WASHINGTON — Jennifer Riley Collins, a Democrat running for attorney general in Mississippi, has the chance to make history this week as Mississippi’s first black woman elected to statewide office.
But Riley Collins has shied away from an emphasis on the history-making prospects of her candidacy, choosing instead to focus more on the unifying role she wants to play in bringing together communities across racial lines.
“They have to know that hope is on the ballot,” Riley Collins told BuzzFeed News on Monday. “That’s why I say to them all the time, ‘Hope is on the ballot and her name is Jennifer Riley Collins.’”
Riley Collins, 53, is running against the state's treasurer, Lynn Fitch, who was the chair of the group Mississippi Women for Trump in 2016. Riley Collins is running an explicitly anti-Trump message, saying Monday that she doesn’t understand how Donald Trump's Christian supporters can reconcile their politics with their faith.
“I’m not quite sure what Bible they’re reading,” Jennifer Riley Collins said in a telephone interview the day before Mississippi’s election. “The God I pray to on a daily basis says that we’re to take care of those who don't have the same privileges that we have and that [we’ve] been blessed with. The Bible says that above all [Christians should] love, not push hate. You cannot show me anywhere in the Bible where God is a proponent of this kind of hate-and-divide rhetoric that is coming out of the presidential administration.”
She added, “I'm not going to allow the Republican Party to weaponize religion.”
Riley Collins is the former head of the Mississippi American Civil Liberties Union and served in the US Army for 32 years. She has received the support of Higher Heights for America, a group seeking to elect more black women to office, and from fellow Mississippi native Stacey Abrams, who became a national figure after her race for governor in Georgia last year.
Riley Collins' campaign has relied on her biography as the mother of three sons, and she has vowed to serve as a “protector” for all of Mississippi. The daughter of a maid and a truck driver, she said she decided to run because her parents taught her a sense of responsibility for the overall well-being and protection of vulnerable people and communities.
“We didn't plant a garden that only fed our house; we planted a garden that fed our neighborhood, even if nobody else went and tilled the soil. That’s the way we were raised,” she said.
Trump hasn’t waded too deeply into Tuesday’s down-ballot races, but the president rallied last Friday in Tupelo with the Republican candidate for governor, Tate Reeves, and introduced Riley Collins’ opponent, Republican Lynn Fitch, as Mississippi’s “next attorney general.”
Jim Hood, the current attorney general and the Democratic candidate for governor, hasn’t endorsed Riley Collins, raising some eyebrows. Hood has repeatedly said that he was focused on his own race. Back in September, Riley Collins tweeted, “Given my credentials and experience, I wonder why the Democratic nominee for Governor and current Attorney General appears to be working to get my Republican opponent elected?”
Riley Collins is facing tough odds. Trump is still widely popular in Mississippi. A Washington Democrat speaking on the condition of anonymity who saw internal polling of the race told BuzzFeed News that at one point Riley Collins trailed her opponent by double digits. The Democrat said she has closed the gap considerably by traversing the state with a unifying message.
Riley Collins said she was aware of what she is up against, but that her faith outweighs any fear. She said she didn’t run to till the proverbial soil for the next candidate of color to become the first black Mississippian to be elected to statewide office since Reconstruction. She wants — and expects — to be elected as her state’s attorney general on Tuesday.
“I got in this race to win it,” she said.
It’s not that Republican politicians, she said, don’t understand the plight of everyday people and the entrenched problems the voters she’s trying to reach face on a daily basis. “They just don't give a crap,” she said.
She also has a message for national Democrats running in the presidential election: Come to Mississippi and bring hope to residents of the state who have felt “downtrodden” and “depressed” as they grapple with health care costs, the opioid crisis, and problems like badly needed investments in public education and staggeringly high incarceration rates.
“Don't count Mississippi out, and understand that we are not Mississippi Burning,” she said. “There are educated, excellent folks here who are both black and white, who are ready to move our state forward. So, don't pander to Mississippians. We are ready to move our state forward, and I think we will see that tomorrow.”