No one saw the coming of the unmitigated chaos that 2020 wrought, and most are glad to see it go.
On the national stage, political theater overtook our society in every facet of life and in every corner of America. There were several cultural flashpoints, most notably the death of George Floyd and other incidents involving police and young black men. Through “mostly peaceful” marches and protests, thousands of buildings in our urban centers were looted and burned. Many public streets are now graffitied with slogans and long standing monuments have been torn down by angry, woke mobs. Athletes became celebrated social justice warriors while corporations yielded to the whims of the latest cause celebre to stay in the good graces of the loudest voices. Churches became politically identified by whether their congregants meet online or in-person. Bad actors, the ones who burnt businesses, assaulted the elderly, and routinely broke the law were glorified by the media while police officers are vilified and killed. And a virus was politically weaponized resulting in a nation voting at the highest levels in a single election year than in American history.
Here in Mississippi, we have felt the hardship, grieved our own plights, but have generally fared better. We found a way to balance fear with remaining productive both at home and on the job. We honored our past but took great strides into our shared future. Our protests were actually peaceful. We went back to school and proved the Magnolia State is firmly in the 21st Century. We rejected much of the divisive national narratives and chose to rise above the fray in our public policies. Mississippians fought for our brothers and sisters in our hospitals, in our city halls, at the Capitol, on our football fields, and on the ground amidst floods, tornadoes and hurricanes but we did not fight in our streets. We did not let our emotions get the best of us, and when we did, we took those feelings outside to the great outdoors and we enjoyed God’s creation. Mississippi stayed the course in 2020 and remained a place of sanity and solace in a world gone mad.
Yes, 2020 has been a year filled with so much loss, so many challenges, and so much uncertainty but it has also produced stories of resilience, faith and opportunity for tomorrow.
Here are the top 10 stories from Mississippi in 2020 as we take a look back:
10. Broadband Expansion
In early December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced its Phase 1 recipients of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. Mississippi, along with many other states across the country, will split a total of $9.2 billion to expand high-speed internet services. Mississippi was awarded $495 million, the second highest amount out of all of the other states. Those funds will go to service nearly 219,000 locations in the state. Included in the awardees to receive the funds and provide this service is Elon Musk’s Starlink through SpaceX.
9. Legislators’ Resignations
A handful of state legislators resigned this year, months after winning re-election in November 2019. Some resigned to take other jobs in state government, such as Sally Doty who left the State Senate to become Staff Director for the Mississippi Public Utilities Staff in July. Others resigned because they learned what most already knew – you cannot draw from your state retirement and serve in the Legislature and receive legislative pay at the same time. That was the case for freshmen representatives Billy Andrews and Ramona Blackledge. Jarvis Dortch resigned from the House to become the Executive Director for the ACLU while Gary Jackson resigned from the Senate citing health concerns.
8. Auditor Unveils DHS Scandal
In February of 2020, State Auditor Shad White arrested former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis; former employee Latimer Smith; Dr. Nancy New, the owner and Director of the Mississippi Community Education Center (MCEC) and New Learning, Inc; Zack New, Assistant Executive Director of MCEC; Anne McGrew, Accountant for MCEC; and Brett DiBiase who were all connected with a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme. Auditors concluded, after an eight-month investigation, that the accused conspired to illegally obtain tens of millions in public funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program administered by DHS. The investigation remains active and several figures involved are cooperating with authorities.
7. New MDOC Commissioner Appointed
In May, Burl Cain was appointed as the new Commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. He brought with him a 40-year career with the Louisiana Department of Corrections where he served as Warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary for 20 years. Since then, Cain was worked to tighten security, promote recruiting and better training for employees, worked on criminal justice reforms and re-entry programs, and sought to expand inmate educational opportunities. Cain was also instrumental in helping the State Auditor’s office identify wide-ranging misspending within MDOC, exposing actions by previous agency leadership and an absence of proper spending safeguards which has led to significant losses for taxpayers, according to the audit.
6. Governor Wins Partial Veto Fight
In what some political pundits have called the most significant case in state government in decades, Governor Tate Reeves won a lawsuit before the Mississippi Supreme Court involving a partial veto of HB 1782. It was filed by Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Representative Jason White. Governor Reeves vetoed a portion of the bill that appropriated $2 million to the North Oak Regional Medical Center and $6 million to the MAGnet Community Health Center from CARES Act funds. This is the first time that the Mississippi Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a Governor’s veto in a court case of this kind.
5. Medical Marijuana
Mississippi voters passed medical marijuana Initiative 65 in November with 74% of the vote, surprising many in state and nationally. Yet now, its implementation is in limbo as Madison Mayor Mary Hawkins Butler’s challenge of the initiative is before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Amicus briefs are piling up in the case, including from the Mississippi Department of Health, the agency tasked with administering the medical marijuana program in the state per the constitutional amendment. Secretary of State Michael Watson has maintained that the process used to collect signatures and place the initiative on the ballot was similar to what has occurred in the past, with the former Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann relying on an Attorney General’s opinion by then AG Jim Hood.
4. Presidential Election
The Presidential Election has dominated the news throughout 2020. Here in Mississippi, President Donald Trump won and received the state’s 6 electoral votes. But questions of voter fraud in other states have been rampant, resulting in some Mississippi officials actively questioning the results in various states. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch sought to join the state of Texas in its challenge of the election, and the three Republican Congressmen all backed the effort. Yet, the U.S. Supreme Court did not hear the case and the Electoral College voted, making Joe Biden President-elect.
3. Hyde-Smith versus Espy 2.0
Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith faced off against Democrat Mike Espy for the second time in as many years in 2020. Espy seemingly had the political wind at his back. He ran a surprisingly competitive race in 2018 against an appointed U.S. Senator that candidly stumbled a bit down the home stretch. Espy tried to run more of a “Democrat lite” campaign in the technically non-partisan 2018 contest by saying he would “rise above party and partisan wrangling.” He vowed to return and avenge the 7 point loss. Espy threw his hat in the ring for Senate in 2020 and proceeded to raise and blow a record $10 million campaign funding haul sporting a more nationalized Democrat campaign openly aligned with Obama, Biden, Pelosi, Booker, Abrams, and the like. Hyde-Smith again handily defeated Espy, but this time by 10 points.
2. Changing the Mississippi State Flag
Mississippians went to the polls to vote in the 2020 General Election with a new design for the state flag of Mississippi as a key issue. The new design won with over 70 percent of the vote across the state. Controversy surrounding the previous state flag, which depicted Confederate battle symbols, has long plagued the state. Over the years, individuals, special interest groups and some politicians have all attempted to push for the removal of that flag and replace it with something that better represents all Mississippians. HB 1796 was presented in the Legislature in mid-June. By a vote of 91 to 23 in the House and 37 to 14 in the Senate, the bill was passed. A commission was formed that ultimately settled on the new design before it being put before voters.
COVID-19. Coronavirus. The Wuhan Virus. The China Virus. Whatever you call it, the virus has dominated the news and our lives throughout this year. It made national headlines beginning in January and by March actions were being taken to slow the spread. Numerous executive orders have been issued from the Governor and local mayors on everything from wearing masks to limiting business hours to defining “essential” and “non-essential” workers. The Legislature paused and restarted the 2020 session multiple times so as to attempt and control the spread of the virus in its midst, frustrating lawmakers, their families and lobbyists alike. Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state’s Chief Medical Officer with the Department of Health, has become a household name. Now, vaccines are being distributed to first responders and the most at risk populations, with plans to make it more publicly accessible in the New Year.
Thank you for reading and supporting Y’all Politics during 2020. We will look ahead to 2021, outlining the top issues on the horizon for Mississippi, on New Year’s Day.