Gov. Tate Reeves has the power and the opportunity to lead the charge to change the Mississippi state flag.
Back in May, Reeves lamented during one of his press conferences about his newfound executive authority. He claimed that he never asked for and never wanted such a burden, but at the same time, he did what he felt he had to do to keep Mississippians safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Reeves’ executive orders since the start of April have shuttered hundreds of businesses, closed parks, halted church meetings and stifled economic growth.
Other than a rift over who gets to spend over a billion dollars in federal COVID-19 aid, the Republican-led Legislature has had his back, no matter how draconian the measures, the entire time.
Lawmakers backed Reeves even as protesters walked around the capital with guns on their hips, demanding the governor re-open the state.
It can be argued that Reeves somewhat bowed to the masses last month when he began the slow and safe re-opening of the state’s economy, but he did so on his terms.
He stared right into the eyes of his base and said he would do the right thing for the safety of Mississippians, no matter what the electorate demanded at the time.
If Reeves were to move forward with a plan to change the state flag in 2020, he would likely be staring down the same constituency again.
While the flag is not a public health hazard, the Confederate symbolism on the banner is an obstacle for Mississippi’s future growth.
It may also prove to be a thorn in Reeves’ side when it comes to future political endeavors.
The higher the office Reeves attempts to be elected to, the more the state flag will matter.
Over the better part of two decades, Republican leaders in the state have been able to shift the discussion on the state flag to the 2001 referendum, which was largely decided along racial lines.
Reeves is in a unique position in 2020. There is a window for him and the Legislature to act on changing the flag, if they choose to seize the opportunity.
In other words, the political fallout from such a move will not be as detrimental to Reeves in four years as it would have been for past governors.
There’s no doubt that if Reeves moves to change the flag, he will have a Republican challenger in the next primary season, but that person would presumably be much more to the right than Reeves currently sits.
When Republicans in Mississippi sought an alternative to Reeves when he was running against Democratic candidate Jim Hood, they threw their weight behind a centrist (Bill Waller), not a far-right ideologue.
Even if Reeves were to face a more right-wing foe like a Chris McDaniel in the next primary, he would probably win the fight, as the 46% of Republican voters who cast ballots for Waller in the 2019 runoff would likely pick Reeves in that battle.
The 2020 Legislature is probably more ready to act on this than folks are led to believe.
House Speaker Phillip Gunn, a Republican, had already expressed his willingness to change the flag in past discussions.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is a moderate, who would probably back the change.
If the Mississippi Democratic Party were to get its act together in the next 24 months and present an exciting and electable candidate to the voters, there’s a chance Reeves might be unseated, but according to a recent series of articles by Mississippi Today, the party still seems to be rife with infighting and dysfunction as we head toward 2021.
Besides, producing a new state flag during a time when the nation is crying for racial justice would not hurt Reeves at all with conservative Democrats.
If Mississippi plans to become an economic powerhouse in the Southeast, it will have to change its flag, and that change will have to be made by Republicans.
Reeves has had no problem delivering tough love to his base during the COVID-19 pandemic.
His handling of COVID-19 has been guided heavily by his conscience. That is made clear during his Sunday morning devotions.
If that same conscience guides him on the issue of the flag, there must be a change.