When then-Republican State Representative Toby Barker entered the race for Hattiesburg Mayor against four-term incumbent Democrat Johnny DuPree in 2017, he also set the stage for this year’s race for his former house seat, which pits two alums from his and Dupree’s campaigns against one another. Neither Missy McGee, who worked on Barker’s campaign, nor Brandon Rue, who served on DuPree’s, could have known that, in two years’ time, they would be running against one other.
They’ll face off in the House District 102 election in a few days on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Democrat Rue legally qualified for the position when he turned 21 in August, and Republican incumbent McGee, who won the seat in a 2017 special election and already has two years of legislative experience, is running for re-election.
For the uninitiated in the hyperlocal political world of the residents of Mississippi’s Forrest and Lamar counties (many of whom live within the boundaries of the oddly-shaped District 102), these opponents, on paper, appear quite different. Rue is a senior at The University of Southern Mississippi; 53-year-old career professional McGee is a two-time graduate of USM, where she earned her Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts.
For those paying attention to electoral politics in this diverse college town, however, their similarities are even more obvious: impeccable political resumes, proximity to national political figures, and their shared desire to help people.
After Barker won his race for mayor, McGee launched her campaign for his seat, bringing with her a wealth of political experience from work on multiple Barker campaigns and from her years as legislative assistant to former U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), including nine months in 1989 when he was still a member of the U.S. House. Rue, as he transitioned from his freshman to sophomore year, moved beyond the DuPree campaign’s loss to work for Kathryn Rehner, who ultimately won just 30% of the vote in a runoff with McGee that October.
McGee is the first woman to hold the seat since Evelyn Gandy, whom voters first elected to the Mississippi House in 1947, accepted an appointment as Mississippi’s assistant attorney general in 1959. Later that same year, Gandy became the first woman ever elected to statewide office in Mississippi when voters made her the state treasurer. In 1975, voters elevated her to the most powerful position in the State— position in Mississippi—lieutenant governor.
In the two years that have passed since her victory, McGee has gained a wealth of legislative experience, but Rue has not sat idly by. In 2018, he worked for Mississippi House Rep. Jeramey Anderson’s campaign against 4th District Republican Congressman Steven Palazzo—while also working for former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy’s bid to unseat Republican U.S Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith.
‘This Is Definitely What I Want to Do’
I first interviewed Rue about 11 months ago, just one day before Espy and Hyde-Smith’s late November runoff, when Rue would be leading two Walk to the Polls events from campus to students’ nearest polling place. Rue had played a pivotal role in organizing an event I’d photographed six days earlier that brought U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, now a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, came to USM’s campus for a get-out-the-vote rally for Espy. We decided to meet at the campus library on Monday, Nov. 25, so I reserved a meeting room.
When the Meridian, Miss., native made it to the library’s second floor, it was obvious he’d spent time while living in Hattiesburg getting to know his peers. He took the time to speak to everyone he recognized one-on-one before joining me to wait for our reserved meeting room to become available. Once inside the small, beige enclosure that still smelled of the previous occupants’ Raising Cane’s takeout, the then-junior hinted at his impending run.
“I want to go into politics on the elected official side,” he told me, later adding that “this is definitely what I want to do.”
When he started getting involved in politics, Rue said, “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.”
Since that interview, Rue has drawn support from some high profile Democratic leaders. At his Jan. 31 campaign announcement just two months after our meeting, he told Jackson Free Press State Reporter Ashton Pittman that he’d received encouragement to run from both Sen. Booker and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, whom he also had a chance to meet through his work on Espy’s campaign for U.S. Senate.
“When I met Senator Booker, I had already been thinking about it, and you know, when you are in a room with people like them, it’s just a failure if you don’t mention it,” Rue told the Jackson Free Press. “So, I definitely mentioned it and they said, ‘Run.’ They were in my shoes at one point in time, too, so they know exactly how I feel.”
When Rue was only 17 years old, he said, he felt called to serve. He became a youth minister and worked closely with the pastor of his hometown-church. After moving to Hattiesburg to attend USM, he began volunteering at West Point Baptist Church, where he teaches youth classes. These experiences working with youth no doubt influenced his decision in February 2018 to start Elevate, an organization that works with 5th graders at Woodley Elementary School, a perdominantly black school in Hattiesburg.
“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,” he told me last fall.
A few weeks after Rue launched his campaign, Espy joined him for a campaign event where he gave Rue access to his Senate campaign’s treasure trove—voter data, metrics, and donor names—which Espy claims was part of “the most modern data (operation) in Mississippi’s history.” Espy also told Rue not to listen when people say he’s too young.
“The time is always right to do the right thing,” he said.
McGee Broke With the GOP on LGBT Rights, Abortion Ban
McGee has shown a willingness to work across the aisle, though. Earlier this year, the lawmaker pushed for legislation she co-sponsored with Democratic House Reps. Abe Hudson, Jr. and Steve Holland, that would have updated the State’s definition of a hate crime to include LGBT people and people with disabilities. That bill, and one like it in the Senate, both died in committee without ever getting a vote.
After two men assaulted a man with ties to Hattiesburg in Waynesboro, Miss., earlier this year based on the false-suspicion that he was gay, a well-known gay bartender in Hattiesburg suffered a similarly homophobic attack. McGee took to Facebook to renew calls for updating the State’s hate crimes law.
“For me, it is incomprehensible how someone could be attacked simply on the basis of sexual orientation. Mississippi needs its existing hate-crimes statute to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability (as the federal law already does).”
Wishing the second victim a speedy recovery, she added “Do not give up because this kind of behavior does not represent Hattiesburg. We will not stand for it.”
Earlier this year, Barker and constituents from across the political affiliation applauded her for breaking ranks with her own party on another highly-publicized issue. When McGee walked into a new brewpub in February, Barker tweeted, the room broke into applause.
This came shortly after she became the lone Republican in the Mississippi House to vote against a six-week abortion ban. She cited her faith and noted the bill’s lack of exceptions for cases involving rape, incest or a woman’s life in a Feb. 13 Facebook post.
“[T]here are painful and heart-wrenching circumstances that do arise and should allow a woman to confer with her faith, her doctor, and her family to make what will surely be one of—if not THE—most difficult decision of her life,” she wrote.
At the event with Espy, though, Rue pointed out that he is a full supporter of abortion rights.
“Religiously,” Rue, who has earned the backing of #VOTEPROCHOICE, said he does not “believe in abortion.” But “politically, my mindset is that I don’t believe the government should control what a woman does with her body.”
One area where the two candidates seem to be in complete agreement, though, is on the devastating impact “brain drain” has on the State. During his campaign launch at USM, Rue asked the crowd of mostly student voters how many planned to leave after graduation. Over a dozen hands raised in the crowd of about 60 people. Reversing that trend, he said, is one of his top priorities.
McGee has already worked on the issue as a legislator, joining fellow House members to support House Bill 816, which would provide tax rebates state residents who work in the state for five years after they graduate from college.
High Profile Campaign, Small Local Impact?
At twenty-one years old, Rue is on the young side in the political world—four years younger, in fact, than the recent USM grad Barker was when he won the same seat at age 25.
At the February event, Espy told Rue’s supporters that “he’s got the energy of youth, the passion of youth, and that’s what we need more of here in Mississippi.”
On Aug. 18, Rue posted to his campaign’s Facebook page that actress Piper Perabo, who works with the organization Run For Something, had endorsed his candidacy and planned to support as part of a digital campaign on Twitter for local candidates across the nation.
Since then, Perabo, best known for playing the lead role of hesitant bar dancer, wannabe songwriter, and reluctant songstress Violet Sanford in the 2000 American romantic musical comedy-drama “Coyote Ugly,” has tweeted about his campaign, shared his tweets, and reminded people to get out and vote in the upcoming Nov. 5 elections. But even with her nearly 165,000 followers, one expert says her digital assistance may not help Rue and other Mississippi candidates she has tweeted support for—like Democratic nominee for attorney general Jennifer Riley Collins[AP4] —as much as they hope.
Northern Arizona University Professor of Political Science Marija Bekafigo, who happens to share a birthday with the Covert Affairs actress, studies the intersection between Twitter and politics. She told DSV she doubts the high-profile digital campaigns “will prove to be very meaningful.”
“Celebrity endorsements aren’t very effective. There is some evidence they could engage younger voters in the process, but not much—especially in local elections which already have low turnout.”
Anyone residing in District 102 who registered to vote by Oct. 7 is eligible to cast a ballot on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Elections for statewide offices, including governor, and other positions are on that day also. Voters must bring a State-approved form of voter ID with them to the polls. For more information on voting, go to the secretary of state’s website.
Send comments and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow William Pittman on Twitter @wspittman.