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Brandon Rue: The Southern Miss Activist Who Walked Hundreds of Students to the Polls

Editors’ Note: After this interview, in which Rue first teased plans to run for office, he announced his candidacy as a Democrat for Mississippi House District 102. He is running against incumbent Republican Rep. Missy McGee.

HATTIESBURG, Miss.—On Nov. 19, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, made time in his busy schedule for a single stop in Mississippi. Booker wanted to help get out the vote for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy in the Nov. 27 runoff between Espy and incumbent U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, whom Gov. Phil Bryant appointed in April to the seat left vacant when former Sen. Thad Cochran stepped down. To help make up for the fact that Espy has been unable to campaign at the University of Southern Mississippi at any point during the election, Booker held a rally on the campus in Hattiesburg.

Booker first met with those who had been unable to make it inside the venue but waited for his arrival nevertheless. His presence, once inside, immediately energized the crowd. Espy’s daughter, Jamila, was present and introduced Booker, who wasted no time settling the excited crowd before launching into a rousing 25-minute speech covering the  spectrum of issues raised by people across the state and across the nation. Booker spoke on a broad range of topics but kept his message consistent, urging everyone to vote and specifically to vote for those who will fight for change. After talking about efforts to suppress votes and specifically mentioning Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor in Georgia, he told the crowd his mom was worried.

“She’s worried,” Booker said, “that the battles her generation fought for voting rights, civil rights, and better opportunities are having to be fought over and over.”

Brandon Rue (back right) watches as Mississippi Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Espy speaks to reporters at the Hattiesburg train station on Sept. 22, 2018. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

Not forgetting the reason he joined the hundred-or-so people in the room where the rally was held last week, the senator gave Espy a passionate endorsement:

“This is why Mike Espy, who could be doing a lot of things with his life—he’s already served as a house member, he’s already served as the Secretary of Agriculture—he could be resting, but he understands God’s not finished with him yet. When your country calls, you stand up and serve. And he went into an election where people didn’t give him a chance and he drove it to a runoff. Mike Espy’s one of these guys who’s a fierce pragmatist. Labels sometimes are so ineffective in representing who we are. The reality is he is someone who believes what is right is right and what is wrong is wrong”

One of the more easily overlooked aspects of Sen. Booker’s rally at USM, though, is how it came together. Brandon Rue, a junior college at USM, said he was contacted by a representative from Espy’s campaign just two days prior. Espy Campus Coordinator Anthony Davis told him Booker would be in town that Monday and asked if he could get an event on campus organized with such short notice. Brandon enthusiastically accepted the challenge and immediately reached out to USM faculty members who were instrumental in making Monday’s rally with Booker a successful one. It undoubtedly helped, however, that he’s no stranger to campus organizing.

Brandon made time in his busy schedule to sit down with Deep South Voice to discuss his organizing and activism work on Monday.

People say they hate politics. You can hate politics, but just because you hate politics doesn’t mean it has any less impact on your life.

—Brandon Rue

Deep South Voice: Tell me a little bit about yourself—what do you do outside of school?

Brandon Rue: Outside of school? Really, politics, but I do a lot. I played sports in high school, so I’m really big into sports. I like to read as well, and I really like socializing, but I have very little free time these days.

DSV: What about in school, what’s your major?

B: I’m a junior; communications studies major with a double minor in political science and psychology. I graduated from Meridian High School in Meridian, Miss.

DSV: What do you plan to do with your degree after you graduate?

B: I want to go into politics on the elected official side. I genuinely have a heart to help people and I believe the most effective way to do that is to become an elected official. People think you can just throw money at things and fix it. I believe you can do that for a certain amount of time, but as soon as your money runs out your influence and your power runs out. Being an elected official gives you the avenue to create change, to create laws that can’t be easily undone. Instead of lobbying to these politicians and trying to get them to think like I think or do what I want them to do, I would just rather be in that seat myself. At the end of the day I believe me using my voice, me having the final say on whether or not I vote yes or no on something, is much more effective than trying to allow somebody else to do what I want them to do. So, I believe it’s the most effective way to genuinely help people and really just make things better.

Brandon Rue speaks to a crowd awaiting Sen. Cory Booker’s arrival at a rally at the University of Southern Mississippi on Nov. 19, 2018. Photo by William Pittman.

DSV: Tell me a little about how the Booker event came together.

B: They text me Saturday night and said, “Hey, Cory Booker’s coming to town, can you make something happen?” I told them, “Yeah, we can get something together.” So, I text a couple different professors, like Dr. Rehner and Dr. Coleman, we combined our resources and that’s how we got it done. We first had to get a room, of course, because you can’t have an event without a room. That was the first step, then we had to get an audience, which I can’t take credit for getting an audience because Cory Booker’s name speaks for itself, so it was him that got the audience, but we got the word out there in an adequate amount of time to get people there.

I think the event came in answer from Mike Espy from me constantly asking Sec. Espy to get on Southern Miss campus because he’d been to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Jackson State, Millsaps—all these different colleges—, but he has yet to come to Southern Miss. I kept telling him, “Hey, you need to come to Southern Miss, we have the most diverse student population in the state of Mississippi. You’re probably going to get the most votes from Southern Miss because we are politically active, we’ve already organized different events. You need to come here and solidify your vote. He wasn’t able to make it, of course, but he was able to arrange for Sen. Booker to get here. They kind of told me last minute and we pulled it off.

DSV: That’s a pretty decent consolation prize. You talked at the event about the Get Out The Vote effort for the election, Walk To The Polls. How many ended up participating?

B: About 250 participated in Walk To The Polls.

DSV: And you said that district flipped in the election?

B: We voted at the Pinecrest precinct. The Pinecrest precinct, in the last midterm election, went Republican or red. This year we beat them by a little over 200 votes, which is around the number of students we took to the polls, so that was very encouraging and very exciting to see.

DSV: And you have two of these events planned for tomorrow? 12:00pm and 5:00pm?

B: Yeah. I honestly don’t think the 12 o’clock event is going to be as popular as the 5 o’clock, but the reason we did that is last time it was a huge crowd at 5 o’clock and I don’t want to say unorganized, but it could have been done a lot better. So, we just wanted to provide two options this time, but I honestly think people are still going to do the 5 o’clock one.

DSV: And you said there was something going on after the Walk To The Polls?

B: Yeah, we had someone donate 40 boxes of pizza for us to just kind of chill out, eat, and enjoy the fact that we walked to the polls and voted together. It was a bit of an incentive to get students to vote.

DSV: So, how did you get involved in politics and activism?

B: Well, I’ve been interested in politics since my freshman year of high school. When I got to college, I was able to take that to the next level by actually working on political campaigns. I started off working for Mayor Dupree my freshman year and his bid to get re-elected as mayor. Unfortunately, he lost that race, but it was still a great experience. I was a freshman, new to everything, just kind of getting out and seeing the process, seeing what’s going on. It was really exciting, that’s how I really got my feet wet with that. Like, okay, this is something I would do for real. It’s one thing to think you want to do politics, and then you actually enter into that realm and it’s a whole different animal.

It’s way different than what I thought. In high school, you know, you think everything is innocent, but once you get in the water and see for yourself how real politics gets, you realize either yes, this is for me or this isn’t what want I want to do. But this is definitely what I want to do. So, then I worked on Kathryn Rehner’s campaign (for state legislature), I worked for Jeramey Anderson (a state legislator who recently ran for congress in Mississippi’s fourth congressional district), and now Sec. Espy. Whatever opportunity pops up. At this point, they kind of know to contact me for the Southern Miss campus.

Students from Southern Miss pose for a photo after participating in Walk To The Polls, a Get Out The Vote effort. Photo courtesy of Brandon Rue.

DSV: That makes sense. To be a junior and have worked on four different campaigns now, you have a lot of experience.

B: It’s definitely been a blessing to me to work on those campaigns. It’s opened up my eyes to a lot of different things and seeing how this really works. Since I plan on running for office myself, the experience has been great, getting to work with different people, and being able to bring this back to our campus and put it to work. Southern Miss is very politically active right now and I don’t believe that is just because this is a political school. I think that’s because of the work we put in it to promote the midterm elections, to promote voting, and now we have a bunch of students who are introduced to what voting is and the process who can be advocates themselves.

Now next year because, you know, elections never stop. Next year we’ll be right back on it and now we have an army now instead of just a couple of generals to go out there and get the vote out. The turn out next year should be even greater than this year.

DSV: If I remember correctly, either you or Anthony Davis mentioned at the event with Sen. Booker that you were president of an organization here on campus?

B: Yes, I’m the president of College Democrats here on campus.

DSV: What other groups are you involved in?

B: I’m president and founder of an organization called Elevate. We go to the elementary schools and work with students to promote leadership and empowerment, promote social activity, the importance of being responsible, and expose them to a variety of career options. Elevate is solely based on the kids, there’s nothing political about the organization at all. I’m in SGA. In my freshman year created a bill and passed a bill that put a male counterpart on the homecoming court for every female. Before, Southern Miss only had Mr. Southern Miss. We are the first predominantly white institution in the state of Mississippi to initiate that change.

DSV: My last question: if you could tell our readers only one thing, what would it be?

B: To realize politics plays a very big role in your life. We may not like politics, we may not understand it, but at the end of the day, regardless of what you think or our feelings towards politics and politicians, they play a big role in our life. People do not realize how much of our day to day life is shaped by the politicians we put into office. So, it’s really important to pay attention, be civically engaged. Don’t be engaged just because I’m engaged, be engaged because you know how this means for your life.

You may not trust the process, you may not understand the process, but you have to participate in the process to be able to change the process because it does affect you. That’s what I want people to know. People say they hate politics. You can hate politics, but just because you hate politics doesn’t mean it has any less impact on your life. So, participate because vote is your voice.

Update, September 2019: Mike Espy lost the 2019 U.S. Senate race against Republican incumbent Cindy Hyde-Smith, but came closer to winning that particular U.S. Senate seat than any Democrat has since U.S. Senator John Stennis—the last Mississippi Democrat to hold a U.S. Senate seat—won re-election in 1982. This year, Espy is helping Rue as he seeks the Mississippi House District 102 seat, both financially and by providing him with voter targeting data for the area that he amassed in his 2018 run.

Espy joined Rue for a campaign event in Hattiesburg in February of this year, the Jackson Free Press reported.

“I ran for a congressional seat and won at age 29 in Mississippi, and back then they said to me, ‘You’re too young,’ ‘You’ve got to wait your time,’ ‘The time is not right,’ ‘You’ve got to wait and let others handle it,’ ‘You’ll get your opportunity later on.’ Don’t listen,” said Espy, who became the first black man told hold a congressional seat from Mississippi in over 100 years. “The time is always right to do the right thing.”