Representative Shanda Yates, who represents the predominantly white enclave of northeast Jackson’s House District 64, was a Democrat with a bright future during her first year in the legislature. From 2020 to early January 2021, she operated as a Democrat but then she opted to vote with Republicans on the reapportionment issue, bringing down the wrath of traditional Democrats on her head.
Yates was one of only four white Democrats in the House. Only two white Democrats are in the Senate. January 2021 was the beginning of her legislative experience. Since then, the 40-year-old first term representative has become the chief sponsor or author of several bills that her former party members claim were designed to dismantle Jackson’s ability to exercise self-government.
First came the infamous HB 1031 in January 2022 that created the Capital City Water/Sewer Projects Fund under the control of the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). As the state’s chief executive officer, Governor Tate Reeves held the reins of DFA.
Yates’ House Bill 1031 forced the Capital City Water/Sewer Projects Fund on the City of Jackson, making Jackson the only municipality in Mississippi that had to go hat-in-hand to the DFA to get approval of any and all of its water improvement plans. Of the 1,100 municipal water districts in the state, Jackson was the only one that had to have approval from the Department of Health as well as beg the DFA to release funds sent by the feds to help the city get out of its plight and repair or restore its failing water supply plants and the distribution system.
Former Democrat Yates even persuaded 10 of the Black House Democrats to co-sponsor the bill that was essentially a death sentence to Jackson’s self-determination in restoring its water system. The Black Democrats who sponsored 1031 say they weren’t aware of the deception and trickery that lay behind the bill at the time.
Yates jumped ship on the Democrats in January 2022, only days after the infamous bill passed. She then declared herself an Independent and has been operating as an Independent in her latest attempt at deconstructing Jackson’s municipal government, although some of her former colleagues have a hard time distinguishing her course of actions from that of the Republicans.
Yates says House Speaker Phillip Gunn had no advance knowledge of her party switch.
“He did not know,” she said in January 2022. “I’m not sure if he even knows I left the (Democratic) party.”
Gunn, however, is never very far away from Yates since her defection. Gunn and Speaker Pro-Tem Jason White planned a July 8, 2022 fundraiser for Yates that caused a furor among many of the mainline Republicans, thus pressuring the two leaders to abandon their headlining roles as Yates’ fundraisers.
“We believe she is considering joining our party and hope she will,” they said in an effort to justify their action. “(She) has voted with Republicans a large portion of the time, which got her kicked out of the Democratic Party.”
The so-called Mississippi Freedom Caucus, ultra-right wing conservatives in the legislature, sought to put an end to any flirtation between Republican leadership and non-right-wing Independents.
“This is certainly a new low for Republican leadership in the Mississippi Legislature to help fundraise for a legislator that holds such extreme liberal views,” the group’s July 7, 2022 release said. “The Mississippi Freedom Caucus calls on Speaker Gunn and Speaker Pro-Tem White to disavow Shanda Yates and immediately cancel all efforts to raise money for her re-election.”
DEMS SUSPECT GUNN
Some Democrats suspected the hand of Philip Gunn was pulling the strings on Yates’ unprecedented success as a first-term lawmaker.
Not only did former Democrat Yates persuade 10 of the House Black Democrats to co-sponsor the bill that proved to be essentially a death sentence to Jackson’s self-determination in maintaining control of its water system, but she almost persuaded the Democratic leadership to come to her defense after she had already decided to switch parties.
House Democratic Leader Robert Johnson said Yates had resented the criticism she got from Democrats about her siding with Republicans.
“She let me know that people were calling her law office and berating her staff over her vote,” Johnson said. “I was upset when I heard that, and I told her that it was coming from just two members. I let her know that she had the full support of the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Caucus and that the one or two Hinds County members were not a problem.”
Yates is the presumed author of HB 370 that allowed for the removal of city or municipal officials who “willingly refused or failed to perform their duties.”
Some Democrats suspected the hand of Philip Gunn as pulling the strings of his newly found puppet, Shanda Yates.
Rep. John Hines of Greenville was the first to question Yates’ reason for pushing the bill.
“What brought this on and made this such a rush to have it done?” Hines asked. “Why is this the first piece of legislation we’re handling?”
Yates said she wasn’t concerned about the bill being the first brought to the floor. She was only concerned about bringing a balance to municipal government.
“The municipal elected officials are the only group of elected officials who are not subject to any form of recall or impeachment,” she said. “Everyone else from the governor down is subject to impeachment or recall, except municipal officials. The goal is to make sure there is accountability.”
Hines and four other Democrats were certain that Yates wanted to make a move against the City of Jackson with the support of both Gunn and Gov. Reeves.
“So, who are you trying to hold accountable?” he asked. “Is there a particular person? If there is a weak mayor system and all the mayor does is break ties or set the agenda for the board meetings, does not the city council govern the city?”
Rep. Ed Blackmon of Madison said that every city government in Mississippi has certain groups that don’t agree with how their city is being governed.
“People have a right to be upset with what they don’t like about elected officials,” Blackmon said. “That’s the nature of being an elected official. You’re not going to please everybody all of the time. The fact is that this legislation is targeting something, is it not? Is it the City of Jackson? Some elected officials in the City of Jackson? But no one individual under the mayor-council, or aldermen-mayor form of government makes a decision by himself or herself.”
On Monday, Jan. 16, Yates again presented a complex piece of legislation, HB 698, which takes aim at the Interim Third-Party Water Manager’s suggestion that the cost of water and sewage might be based on the housing appraisal if all other plans fail.
Current charges are set at a flat rate for every 748 gallons of water used.
Yates’ filed bill would amend state law to prohibit water bills from being “unreasonably preferential, prejudicial or discriminatory” and that rates “shall be calculated in equitable proportion to the services and benefits issued.”
The bill comes weeks after Interim Third-Party Manager Ted Henifin said he would like to consider implementing a rate structure based on the assessed value of customers’ homes.
Johnson has come to realize that Yates was following her own agenda from her earliest moments as a House Democrat.
She is the presumed author of HB 370 that allowed for the removal of city or municipal officials who “willingly refused or failed to perform their duties.” But many Democrats can see the handiwork of Republicans in the crafting of the bill.
Her bill would allow 30 percent of voters of the municipality or district to petition the governor to set up a three-person judicial council. The judges would then decide the fate of the municipal elected official subject to removal.
“Until you got here in 2020, there was no problem?” Johnson asked.
“I guess that until I got here no one noticed the problem,” Yates responded.
“The people who complain about the City of Jackson in this body are all white,” said Johnson. “And I’m going to talk about race because that’s what this is about.
“It’s about the African American mayor of Jackson who has taken on the governor of the state, and we’re going to let the governor appoint a three-judge panel and come in here and a 30 percent minority of the population is going to have an election to see if you need to go.”
The 2023 Mississippi Legislative Session convened at noon January 3. It will end April 2 unless special sessions or other mandates are necessary.