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At Jackson State homecoming, Brandon Presley pledges to advocate for Mississippi HBCUs

Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, campaigns at the Jackson State homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (Taylor Vance/Mississippi Today)

Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, got thrown off script Saturday when a DJ, in the maze of tailgating tents at Jackson State University’s homecoming game, grabbed a microphone to cut him off and ask a question.

“Are you going to continue to support HBCUs?” the man asked Presley. “Not just the first year?”

Presley, who also campaigned at an Alcorn State University game last weekend, responded to cheers and applause: “I’ll be back at Alcorn and back here next year, I promise you that.”

The impromptu back-and-forth at one of the state’s largest football events of the year was a highlight of an hours-long campaign Saturday — just 24 days before Election Day. Presley, who faces Gov. Tate Reeves on Nov. 7, shook hundreds of hands and took dozens of selfies at the JSU game in an attempt to supercharge voter turnout for the upcoming general election.

The university is a pillar of the state’s capital city, where more than 80% of the residents are Black. If Presley wants a shot at becoming the first Democrat elected governor since 1999, mobilizing a significant portion of the metro area — and Black voters who make up the base of the Democratic Party — will be crucial.

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“Mississippi is 40% Black, and I think as a candidate for governor it’s important that you show up and not expect Black voters to vote for you, but you earn their vote,” Presley told reporters over the weekend.

One hurdle Presley, who has served the past 15 years as north Mississippi’s utility regulator, faces is he’s never appeared on a statewide ballot, and having low name ID in central Mississippi could prove problematic for his electoral chances.

State Sen. Sollie Norwood, a Democrat from Jackson and noted Jackson State alumnus, served as the primary liaison on Saturday between the throng of fans and the Democratic candidate because he believes there still could be capital city residents who don’t know enough about Presley.

“We had an overwhelming crowd of folks that wanted to see him,” Norwood told Mississippi Today. “And I haven’t met anyone today who was not impressed with him or not impressed with his message.”

Presley, a 46-year-old white man from northeast Mississippi who attended Mississippi State University, may be an unlikely figure to rub elbows with the university’s alumni at the homecoming game.

But some JSU fans who interacted with the Democratic nominee told Mississippi Today Presley’s personal story resonated with them. Presley has talked extensively this cycle about growing up with little money to a single mother, and some voters say they hope he’ll enact policies that benefit all Mississippians.

“He’s a small-town guy that grew up similar to how I did,” Stanley Johnson said. “I’ve done my homework on him, and I feel like he’ll keep his word.”

One of those promises to the fans was that if he were elected governor in three weeks, Presley would use his new position to advocate for more state dollars going toward Jackson State University and other Mississippi HBCUs.

Brandon Presley, the Democratic nominee for governor, campaigns at the Jackson State homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (Taylor Vance/Mississippi Today)

JSU’s football stadium sits across from the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the state’s only academic research hospital. Pointing to both institutions on Saturday, the Democrat said he wanted a capital city where the two organizations helped grow Jackson.

“Those are what could be two economic engines for the city of Jackson, and I believe the state has good reason to invest in both because both are publicly owned institutions,” Presley said. “That is a way we could bring economic development to Jackson, and it’s just the right thing to do.”

Presley’s campaign visit to the game also spurred people to share feelings that the university and other historically Black colleges are getting shortchanged by its current state leaders, who are white Republicans.

Jeff Payne, who took his picture with Presley, said he doesn’t remember many statewide candidates campaigning at JSU games in years past and said he hopes Presley’s visit is more than a one-time photo opp.

“I’m looking for change in Mississippi, and I’m looking for someone who cares about HBCUs in our state. And I think Brandon fits that,” Jeff Payne said.

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