By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Democratic congressional challenger Brad Morris darkens when discussing what he calls the complete failure of the current Congress and the catastrophic consequences of a Republican agenda.
Spurred by its resentment of the president, Morris said, the Republican-held House instigated a two-year-old stalemate that has sacrificed the country in order to punish Democrats.
And if they gain control of the White House or Senate, he said, the GOP will hobble the core columns upon which the middle-class rests: education, health care and Social Security.
“I understand that the Democratic brand has issues and is disconnected with folks,” Morris said Thursday while campaigning in Tupelo. “But the Republican brand has issues, too, and if people will look at it with their eyes wide open, they’ll see it goes against everything necessary to help communities like ours grow.”
Morris, 37, wants to unseat Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee in the Nov. 6 general election. This is the candidate’s first run for Congress, but it’s not his first time on the campaign trail. He was campaign manager and chief of staff to Nunnelee’s predecessor, U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., who served from 2008-2010.
During Childers’ two years in office, Morris shadowed his boss through the House of Representatives, building a list of contacts and learning the ways of Washington.
If elected, Morris says he’s ready to jump in and work without much of a learning curve.
Immersed in politics
Morris got his first taste of politics at a young age. He was in eighth grade at Tupelo’s Lawhon Junior High School when he saw firsthand how regular people can effect change in government.
At the urging of his civics teacher, Morris and his classmates wrote to then-U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten asking for a tree to be planted on the Capitol grounds in honor of U.S. Sen. John Stennis, who was retiring.
Whitten agreed, and Morris was among a small contingency sent to Washington for the occasion. As student council president, the candidate got to speak at the ceremony.
The experience “really opened my eyes,” Morris said, “and sparked an interest in me for the government and for public service.”
Morris continued serving on student council in middle school and at Itawamba Agricultural High School. Upon graduating, he returned to D.C. as a student at George Washington University where he earned an undergraduate degree in political science.
When he came home to Mississippi, he started a bi-weekly political newsletter named MS POL that the Mississippi Business Journal in 1998 called “must-read material for anyone involved or interested in politics, policy and government.”
Morris traveled the state, building up a network of political contacts who could feed him breaking information for his bipartisan newsletter. At the same time, he earned a masters of accountancy and a law degree from the University of Mississippi.
Then, at age 27, he entered the District 5 state Senate race for the seat previously held by Democrat John White of Baldwyn. But he dropped out after then -Gov. Musgrove announced the race would use the old district lines, which excluded his residence in Dorsey.
Morris also ran the 2007 secretary of state campaign for Democratic candidate John Windsor, who lost in the primary.
The next year, he led Childers’ successful bid for the U.S. House and eventually became his chief of staff.
Difference in views
Because most of his political career occurred behind the scenes, Morris knows all the Democratic players but lacks the widespread name recognition that could earn him 1st District votes.
Well-funded candidates can combat that problem by inundating the air waves with commercials. But Morris has raised just $100,000 versus Nunnelee’s $1.8 million, according to the candidates’ most recent campaign finance reports, filed in July. That’s enough for a few TV spots but not a massive ad campaign.
“The ability to raise money usually comes with an effective party organization, and, say what you will, but the Democrats are in disarray in Mississippi right now,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government. “He’s at disadvantage there, but there are still a number of old-time Democrats in the eastern half of the district.”
Money helps, but it’s not everything, said Mississippi Democratic Party Executive Director Rickey Cole, who thinks Morris stands a good chance of winning based on his political experience and a message that resonates with the middle class.
“There is no state in the Union than has any greater need for good congressional representation than Mississippi to deliver federal dollars for job training, for economic development, to help projects like the Toyota branch in Blue Springs, to help small businesses and small farmers,” Cole said. “We need a congressman in the 1st Congressional District who will work to create jobs rather than simply follow the Republican leadership.”
Mississippi gets $2.47 in federal funding for every tax dollar paid – a higher percentage than nearly every other state in the nation, according to the publication Mother Jones, which cited IRS data.
“We’d be a third-world country if it weren’t for federal investment,” Cole said.
He went on to criticize Nunnelee and the GOP for trying to reduce national spending on the very programs helping so many Mississippians: food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, tuition assistance and workforce training. These are the areas Morris will fight to protect, he said.
Nunnelee argued that Mississippi can – and should – stand on its own without government handouts.
“I don’t think the measure of a successful government should be how many people are living on government assistance,” the incumbent said. “I think a successful government should be measured by the opportunities it offers its people.”
Republican insiders, including Nunnelee, say Morris seems like a nice guy who worked hard to get where he’s at. But they disagree with his policies and with his party. Democrats just have it wrong, they say.
Among the issues that irk the GOP are the Democrats’ tolerance of same-sex marriage, support of the constitutional right to abortion and their backing of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – commonly called Obamacare.
“They virtually removed God from their party platform,” said Lee County Tea Party Chairman Grant Sowell, who said Nunnelee better represents the 1st District on social issues.
Health care woes
Morris was born in the Delta to a teenage mother and was raised most of his life in Dorsey by his maternal grandparents – L.B. Morris, a Baptist preacher and pallet factory worker; and Opal Josephine Morris, a seamstress.
The family lived in a modest, one-story brick home. They never had a lot of money, but never suffered financially, either. At least not until his grandfather’s heart attack.
That was the first time Morris saw his grandfather as vulnerable and the first time he saw his family worry about paying medical bills. After that, he said, health care and its cost became a major issue in the Morris household.
It would stay that way until his grandparents became old enough to qualify for Social Security and Medicare. Morris called those programs a lifeline for his family and for the millions retirees lacking the wealth necessary to afford health care.
“That experience colored who I am,” Morris said. “I know people in north Mississippi are jaded about health care reform, and it’s unfortunate. I’ve read the bill, and there are a lot of good things in it for the people here. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.”
Morris also dismissed the idea that government assistance promotes dependence. Without the federal programs available, he said, he wouldn’t have benefited from a solid education in north Mississippi and he wouldn’t have been able to afford college.
Now a practicing attorney in Oxford, Morris said he wants to fight to keep in place the same safety nets that assured him a bright future.
“Brad supports keeping programs in effect that affect the middle class,” said Chickasaw Democratic Party Chairman Gene Barton. “I’ve been a practicing attorney for 35 years and see people all the time that need help getting on workman’s comp, getting on Medicare.
The Republicans want to balance the budget with entitlements, but you need to look at what that means: cutting back on Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, all of these programs that help Mississippi.”
Morris recently married to Sharon. The couple currently have no children.