Reviving Mississippi's Democrats
Thirty-one-year-old Keelan Sanders has been a member of Mississippi's Democratic Party for six years. Last year, Sanders, a Mississippi native, became the party's executive director and only staffer. Earlier this year, Howard Dean promised an overflow crowd in Jackson, Mississippi that he would not concede the South. As part of Dean's 50-State Strategy, he plans to hire staffers in Democratic offices that traditionally run on shoestring budgets with few employees. Sanders has already welcomed one new staffer and is waiting for two more to join his team. I recently spoke with Sanders in his office at the Democratic headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi.
What are some of the major changes you've seen over the years since you first became involved in politics?
We've made many changes with new elected officials for the first time in different places across the state. People of color are taking a more active role. We're seeing the Democratic party as a whole come together and begin working along party lines as opposed to racial lines. There are a lot of positive things taking place in the state.
What was the biggest challenge for you during the Presidential election?
The largest challenge was trying to get the Democratic message out and overcome the smokescreens that the Republicans put up to divert us from what actually matters. It's clear to this day that they were able to accomplish that and take the eye off the prize. The Republicans have used many different ploys in the past, but this past one was the top of all ploys to use to try to sway the people not to vote their conscience, but to vote for certain issues that were irrelevant.
Here in the state of Mississippi, gay marriage was clearly defined, but we still had an amendment on the ballot. It wouldn't have been recognized here in the state. It shouldn't have played a role in whom I wanted to vote for in office. Because of my faith in god, I know that he will take care of anything that needs to be corrected. Therefore, I don't need the lawmakers to enact a law just to say that we have to act a certain way.
Whenever I meet religious blacks, they say they're opposed to gay marriage and abortion, but those issues have no impact on the way they vote.
I feel that the government should not dictate to a woman what she can and cannot do with her body. That's a choice that she and god can make. Whatever the consequences are, that's what she has to live with and the government should not try to implement their views on what she can and cannot do. As for the marriage amendment, I feel that we shouldn't use it as a rallying cry to get people to come out to vote or not to vote. It's clear that there are a number of Christians in the party that feel the same way, but it shouldn't be a political issue because that's the privacy of a person in their own home. What they choose to do behind the doors of their houses is their business.
How do you get that into the dialogue? When I interview white Christians, abortion and gay marriage are the first two issues they raise. And many times, they say they voted for Bush because of his opposition to those two issues.
That was part of the smokescreens they put up. They talk about the moral values. Well, is it not morally correct to make sure that the children have the best affordable education and the best healthcare? The Republicans have been neglecting our children. Those are two issues they're using to drive a wedge between American voters.
The media is also focused on those issues. How do you change the dialogue and focus more on education and healthcare?
Unfortunately in the past, we've let the Republican party and the news media define the Democratic party and what it stands for. We're getting to a point now where we can redefine the party so to speak or define what the party stands for. Unfortunately, Mississippi has fallen way below other states with meeting our expected educational goals. We have a president who says No Child Left Behind is helping people, when in fact it's doing quite the opposite. It's leaving children behind. How can you impose guidelines children have to meet if they don't have the necessary resources needed to reach them? We have a serious shortfall of money coming in from the federal level. Our current governor isn't trying to fully fund education on the state level. The children are suffering from that. There's a lot of work we need to do. I feel that we're making some strides. Within the next year or two, you'll see some major strides taking place.
How have your strategies changed over the years? And how do you feel about the fact that Mississippi is ignored during national elections?
The strategy has not really changed. It's just that what's been said all along is finally hitting home. We need to fight in each and every precinct in each and every state as opposed to just writing off a state. I've said for many years, if you look at the number of elected officials in the state, Mississippi, per capita, has one of the highest rates of Democratic elected officials in the state in the union.
What message would you send to Democrats in progressive areas? Do you feel like you're part of the conversation about where to go from here?
The message is already there. We support a good and strong public educational system. If you have parents or grandparents that are elderly, you'll want good healthcare. Our veterans are suffering. They're not receiving the healthcare they need. What type of message is that sending? The message is there. It's clear. It's just a matter of people realizing that the Republicans mean you no good. It's the Democrats that are going to bring us back to where we need to be.
How do you feel now that Howard Dean has said he's going to bring some staffers to Mississippi? He spoke in Mississippi and is talking about Mississippi at the national level.
I feel very good about that. Governor Dean's commitment to the state is really coming true. We're in the process of hiring some staff now. Because of his commitment, we'll be able to increase our staff by 300 percent, so to speak. (laughs) It is definitely helping the state party with much needed resources so we can begin organizing and getting the message out.
Are you the only staffer here?
How do you feel about the new hires?
I'm delighted. (laughs)
What are you able to do on your own?
It depends on what needs to be done. Let's just say that anything that needs to be done happens. I have singlehandedly conducted the state party elections so to speak with the Democratic primary. We have 82 counties in the state and I take care of all of them. I maintain the database. I maintain our Web site. I help to promote and maintain our yellow dog Democrats who are the backbone of the party and the main donors of the party. I've been described at one point as being the Superman of the Democratic Party for Mississippi. (laughs)
Mississippi's only abortion provider often makes headlines. How do you deal with the strong anti-choice community here? Do you have time to even deal with it?
Honestly, you're pitting one group against the other and everybody has strong views. The Republicans and pro-lifers want to have all the rights for the fetus when it's in the womb, but when it comes out, there's nothing in place to make sure the child will grow up and have a productive life. It's a double standard. They can't say you have to have the child and not deal with the issues once it's here. Those issues aren't being addressed by the Republican party. They do not care about the child. If they do, they don't show it. We feel that women should have the right to choose. The government should not dictate what a woman should do with her body. I'm a Christian. I don't know if you're a Christian, but I can't put my beliefs on you and force you to adapt to the way I feel.
Is a woman's right to choose on the state party's platform?
When was it added?
Last year. Every four years we hold our state convention where we adopt a platform. That was included within our state platform.
Who took the lead in adding it?
A motion was made on the state floor from a delegate. We had a cross-group of people: white, black, Native American and religious who all played a role in shaping that platform.
Was there a lot of debate about adding a woman's right to choose to the platform?
There was a lot of debate on every issue. (laughs)
What do you think is going to happen with a woman's right to choose in Mississippi? The group Pro-Life Mississippi says, we don't need Roe v. Wade to be overturned because we're going to outlaw abortion in this state.
I don't think that will happen. I don't see any potential legislation that will address that issue. Who knows what will happen in the near future, but we have a lot more important things to deal with.
What message would you send to the national Democrats as they try to figure out strategies for 2006 and 2008? How do you get Democrats to get excited about being Democrats?
Howard Dean has stood up and defined the party. He's not letting the Republicans define it for him, so he's on the right track. There's nothing I can do but just be a cheerleader and say, go Dean, go! (laughs)
You said earlier that church is a big part of your life. Do you think politics belongs in the church?
There's always a belief that there should be a separation between church and state. As an individual, because of my belief in god and my belief in faith, there can't be a separation between me and god. He will rule and guide me in all my decisions. That said, I don't feel that people should use religion as a means to convert a person. It can be used to pollute a person's mind. The Ku Klux Klan have used the Bible to justify racism. People will use certain issues to get their point across, be it right or wrong.
Have you seen anything that surprised you when it comes to mixing politics with religion?
The strangest thing that caught me off guard was prior to the Presidential election, I was sitting in my church and my pastor said he wanted to play a CD for the congregation. The CD that he played was riddled with undertones of voting Republican, although it didn't come out and say it. It was quite obvious to my grandmother who was sitting beside me in church. We were really surprised and shocked. My pastor happened to be my uncle. (laughs) He's been around politics all of his life as well. It did surprise me to see the levels they would go to sway a person's mind. It's not in the best interest of the people to use certain issues just to get them to vote for their candidate.
Did that tape resonate with people in the church?
I didn't talk to individuals about it because I don't play politics at church.
How should Democrats address religion? A lot of progressives are uncomfortable with religion.
I have a good friend that's a strong Democratic activist who happens to be a minister. In our last primary, a number of ministers came out and endorsed one of the Democratic candidates, so yes, religions does play a role, but they do understand what role it should play. Jesus Christ went around healing people, helping people and saving people. That's what Democrats do. The Republicans have yet to show that they care for the people. Their whole agenda has been about money.
Tell me about the churches here. I've found some that do a lot of outreach to poor communities and others that spend a lot of money on new buildings.
Yes. We have quite a few churches that are very active politically and assist with voter registration drives. At times they will invite candidates in to address the congregation. Those are the ones that want to make sure voices are heard without sending a political message that says, go out and vote because you hate the other person. They're preaching to love and get out there and make it better for the people.
What are your plans over the next couple of years and what are your hopes for this state? Do you think it'll ever turn Democratic again?
Yes. Jimmy Carter was the last Democratic candidate to carry this state. I feel Mississippi will go blue in a surprising fashion. We will also elect two new Democratic Congressmen to replace the Republican Congressmen. It can be done.