Twenty-four years ago, a talented, young duo from Atlanta was booed as they received a Source Award for “Best New Rap Group.” A then-20-year-old André Benjamin overcame his emotions to make a bold declaration that forever changed hip-hop: “The South got something to say.”
That talented group was Outkast. And they indeed said a lot by selling 25 million records—and more importantly, opening the door for a new generation of artists to create music reflecting their distinct southern lifestyle and identity, in contrast to the New York and Los Angeles-based acts that dominated mainstream hip-hop at the time.
Today, Democrats are faced with a similar dynamic.
Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum—both distinctly and unapologetically Southern—have emerged as leading voices of the Party. Some of the fastest-growing cities and economies are in the South, as well as some of the largest pockets of Democratic voters—two key data points for Democratic primaries. Yet, Southern cities still must fight for the attention of our party and our presidential candidates.
Think about it: Ever since South Carolina became the First in the South primary, the state has successfully picked the Democratic nominee each time. Most of the Democratic delegates will be from the Super Tuesday—and Super-Tuesday adjacent—Southern states. The region is also home to key 2020 battleground states like Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Texas.
Indeed, the South has something to say. And this is important because our cities depend on working relationships with Washington, D.C. We regularly find ourselves at odds with state legislatures that skew heavily towards rural and suburban interests, yet we are still expected to combat issues that every major city grapples with—all with constrained tax bases and limited resources. That’s why having a partner in Washington is so important for our cities.
Elections are about solving problems, but many of the issues that our communities grapple with every day aren’t getting the attention that they deserve from our candidates. That is why Southern mayors must take a more active role in shaping the 2020 Democratic primary by giving our candidates a roadmap for how they engage with our communities.
Accordingly, we created our own Southern agenda that articulates what we believe matters to our voters, and we urge presidential hopefuls to make clear where they stand on these issues.
We need to know what kinds of investments will be made in the federal housing programs that will allow us to build more affordable homes for our families.
We need to see a food policy that helps finance more healthy food in our communities and provides school-based meals after school and in the summer for our children so that they don’t go hungry.
We need to see a comprehensive criminal justice agenda that provides the resources we need to combat the causes of crime while also helping to prevent gun violence on our streets.
We need to see a plan for creating a dignity economy that invests in our students, workers, and seniors.
We need to see a policy agenda that speaks to the plight of Southern voters—particularly African-American voters.
We have seen disparate proposals from candidates, but we haven’t seen clear themes that connect the dots for Southern voters on the issues that matter to them. Access to affordable healthcare is vital, but if we aren’t producing more culturally competent healthcare professionals, health disparities will remain largely intact. We need common-sense gun control measures but plans that wait on Congress to act are cold comfort for families that are losing loved ones now. We’re mayors, and we understand executive action. We can’t wait for Congress; we need plans for executive action on guns, domestic terrorism, and school safety—fateful issues that keep our families up at night.
The era of endorsing candidates for the sake of endorsing without showing a clear agenda for the communities we serve is over.
Our voters expect to be priorities just like everyone else, and they know that the Democratic nomination runs through our cities and our states.
The candidate that comprehends what the South has to say will be our next nominee.
Steve Benjamin was elected 36th mayor of Columbia, S.C., in 2010. LaToya Cantrell was elected 62nd mayor of New Orleans in 2018. Chokwe Antar Lumumba was elected 53rd mayor of Jackson, Miss., in 2017. Randall Woodfin was elected 34th mayor of Birmingham, Ala., in 2017.