Political Change Among the Magnolias?

women walking and carrying objects on their head

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 5, "The Smoke Ring." Find more from that issue here.

Very possibly, the answers to the two most important political questions of 1984 — who will win the presidency, and which party will control the Senate — will come from the South.



A little-noticed election for Mississippi’s Public Service Commission (PSC) this past November sheds some light on the likely answers to both these questions and at the same time provides a glimpse of the political changes some see taking place in Dixie.

By early 1983 it was clear that the Democratic nomination for the PSC would be won by Michael Raff, then director of the Mississippi Legal Services Coalition. Raff would not be the choice of central casting at a Hollywood studio for a role as a Southern politician. Born in Iowa and raised in Kansas City, Raff was a Catholic priest who became active in the civil rights struggle in Mississippi. He became head of the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, eventually left the priesthood, and later married.

A “Yankee,” a civil rights activist, and a Catholic — three strikes and you’re out. This was certainly the case not long ago. But Michael Raff represents a new breed of that old Southern political type, the populist. In his nearly five years with the Legal Services Coalition, Raff became a champion of consumers and the poor by taking legal action against unjust utility rate increases. Appealing to the poor and lower middle-class voters of all races, Raff easily won the Democratic primary.

The likelihood that Raff would be elected to the PSC, which is facing requests for massive rate increases from the telephone company in the wake of the AT&T break-up, and from Mississippi Power & Light to pay for its ill-conceived Grand Gulf nuclear plant, was not at all pleasant to utility interests or their Republican allies. If they were to defeat Raff, they needed a candidate with great name recognition. Virtually the only available Republican who met the requirement was Jackson city commissioner Nielsen Cochran, Senator Thad Cochran’s younger brother. Even though the PSC would seem to be a dead-end position for a Republican who must anger either voters by supporting rate increases, or his Republican financial backers by opposing them, Cochran was persuaded to run.

Cochran had no expertise in utility regulation; his sole experience in the field was to vote, as a member of the Jackson City Council, to increase water rates in the city by 37 percent and sewer rates by 95 percent. His background was more in the area of baseball, which he had played professionally. Still, Cochran had ridden his brother’s name into political office twice in Jackson, and Republicans had reason to hope he could do it again.

In contrast, many voters were aware of Raffs prominent role in successfully filing suit against utility rate increases on behalf of consumers. In the summer of 1983 electric customers in Mississippi received a $75 million rebate as a result of one of Raffs suits. If Cochran was going to win, his strategists believed, he would need to find some way to cloud the issues and mislead both poor whites and blacks.

Cochran’s campaign was rough and dirty. For several weeks before the election, crude handbills mysteriously appeared on the windshields of cars parked near white churches on Sunday mornings. They listed a series of “radical” things that Raff had allegedly done, such as: “He supported our Freedom Riders in the desegregation of downtown Jackson,” and “He fought against tax credits for the racist white academies.” At the bottom of the sheet were the words: “Some will call him Communist Radical, or ultra-liberal, but we can call him Friend. Vote Raff for Public Service Com. Central District. Paid for by the Friends of the United Workers of the World.” No such organization exists.

Whispering campaigns were also launched, charging that Raffs wife was a nun whom he had “had to marry.” (In fact, she was a Baptist, and their first child was born two years after their marriage.) Other rumors spread in areas where voters were likely to be swayed: Mrs. Raff was black, Raff was a homosexual and a communist, one of his campaign aides was a “communist Jew from New York,” or worse still a “liberal communist Jew from New York.”

These lies took their toll. Less than a week before the election, the Neshoba County Democrat, a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, printed an editorial saying, “During the past week it has come to our attention that the Democratic nominee, Michael Raff, is most definitely not the candidate to vote for in the race for public service commissioner. . . . Because of information that has come to us in the past week about Michael Raff, we would be remiss if we didn’t ask people not to vote for Raff, and we’re asking that with every ounce of persuasion that we possess.” The editorial went on to say, “But we’re in the difficult position of not being able to state the reasons at this time.” The editor later told Raff that he was misled, but because another edition of the paper would not come out until after election day, the damage could not be undone.

No link between Nielsen Cochran and these libelous stories has been proven, but two of the principal refrains of Cochran’s campaign were that people should “look into Raffs background,” and that Raff was “not one of us.”

As the race progressed, Cochran’s backers began to see that dirty tactics aimed at undercutting Raffs support among rural whites were not going to be enough to bring Cochran victory. Something had to be done to cut into Raffs overwhelming black support. On the morning of the election, black students — who had been hired by people posing as Democratic Party workers — appeared in front of polling places in black precincts across the district. They handed voters a gold sheet bearing the legend, “The Official Democratic Sample Ballot.” On it were listed correctly all the Democratic candidates — except in the Public Service Commission race, where Neilsen Cochran’s name appeared in place of Michael Raffs.

Some 25,000 of the phony ballots were distributed. They were traced back to a hotel room in Jackson which had been vacated; the people responsible for the deed were gone. One of the people seen distributing the bogus ballots was identified as a Cochran aide at city hall.


The election itself was one of the closest in Mississippi’s history. The outcome remained uncertain for more than two weeks after the balloting. In the end, Cochran was declared the winner by 563 votes out of the more than 230,000 cast. Many observers believe that the false ballots had a decisive impact on the results. For example, in the two predominantly black precincts in Madison County — where the phony ballots were widely distributed — the difference between the total number of votes cast for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain and those cast for Raff was 49 percent in one precinct and 55 percent in another. A normal “drop-off’ of votes cast for the offices at the top of the ticket and the lesser offices located toward the bottom is in the range of 20 to 30 percent. In these same two black precincts, Cochran gained 75 percent and 90 percent respectively over the total number of votes cast for the Republican nominee for governor, Leon Bramlett. This indicates that a substantial number of voters were confused enough by the sample ballots to cross party lines and vote for Cochran.

In Madison County as a whole the drop-off in votes between Allain and Raff was 31 percent while Cochran received 8 percent fewer votes than did Bramlett. If those rates held in the black precincts where the misleading ballots were handed out, Raff would have received 358 additional votes, and Cochran 78 fewer: a net shift of436 in Raffs favor, nearly erasing the total statewide difference between the two in just two precincts. Similar results were recorded in dozens of other black precincts where the phony ballots were distributed.


The significance of this election, however, goes beyond the gutter politics that Nielsen Cochran’s backers used to steal victory. His brother’s campaign tactics are likely to have a negative effect on Senator Thad Cochran’s bid for reelection. And the elder Cochran’s careful attempts to separate himself from the more conservative elements of the state Republican Party may be undone (see article on page 20).

Beyond the statewide effects of the PSC race is the larger question of the direction of Southern politics. The Raff- Cochran race is one of the many blades of grass in the Southern political breeze suggesting that the South may no longer be as conservative as conventional wisdom says.

The years following the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have seen Southern politics fundamentally altered. The old populist dream of bringing the poor together across racial lines may finally come to fruition. In recent years biracial Democratic parties have been built in most states of the old Confederacy — and they have been winning their share of elections.

This coalition was particularly striking in the 1983 Mississippi PSC race. Raffs two strongest groups of supporters were blacks and poor rural whites. He won handily in the rural, heavily white counties of east-central Mississippi, traditionally Wallace country, as well as in the overwhelmingly black counties of the Delta region. Most notably, Raff won Neshoba County by a comfortable margin. Twenty years ago, Neshoba became famous as the place where civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwemer, and Andrew Goodman were murdered. Raff took the county despite the misleading innuendos of the county’s only newspaper and the strong opposition of retiring PSC member Norman Johnson of Philadelphia (the county seat). When Neshoba whites vote for a civil rights activist accused of being a communist, who also happens to be a Yankee and a Catholic, a genuinely “new” South seems to be emerging.

Biracial coalitions have managed to elect progressive white candidates against heavily financed conservative Republicans. In the summer of 1981, a special election was held to fill Mississippi’s fourth Congressional district seat, which had been vacated by Republican Jon Hinson. Wayne Dowdy, then the little-known mayor of McComb, spoke out strongly for renewal of the Voting Rights Act and won a startling upset victory. Dowdy repeated the win by a much wider margin in 1982.

The biracial Democratic coalition was also instrumental in helping Bill Allain win the governorship in 1983, despite one of the dirtiest campaigns in the annals of American politics. As most readers are aware — since this is the sort of Mississippi story the media enjoy featuring — three prominent, wealthy, right-wing Republicans financed a series of well-publicized charges that Allain had engaged in homosexual acts with several black male transvestite prostitutes. One of the men behind these charges was Billy Mounger, the Jackson oil man who has bankrolled the campaigns of several right-wing Republican candidates. Thanks in large part to overwhelming black support, Allain won a relatively easy victory. (Some of the transvestites who made the chaises against Allain have since said they were paid to lie.)

But there are limits to how far the biracial coalition in the Mississippi Democratic Party will go. While sufficient numbers of white Democrats are willing to join with blacks to elect progressive whites, it remains to be proved that whites will do the same for black candidates. One test of this will be Robert Clark’s second attempt in November to be elected Mississippi’s first black Congressman in more than a century.

The 1983 Public Service Commission race is over, but not forgotten. Although the seat was stolen from him, Michael Raff had no suitable remedy available under state election law. One result is that there will be a big push for election law reform in the next session of the legislature. When it became clear that Cochran would be declared the winner, Governor Allain appointed Raff as director of the Governor’s Office of Human Development, where he now oversees state programs on aging, children, the handicapped, energy, community services, and volunteers. As a result of the controversy surrounding the disputed election, Raff has become a household word in Mississippi, and his political future looks bright.

Just what directions that future will take remains uncertain at this time. Raff says that he is likely to seek elective office in the next statewide elections in 1987, but he has not yet determined for which office he will run.

The populist dream of bringing the poor together across racial lines may finally come to fruition. Raffs two strongest groups of supporters were blacks and poor rural whites.