CLEVELAND, Miss. — Joseph Henderson, 60, was taking in some sun outside a faded white house on Monday morning when an unusual thing happened. A presidential candidate walked right up to his porch to say hello.
“My name’s Elizabeth Warren and I’m running for president,” the senator from Massachusetts, flanked by about a dozen reporters and photographers, announced.
As has become her calling card as a candidate, Warren dispensed with the pleasantries and cut straight to the policy. “I’ve got a bill about housing, trying to get more money into housing,” she told Henderson, who sat in front of windows covered in sheets of plastic. “And I thought this would be a good place to come.”
Henderson expressed some shock that Warren would go to the poor, black neighborhood in the Mississippi Delta; he joked that it was the “ghetto.” “But you’re good during the daytime,” he told her, reassuringly. By the end of the brief interaction, Henderson politely said he would vote for Warren, just for showing up.
Warren has staked out a reputation for adopting bold liberal policies in this early stage of the Democratic primary — from breaking up tech giants to levying a wealth tax on the assets of multimillionaires. But this week, she tried her hand for the first time at selling those ideas to voters in the Deep South, approaching people as they got into their cars or sat on their porches in two small towns in the impoverished Mississippi Delta and on a walking tour of historic Selma, Ala.
While other candidates were holding rallies in the traditional early voting states — well-trod places like New Hampshire and Iowa — Warren was far afield, pitching oft-ignored voters on the broad outlines of her bill to create three million more housing units over 10 years.
The success of her run for the nomination will depend in large part on whether her policy ideas translate into real excitement in the Democratic base, and Warren is using the trip to make her case directly to black voters, a critical part of that base, especially in the South. They have turned out in huge numbers to support progressive candidates like Alabama Senator Doug Jones and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams in recent elections.
“This is a really smart way to engage black voters where there isn’t a lot of hoopla and a lot of noise,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an organization that has turned out black voters for Democrats. “For many folks, this will be an introduction to who she is.”
While some politicians might have used the three-day road trip through the South to express a vague “I feel your pain” sentiment or to talk broadly about poverty, Warren stayed focused on her specific housing policy as she traveled through Mississippi on Monday. When she got to Selma, Warren served up another proposal: abolishing the Electoral College to boost the power of each individual vote. She even talked up her antitrust policies in a local drugstore.
Warren told reporters her penchant for policy is about showing voters she has realistic plans to fix the country’s problems.
“I think people have heard empty promises from politicians until they’re just sick to death of it. You’ve got to make this real,” Warren said.
The Southern road trip comes shortly after former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke entered the race last week. He joined the field without a campaign manager or clear policy proposals and nevertheless attracted $6 million in donations in his first, hectic 24 hours in the race.
Warren, who has remained tight lipped on her own fund-raising totals, has made a bet that clearly articulating her vision to voters who are often ignored by the party will pay off the in the long run.
Visits by Democratic presidential candidates to this part of the country are rare, and Warren created a genuine fuss in the two small Mississippi towns, Cleveland and Greenville, that she stopped in Monday. “How do you go live on Facebook?” one resident cried out to a friend as Warren passed by. A man leaned out of his pickup truck to ask who the celebrity was. Even the local politicians seemed starstruck. “You’re pretty like your picture!” declared the mayor of Cleveland, Billy Nowell, while he shook the senator’s hand.
“Some of these people have never even been in the presence of a presidential candidate or any major candidate for that matter,” said Norma Lester, the president of the Democratic Women of Shelby County in Tennessee, who attended Warren’s Sunday night rally in Memphis. “You know, they’ve just been forgotten.”
But Warren’s visit did echo a long-ago tour of one of the senator’s political heroes. Warren started the Cleveland walking tour at the home of civil rights leader Amzie Moore, who served as Bobby Kennedy’s tour guide through the area in 1967. Warren’s allies overtly compared her trip to Kennedy’s—the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a national organization backing Warren, sent out an e-mail to supporters showing a 1967 photo of Kennedy talking to a resident in Greenville next to one of Warren chatting with a veteran in Cleveland.
But while Kennedy’s trip was focused on poverty more generally, Warren kept hers centered on her housing plan and other policies, and rarely veered off message.
During her CNN town hall in Jackson Monday night, however, Warren spoke of a variety of proposals and positions she suggested could boost the lives of black voters. She urged Congress to create a commission to study reparations for slavery, called on Mississippi to discard its Confederacy-themed state flag, and vowed to crack down on white supremacy if she were to become president. It was also when she first unveiled the new policy plank of abolishing the Electoral College.
Then, she headed to Selma for a visit at Brown Chapel, the iconic church where protesters including John Lewis gathered on the day in 1965 they planned to march from Selma to Montgomery, only to be stopped and beaten by state troopers and other officers on the Edmund Pettus bridge.
“I think she’s doing some very good things. She’s addressing the issue of reparations with an open mind,” said the pastor, Leodis Strong. Referring to black voters, he said, “We know how to vote issues that affect our lives and our priorities, we know how to do that.”
Warren has leaned heavily on her Oklahoma upbringing as she sought to make connections in the South. In Selma, she told Strong she had grown up in the Methodist church.
“Oh, you’re family,” he exclaimed, before Warren began reciting lines from the Gospel of Matthew, as she had at CNN’s town hall.
But soon, it was right back to policy. Turning to a group of teenagers who had come to the church to see her, she briefly denigrated lawmakers in Washington — “When the time came to give millionaires, billionaires, and giant corporations over a trillion dollars in tax cuts, Washington just snapped to,” Warren said — before returning to the issue of voting rights.
“I’m big on a constitutional amendment to protect the right of every citizen to vote and to make sure that that vote gets counted,” Warren said, “And, by the way, abolishing the Electoral College.”
Lola Sewell, a Selma resident who is related to Democratic Representative Terri Sewell, whooped her approval, and said afterward that she was deeply impressed by Warren’s command of issues.
“If I stubbed my toe, Elizabeth Warren would already have spoken about stubbing your toe,” Sewell said.