The state’s progressive activists believe so. They believe it is time for the Legislature’s to reflect the state’s diversity in terms of age, gender, and race. One in three state legislators is white, 55-year-old men. They also have focused on conservative legislative issues, which are not always in line with the rest of state, especially young people. The Legislature’s recent attempts to repeal abortion access is in sharp contrast to the defeat of the Personhood Initiative in 2011. According to the Millsaps College/Chism Strategy State of the State Survey 2019, 43 percent of Mississippi voters believe that women should make their own decisions regarding abortion. A poll by Chism Strategies in September 2017 found that only 49 percent of Mississippi voters support the current state flag. Governor Phil Bryant signed a bill to change the current flag’s status quo. Phil Bryant signed a bill allowing specialty plates to be designed. It featured a newly designed state flag by artist Laurin Steenis. Young people are also concerned about education funding. Many decry the $1,500 increase in teacher salaries approved during the 2019 legislative sessions. Many are calling on the Legislature to fully finance the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. This has happened only twice since 1997, when it was founded. Mississippi Today spoke with four young Democrats who are challenging long-standing incumbents to discuss their campaigns and what the shift means for the future state of politics. Colton Thornton (Senate District 22) When Colton Thornton graduated in spring 2017 from Mississippi State, he wasn’t sure what he wanted out of his life. But he knew that he wanted Mississippi to remain. Thornton’s closest friends all left Mississippi to seek better economic opportunities, or escape persecution because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Thornton began to see brain drain the greatest problem facing the state. Thornton stated that while there may be people in government who acknowledge the problem, I doubt they fully understand its seriousness. Thornton was inspired by the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s march during the Nissan unionization campaign and felt empowered so he started advocacy work that saw him stand shoulder to shoulder during the last legislative session. He realized that there was a disconnect between young people’s representatives and them when he was lobbying for the ACLU to pass two voting bills as well as an equal protection bill. Thornton stated that it was clear that many of the representatives did not care about issues that affected young people. The 26-year old saw an opportunity when Eugene Buck Clarke (15-year incumbent) decided to run as state treasurer. The federal court ruled in favor African American plaintiffs, who had filed a lawsuit claiming that the district was gerrymandered to make Electing an African American difficult. It ordered the district to be redrawn. Thornton decided to run for the seat. Thornton stated that he still struggles to wake up in the mornings and understand what he is doing. Thornton admits that Bernie Sanders is not a popular name in Mississippi. However, he believes there is an important distinction when someone is identifying as a progressive in Mississippi. “Obviously, being progressive in Mississippi does not mean being progressive in New York or California. Thornton stated that progressive for him in Mississippi is to advocate for things that have been neglected far too long. Thornton said these issues include Medicaid expansion and automatic voter registration. He also stated that he is taking steps to prevent the same racial gerrymandering from happening again. “I see this as an opportunity to us to say, let’s go further. Thornton suggested that we should push for reforms, such as nonpartisan committees drawing our district lines. Thornton’s success is dependent on personal interactions with people, not name recognition or running in a crowded primary that featured six candidates. “Seeing a sign by the side of the road that does nothing is not a sign worth seeing. Thornton stated that a Facebook advertisement doesn’t accomplish anything. Thornton says that when he knocks on the door of someone, the last thing they expect is to hear that someone so young is running as a state senator. These interactions can bring up many challenges and questions about his knowledge on these issues. Thornton’s answers were largely based on what he heard from Mississippians while on the campaign trail. Education has been a key motivator for potential cross-party votes. Thornton stated that he spoke with residents of Yazoo County School district and that most people would agree. “Thornton also said that voters in Sunflower County were happy to see a candidate making an effort to listen to them. Thornton hopes that his efforts in the district will be rewarded, even though it is slow. “Campaigning in the Delta means that you have to drive two hours in the middle nowhere to meet 10 people in a room and shake hands. Thornton stated that this is the way it works. Marcus Williams, Senate District 26, Marcus Williams’ age is often brought up on the campaign trail. He recalls a woman calling him one day and saying, “Well honey, you look twelve!” This prompted him to start a conversation about the legislative process, his desire to become a state senator, and how he could make it more effective. It was a great lesson in how looks can deceive. People are shocked to find out how young Martin Luther King was at the time he led the Montgomery bus boycott. These were people in their 20s leading a movement. They transformed America’s future. Williams stated that we can achieve this now, but it is important to be careful about what we do and deliberate about it. Williams’s run for the state Senate in District 26 is all about the potential of young Mississippians to transform the political landscape. Williams was born in District 26 and his parents still reside there. Williams, like many Mississippi millennials, says that he’s seen his friends leave Mississippi in recent years due to a lack of opportunities for work or stagnation in wages. We have new challenges and new opportunities. Williams stated that he wanted to become a new leader and represent a whole generation of people who are eager to help shape the policy that will shape Mississippi over the next 40 to 50 years. Williams is not a candidate for public office but has extensive experience within the Mississippi Democratic Party. For two years, he was President of Young Democrats Mississippi. He also served on both the Hinds County Democratic Executive Committee and the state Democratic Executive Committee. Williams speaks out about Sen. John Horhn as his primary opponent. He has held the District 26 Senate seat since 1995. Williams has a lot of respect for Horhn but also believes that the district needs to be led by new leaders. “I feel like there should be a change after 26 years of service. John served his time. Williams stated that it was now time for someone else, to take over the leadership of this district. Williams’ platform, like many other candidates for state office this election year, focuses on education. Williams’ policy platform includes increasing teacher salaries to the southeastern average and free kindergarten, universal preschool, and free community college throughout the state. Williams stated, “I can see it when i’m knocking at doors and when chatting to people that they’re excited about what we can do, but they are frustrated with where they are now.” Shanda Yantes, House District 64. Shanda Yates (38 years old) will face incumbent Republican Rep. Bill Denny to fill the District 64 House seat. Yates is running for office because of the gender gap in the state Legislature. Only 15 out of the 119 House members currently are women. “I have actually heard people tell me that the Legislature is not a place that women will enjoy being. Yates stated that this has only empowered her and motivated her to continue doing what she is doing. Yates isn’t making Yates’ youth the focus of her campaign. “Age doesn’t really matter to me, no matter if they are in their twenties or 45 or whatever. Yates stated that Yates was excited to see non-career politicians stepping up because they want to see improvements in their communities or the state. Yates has been vocal about this issue and potential constituents have spoken to her about it on the campaign trail. They feel that their representative is not available. Yates has been knocking on doors to let people know that she will be there if elected. Yates stated that she has only spoken to a handful of people who know the name of their current representative. Yates claims that people are often surprised to see Yates walking through their neighborhood. Yates stated, “When people find out I am that candidate, and not just a volunteer, or whatever, passing literature out, they are very excited and openly want to listen and talk to me.” Yates claims she refused to run when she was asked by current legislators. She declined to name them but decided to reconsider because she believes she can better serve the district than Denny who has held the District 64 seat since 1981. “He has held that seat since I was seven years old. Yates stated that Northeast Jackson is very different from it was thirty years ago. Yates said she noticed a trend in her knocking on doors and shaking hands that seemed to unify Democrats and Republicans: anger over the state’s infrastructure crisis. “People recognize that our infrastructure is in disarray and should have been addressed long ago. The current representative has had over 30 years to address this problem. Yates stated that it has only gotten worse. Yates, like other candidates heading into November’s election, has education in her thoughts. Yates views education reform from a top-down perspective. Yates believes that too much funding goes to administrative costs and non-essential staff. She thinks more should go directly to teachers and be used at the classroom level. After that reallocation, the Legislature should make up any remaining funds to fully fund Mississippi Adequate Education Formula. “Paying our teachers should not be a political issue. Educating our children shouldn’t.” Yates stated that we should all agree that education is important for children, regardless of whether they are Republican, Democrat or independent. Kathryn York (Senate District 8) Kathryn York was a University of Georgia prelaw major when she discovered that her public education had left gaps. She also noticed that she was falling behind in certain subjects and struggling in others. She observed people who could sail through, and those who struggled a lot more than she was. This inequity in education hit her hard. “I knew that policy wasn’t going to work for me to make changes because I didn’t understand the reality of education on the ground. York stated that she needed to understand the realities of education in order to be able to advocate for change. York graduated from Teach For America and returned to Mississippi after graduation. York was then sent to M.S. She was sent to M.S. Palmer High School, where she built a choral music curriculum from scratch. She claims that she taught the first six months in a janitor’s closet. “I went from being cognitively able to understand the problem of educational inequity to actually understanding it in my own life, and I saw what my children were up against every single day. It was not the same struggle I faced growing up. York stated that it was amazing to see how these kids overcome every day despite the system around them. York has spoken to many teachers in her district about other problems with the state’s education system. One math teacher quit after a decade of teaching because watching her students struggle was too difficult. “This to me is the mark of a system that is horribly wrong.” York stated that there are better ways to assess teacher and student performance. She believes that the state should invest in them and that we can lead the charge for the country. “There are many other ways that we can evaluate teacher and student performance. York has also found education more important since Emma, her oldest child, began kindergarten last fall. York and York walked in to Davidson Elementary on York’s first day. York realized that Davidson wasn’t facing the same problems as M.S. Palmer faced the same challenges as M.S., but she was not enjoying the privileges and advantages that Oxford school was. This injustice made Palmer angry. “In that moment, I realized what I wanted to do next was what I had hoped for in college. To have more direct influence on policies and decisions that impact our children’s lives every day. York stated that he would accept the seat if it became available. York views being a young candidate for the first time as more an opportunity than a challenge. York, 38, believes that combining youthful energy with the knowledge and experience gained in the Legislature could lead to a bright future. “We have nine women senators currently in our state, from both the left and right. It’s high time that this voice is heard more. York stated that this is what excites her about the opportunity. York said that tax incentives for large corporations and businesses are not a policy option to attract new industry. York points out that between 20 and 35 percent of the families in her area live in poverty. York stated that giving money to big industries doesn’t make any sense. York says she wants to attract new industries by “using what is available to us to build what we need.” York also wants the state’s community college to partner with incoming industries so that they have ready workers when they graduate. York wants the state’s tax revenue from the lottery to be used to fund that education, in addition the $81 million originally allocated for infrastructure. It’s not too expensive. There is funding available. It will also graduate students who have no student loans and a guaranteed source of income. York stated that if we look at changing our economy, it will change the future of our state.