While everyone is focused on the 2020 elections, particularly on the unfolding drama of the presidential race, on Nov. 5 of this year, Mississippians will be voting on who their next attorney general will be.
It is a race that has not drawn much national attention, but it will prove to be a historic one. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates are women, making it a certainty that the first female attorney general of Mississippi will be elected this year. But Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democratic candidate, would be the first Black woman to be elected statewide if she wins this race.
“What I bring to the table is not just my color or my gender, I bring my qualifications,” Riley Collins tells ESSENCE. “Black women lead.”
Riley Collins knows all about being a leader. Born and raised in Meridian, Miss., she served 32 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer – 14 years in active duty and 18 years on the U.S. National Guard and U.S. Army Reserve – before retiring in 2017 as a colonel.
Following active duty, Riley Collins embarked on a career in civil rights law.
“Being a civil rights attorney in the state of Mississippi where you are constantly fighting against people determined to hold Mississippi back, who want to maintain Mississippi as a closed society, yet still have successes in moving the needle forward is nothing to sneeze at,” Riley Collins says of her work.
For Riley Collins, it’s not just about making history, it’s about making a difference in the state she loves and continuing a life of public service.
Deep Roots In The Community
“I see that everything that I’ve done in life has prepared me for this critical time in our nation’s history,” Riley Collins shares with ESSENCE. “When we see people following political rhetoric and not prioritizing the people that they’re supposed to serve, those of us that have been privileged with skillsets, in my belief, have a responsibility to step up.
She continues, “That’s what I did as a soldier, that’s what I’ve done as an attorney, and that is what I’m endeavoring to do now.”
However, politics wasn’t always the decorated veteran’s path.
The Fire This Time
Riley Collins didn’t always think she would step into the role of a politician. Things changed last year, she noted, when Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith drew ire after saying that she would attend a public hanging (aka a lynching) and “be on the front row.” Days after, the senator quipped that it would be a “great idea” to make it more difficult for college students to vote.
Riley Collins said that she tried everything she could to empower people to vote against the senator in the runoff elections, but that plan didn’t pan out as desired, leaving her to question what more she could personally do for the people of Mississippi.
“When I win my race on November 5th, I will be the State’s chief legal officer, and in that capacity, I will focus on protecting all Mississippians,” the veteran litigator stated confidently. “I’m running to represent all Mississippians, be black, white, gay, straight, poor, rich. I lifted my hand to protect and defend all. When I say all, I mean all.”
With Liberty And Justice For All
Riley Collins’ political platform prioritizes protecting vulnerable populations such as children who are targeted by cybercrime and cyber predators, and the elderly who are “scammed” by those who would defraud them.
She also intends to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable when they raise prices, making even generic medicines unaffordable to those who need them. Further, she plans to take on the opioid crisis and addiction, as well as reproductive justice.
Riley Collins stands firmly on the side of Roe v. Wade, a stance that may raise eyebrows in a state which tried to slip through a “heartbeat” bill, only to be blocked by a federal judge.
“The current law of the land is Roe v. Wade. As Mississippi’s attorney general, I am going to uphold the law, and the law says that a woman has a right to make her own healthcare decisions,” she said. “Again, I am seeking to represent all Mississippians [and] 49% of Mississippi’s household are led by single women. Women have a right to make decisions that impact their own health care and their own economic opportunity.”
The Future Of Mississippi Is Now
During her campaign, Riley Collins has enjoyed the endorsement of various people and groups, including NARAL and the Democratic Attorney Generals Association.
Lizzie Ulmer, the communications director at DAGA told ESSENCE that the organization’s 1881 initiative has been a major driving force in focusing on electing women to the office of Attorney General. Beyond that, Riley Collins, to the organization, is just a stand-out candidate.
“Unlike what many people think, Mississippi is actually a place where a Democrat and particularly a Democratic woman can win. And, I think that for too long we have tended to look at southern states in a way, that is, they have to be these outstanding campaigns that are incredibly controversial,” she explained. “I think when we look at Mississippi, we saw Jennifer Riley Collins as this all-star candidate, a decorated army veteran, a civil rights litigator, a churchgoer, a mother who wanted to run for Attorney General. And, there could not be a better moment in time for someone like her to be running in Mississippi.”
Currently, the organization is focused on ramping out its efforts to get people out to vote on election day and ensuring that people have the tools and resources they need so that they are registered to vote correctly – given the state’s strict voting laws – and can check their boxes on election day.
“I know there’s a lot of focus right now on 2020 and the top of the ticket and the presidential race and that’s all very important,” Ulmer said. “But, people need to really be paying attention to these 2019 races and that includes Mississippi, and particularly, the AG races because AGs are playing such an important role in our country. One good attorney general can make a difference and a group of them can save our democracy.”
And this is a role and responsibility that Riley Collins takes very seriously.
“I truly believe that we currently have a domestic terrorist in our White House, and unfortunately his rhetoric is being repeated by career politicians here in Mississippi who are only interested in their career,” Riley Collins tells ESSENCE. “They’re not interested in the democratic principles and values upon which this country was established. Those are principles and values that I believe in, that I swore to protect and defend, and so that informs how I will lead.”
Jim Hood And Trying To Build Party Unity
Attorney General Jim Hood, a Democrat who is currently running for governor in the upcoming elections, has not endorsed Riley Collins. And she did not hesitate to call him out about it in a Facebook post last month, in which she urged Hood to reconsider his lack of support for her campaign.
Hood has since stressed that he is “focused solely” on his own race.
“My dad gave me an important piece of advice the first time I ran for office in 1995: ‘Work hard in your own race and stay out of everybody else’s.’ I plan to stick by that advice during this election,” he noted in a statement as WLOX reported.
Riley Collins eventually shrugged it off, reaffirming that this race is about her people, and it is their support that she is most invested in.
“I think some people may have gotten it twisted,” she said with determination. “I am not running to turn out for the party, I am running to turn out for the people, so that I can advance an agenda that has been left unheard, left behind, and left alone.”
The Best Of Times And The Worst Of Times
Should Riley Collins win, she believes that it could be a sign that as much as things seem to be changing for the worst in this country, there are some things changing for the better.
“When I win, it means that Mississippi has moved forward. It means for Mississippi that people will realize that we are no longer burning…It will mean a realization of a dream—that of Dr. King,” Riley Collins says. “It will mean that women, that marginalized community members, have a voice at the decision-making table. That is what is so very important to me…that our government is for the people, by the people.”