-tonk. I might prefer Conway Twitty to Tim McGraw, but my interns probably don't know who the hell Conway Twitty is.

Still, everyone's been telling me that Dowdy is a "populist." A fan of populism—which I define as worrying more about the little guy's problems than big business's bidding—I feared that all those folks are just using that word as a conciliatory way to warn that Dowdy is going to come across as another socially conservative Democrat—another faux-Republican as they're increasingly called these days. After all, the new state Democratic Party platform, with its veiled rhetoric about abortion and gay marriage, makes it sounds like it's déjà vu all over again for the state's non-Republican residents.

So the main question on my mind when I interviewed Dowdy: Will the Democratic Party start appealing to frustrated voters who haven't had a choice in Mississippi politics? Will it be bold?

Some of his answers may surprise you.

JFP: As you take over this position, what is the current state of the Democratic Party in Mississippi?
Dowdy: Probably in need of some improvement in terms of outreach to constituent groups and organizations for financial support. We have some work to do, but it will get done.

What are the party's strengths?
Our issues—like health care for the elderly and disabled, unconditional support of public education. Those issues are the issues that in the end should be most important to the largest number of people in our state.

Fewer than half Mississippians have voted recently. Why have so many become disconnected to the political system?
Because there has not been an immediacy until now. Under the (Gov. Haley) Barbour administration, proposed changes in Medicaid have affected large numbers of Mississippi families; his reductions in public education affect large numbers of students, families and teachers. The actions of this administration have and will continue to adversely affect Mississippians, among them health care and education.

Do you believe more people in Mississippi are starting to pay attention to politics recently?
Yes, very much so. Again, I think much of the credit or the blame, whichever way it's viewed, must go to the Republican governor of this state who has brought health care, education, those types of issues, to the point where they directly bear on the lives of our people.

What is the attitude of Democrats here right now?
I sense optimism among Democrats in Mississippi.

When's the last time you felt that way?
Not in my adult years. (He laughs.)

Many young people believe the future of the Democratic Party depends on recruiting new voters who are frustrated with both parties. Do you agree, and if so how do you plan to reach out to new voters?
Absolutely. I sense increased interest and urgency, really, among young people in this presidential election. My wife and I went to New Orleans to see "Fahrenheit 9/11"; large numbers (in the theater) were young people who had the same reaction to the movie that I did. They see the futility of this administration's policies as it regards Iraq, and I think this year we will see unprecedented participation by young people, and the majority who participate will be, in my opinion, Democratic voters, even here in Mississippi.

Do you expect to see a surprising Democratic turnout in Mississippi this November?
Yes. I'm not going to tell you that John Kerry will actually carry Mississippi, but I think in the end (Democrats) will be more competitive than we have seen since 1976 (the year Jimmy Carter was elected).

How can you build on that turnout for future elections?
That will bear some thought; I'm not avoiding your question. I don't think a surprising result for Democrats in this presidential election based upon Iraq will necessarily translate into strength for the Democratic Party in Mississippi. But potential is there; we have public education and health care (cuts) and what Gov. Barbour is doing there. Those issues can take fire with large numbers of young people.

How can the Dems rebuild strength in Mississippi without becoming a faux-Republican Party?
(Forcefully) Democrats cannot mimic the Republicans. They have the corner on their issues. We've got to separate ourselves; Democrats are different. We sympathize with people's needs for health care, the elderly, the disabled. We're the party that supports public education, and gives it more than lip service. We've got to be different from Republicans. One of the failures of the Democratic Party is that we've tried to out-Republican the Republicans. Never will we be successful with that anywhere at anytime.

Do you agree that Mississippi has actually become a two-party state?
We've got to concede: We are a two-party state. One of those parties, the Republicans, are is line with the national Republicans and not Democrats in Mississippi. In a two-party system, we must give voters a choice.

Will Mississippi start to be able to tell the difference?
Yes. Particularly with this president and this governor.

Can you focus the party on bread-and-butter issues like education and health care without being drawn into a fight over wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion?
I hope so. Every moment we spend discussing those Republican camouflage issues diverts people's attention away from the Medicaid cuts coming Sept. 15. Democrats must be on the front line, calling attention to the fact that Republicans really do not have a plan for these 65,000 people (being removed from Medicaid). Republicans want to divert attention from public-education cuts. Our schools are not adequately funded; local districts must increase their support for local education facilities. That means poorer school districts suffer. They've made cuts in funding for colleges and community colleges. It's more difficult for families of more modest means to support their children and provide the educational opportunities they've grown accustomed to during 30 years under Democratic programs.

The Mississippi Democratic Platform seems to be quite socially conservative.

How does such a platform bode for the party's future as younger moderates replace older conservatives?
All I can say is the time spent on issues that the Republicans want to be involved with takes time away from really important issues: health care, public education, the economy and Iraq.

What do you see as the most important issues facing Mississippians in their 20s and teens right now?
Number one is the deceitful practice of the Republicans in giving large amounts of tax relief resulting in huge deficits. When Bill Clinton left office, and George Bush took his oath, the budget surpluses were over $230 billion. After two rounds of Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, now the deficit is $400 billion a year. People now in their 20s invariably will have economic turmoil in their adult lives because these deficits will cause economic turmoil.

The second issue is Bush's unilateral doctrine that has resulted in our country's actions in Iraq. We are not the world's policeman. As mighty as our nation is, we do not have the numbers of soldiers, the resources that will allow us to go randomly around the world as its policeman. This is a horrible precedent this administration has in place; unless through the electoral process this administration is defeated, I expect this administration will be tempted to enlarge that (war) in the coming four years. We've attacked only one of the "Axis of Evil"; there are still two out there.

We hear from a lot of young people who fear that the draft will be brought back to replenish the forces.
For good reason. Right now in the state, the 155th National Guard (Brigade) has sent 3,500 soldiers to Iraq. Why? We are stretched thin on manpower. I will tell you, if there is not a change in this administration and this administration continues to believe it is the world's policeman, they must look to the draft for bodies.

Many younger voters say they want a political party that will be "bold," that will take some risks to do what is right. Is the Mississippi Democratic Party willing to take risks, to be bold?
As a spokesperson for the party, I am not going to be timid about speaking out about the failures in Iraq, the budget deficit, the need to provide decent jobs with decent wages. In the state, we absolutely will be heard loudly about the Barbour program, public education and other issues that we've discussed. We will attempt and do our best to be aggressive and be different, which we are.

Frustrated voters said last fall that there wasn't a difference between Ronnie Musgrove and Haley Barbour. How would Mississippi be different right now had Musgrove been re-elected instead?
We would not be worried about 65,000 people being reduced from Medicaid. How do you pay? One way not to pay for it is to buy a new jet plane and increase the governor's staff budget. We would have, under a second Musgrove administration, different priorities: education and heath care for elderly and disabled would be an important priority in a Democratic administration.

You've been called a populist. Do you agree, and what does that mean to you?
In my political life over the years, I've been called many things. I used to be called "liberal." I'm not offended by the term populist. Much of the social progress in our nation can be attributed to programs that were called, sometimes derisively, populist programs. I welcome that label.

You mentioned being called liberal. Would you call yourself liberal?
Yeah. Compared with a lot of Mississippians, yeah.

Mississippi could be a very different state if low-income whites started finding more in common with the state's blacks and started voting as a bloc for better education, jobs and health care. Do you see any signs of that re-alignment happening?
I hope it will. I have seen over the last couple of months signs that it is in small measure occurring. Because of the Medicaid cuts, in my exposure in McComb, a huge percentage of the people being affected are poor white people. And because of the Iraq war, a lot of the soldiers called upon to go to war in Iraq come from poor families. They're there because they wanted the education benefits they'd get under the Montgomery G.I. bill. These are issues that are now, in my opinion, causing whites with limited income to re-assess (the Democratic Party), and that is long overdue. Does that apply to all of them? No.

How can the state Democratic Party remake its current image of being a party for African Americans into one of more inclusion?
I don't think we should try to remake that image. We as Democrats should work for the day when color of someone's skin doesn't amount to anything. We make too much of race in Mississippi. As chairman, I'm not going to do anything that ever indicates that I'm embarrassed that a large number in the Democratic Party are African American. I'm proud of that support. I feel sorry for people who for racial reasons use that as criteria for leaving the Democratic Party. They don't believe in the same God I do. We've got to get beyond race; we won't if we as Democrats act embarrassed by the fact that we have support of African Americans.

Our black staffers often say that their community is cynical about many politicians because they only come to their communities during campaigns and not the rest of the time to ask about their issues. Can you reassure black voters that the Democratic Party will represent them all the time if they turnout to vote?

On heath care, on public education, on other issues, African Americans are benefited by Democratic policies as are large numbers of Caucasians. If people can see that the Democratic Party is different from the Republican Party and does stand up for the programs we've discussed, I'm confident people will be proud to call themselves Democrats.

Did (Democratic Commissioner of Insurance) George Dale make a mistake when he said on talk radio recently that the Democratic Party needs a white head in order to attract more whites? What did you think of his comments?
I'm not a close friend of George Dale's. You'll have to ask him for his interpretation. Again, I would hope that people would be attracted to the Democratic Party because of our positions on issues like education and health care, not on the skin color of a man or woman who happens to hold an office.

Appearing with you on MPB's "Statewide Live," Republican head Jim Herring said that Mississippi is the "most taxed state"—a statement that led columnist Bill Minor to write that the state GOP is outright lying. How do you respond to Herring's statement?
Only in one aspect are we a heavily taxed state—the sales tax that is burdensome on people with limited incomes. In all other respects, we are a lightly taxed state in comparison with all other states. (Herring's statement) is absolutely not true. I will respond more forcefully in the future.

You're headed to the Democratic National Convention tomorrow. Are you going to ask John Kerry to come to Mississippi to campaign?
Yeah, I would love for him to come. I do know that John Edwards will be coming into the state a couple times at least. Mississippi can be a very competitive state this time. With young people's reactions to the war in Iraq and other issues, and the matter involving 65,000 losing their Medicaid coverage, the field is fertile and much better than in the recent past.

Can Mississippi become a swing state?
As we become a more educated people, yes. But the Republicans are trying to keep us from achieving that status.

Tell me something that convinces young people to vote this November.
I would remind them that only four years ago the closest presidential election ever took place, and the election was decided by a few votes cast differently in a huge state. Had that election been different, if those few votes in Florida had gone to Al Gore, I'm confident we would not be in Iraq, and confident that so many things that disturb me and a lot of other people would not have occurred. Every person's vote is going to count in this election.

Visit the Mississippi Democratic Party's (rather bland) Web site at http://www.msdemocrats.net

Previous Comments


Congressman Dowdy will prove to be a formidable spokesperson for the Democratic Party in our state. The sentiments he presents in this article are sincere and longstanding. There is no Mississippian better equipped to lead the party as Mississippi goes through the final transition to a two-party state. I was proud to nominate him for the position.


Interesting comments about Democratic outreach to young people, from The Phoenix, the big alternative in Boston: AN EMERGING GENERATION of young, progressive Democrats is networking, brainstorming, and organizing to fill a gap in liberal politics. Because the Democratic Party has long failed to harness their energy, these young people are trying ó with the help of several new and already-existing organizations ó to channel it themselves by tapping into their own resources and using the tools of their generation. Their goal? To help build a stronger base and revitalize the infrastructure that has left the party stagnant and struggling against conservative opponents. ... [T]hey have identified a weak spot in the party, and to fix it requires a much more farsighted approach than the next-election focus Democrats have held on to for years. Long-term investment in the partyís younger base, missing until now (at least in concentrated form), is a vital part of renovating the Democratic strategy, they say. And a well-organized infrastructure ó nuts-and-bolts stuff like fundraising, media communication, candidate training, voter mobilization, and grassroots activism ó is imperative to winning back not only the White House in 2004, but the House, the Senate, and state governments (Republicans control four more legislatures and six more governorships than Democrats do) over the next 15 to 20 years. "The í90s was a period when the party really modernized our message," says New Democrat Network (NDN) president Simon Rosenberg, referring to the centrist rhetoric of the Clinton administration. "Whatís happening now is that weíre modernizing our politics. Itís going to make us stronger." Rosenbergís organization is not a new one ó the NDN has been around since the 1980s. Other groups, like MoveOn.org and America Coming Together, also focus on revamping the partyís inner workings. But in a May speech, Rosenberg acknowledged that to tackle the challenge comprehensively requires "a new generation of progressive leadership ó entrepreneurs, investors, intellectuals, and political leaders." A major problem, however, is that the Republicans have been cultivating the younger generation for years, which is how they managed to capture both houses of Congress and (for 16 of the past 24 years) the White House in the first place. The need for this strategy has its roots in the 1950s, when conservatives found themselves losing relevance, ground, and influence in the national debate. During the 1970s, particularly in the wake of the Nixon administrationís Watergate crisis, Democrats held as many as 70 percent of the seats in the countryís state legislatures; from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Around 30 years ago, however, GOP right-wingers kicked into high gear on a mission to grow their party, and they started small, focusing on state races and investing serious time and money. "They were out of power for a really long time," Rosenberg says. "They set out in a very strategic way, in a very long time-horizon, to try to change the future of the country." He calls the conservative movement an "information-age Tammany Hall," a reference to the heavy-handed (and occasionally corrupt) Democratic political machine that dominated New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries.


MORE Meanwhile, "Democrats never did it," says Joe Trippi, the man behind former presidential candidate Howard Deanís rocket-like primary-campaign rise. Its failure to establish a young-voter-outreach organization has put the party at a disadvantage, he says. Now, however, technology has given liberals the chance to catch up by channeling the combined power of the Internet and the generation that grew up with it. "If information is power and the Internet is distributing information democratically to anyone who has the íNet, then the Internet is not distributing information anymore, itís distributing power," Trippi said at a DNC networking session for young progressives. "There is only one hope for our democracy, and I believe this fervently," he told the crowd of about 40 young professionals. "Itís you and the íNet. Read entire story


I just saw this article, and am thinking it might be time to revisit it given Chairman Dowdy's controversial endorsement of Trent Lott and his party's failure to field candidates in the state's two Republican congressional districts. In particular, the bit about George Dale and the Great White Hope myth: Did (Democratic Commissioner of Insurance) George Dale make a mistake when he said on talk radio recently that the Democratic Party needs a white head in order to attract more whites? What did you think of his comments? I’m not a close friend of George Dale’s. You’ll have to ask him for his interpretation. Again, I would hope that people would be attracted to the Democratic Party because of our positions on issues like education and health care, not on the skin color of a man or woman who happens to hold an office. And yet he went so far as to, here again, endorse Lott to provide more credibility for a potential future Mike Moore open seat bid--even though he already had a viable candidate in Erik Fleming, who one presumes shares his views on education and health care. And then there's this: How can the state Democratic Party remake its current image of being a party for African Americans into one of more inclusion? I don’t think we should try to remake that image. We as Democrats should work for the day when color of someone’s skin doesn’t amount to anything. We make too much of race in Mississippi. As chairman, I’m not going to do anything that ever indicates that I’m embarrassed that a large number in the Democratic Party are African American. I’m proud of that support. I feel sorry for people who for racial reasons use that as criteria for leaving the Democratic Party. They don’t believe in the same God I do. We’ve got to get beyond race; we won’t if we as Democrats act embarrassed by the fact that we have support of African Americans. I wholeheartedly agree with what Dowdy has to say here. But where's the support for statewide African-American candidates? And is there really a problem with white Democrats leaving the party in droves for the Republicans over an unwillingness to work shoulder-to-shoulder with blacks? And how does this work together with the whole pining-for-Moore dynamic? Cheers, TH

Tom Head

BTW... Really weird thing about the George Dale comment (which I didn't know about until I read this article). We're 37 percent black. If we can increase African-American turnout in statewide elections, we won't need a whole hell of a lot of whites. So I certainly don't understand the logic behind going out of one's way to have a white party head in terms of sheer numbers. Maybe in terms of fundraising, because whites are more affluent, but I'd like to think that the Democratic Party is the one party in our pitiful two-party system that cares about people who aren't affluent. Cheers, TH

Tom Head


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment