In New York and Mississippi, Upstart Candidates Surge in Today’s Elections (Updated)

Kathryn Rehner of Hattiesburg and the Rev. Khader El-Yateem of Brooklyn are vying to upset local political order in Tuesday's elections.

The campaign for the Reverend Khader El-Yateem, who is running in the Democratic primary for city council district 43, which encompasses a part of Southwest Brooklyn that includes Bay Ridge. Photo: Khader El-Yateem for City Council

A number of states and cities go to the polls today to elect or nominate candidates for local offices.

In two states on different sides of the Mason-Dixon line, two upstart candidates are vying in elections aiming to upset the local political order.

In Mississippi, voters head to the polls in what could be a shocker of a special election. A state House seat for District 102 that has long been in GOP hands is up for grabs, and if Republicans lose it, they lose their supermajority in the legislature. The election was triggered when Toby Barker, the former House member — who had cast a critical vote against expanding Medicaid — was elected mayor of Hattiesburg and stepped down.

The Democrat in the race is Kathryn Rehner, a 27-year-old community organizer, who, as director of the Mississippi Health Access Collaborative, has led the local charge to enroll uninsured residents in Obamacare. She’s running as an outspoken populist-progressive, trying to upend the notion that to win as a Democrat in a majority-white district in Mississippi, you have to pretend to be Republican.

The one-time Republican front-runner, Cory Ferraez, is openly gay and libertarian-leaning, but apparently, even in 2017, that was a bit much for Mississippi, so Republican elites swung their support to Missy McGee, scion of a local family who dominates the paving business. Conventional wisdom in a crowded race assumes that nobody will get 50 percent and there’ll be a runoff in October, but if previous national patterns hold, it’s quite possible Rehner — using the clever hashtag #MakeItRehn — could crack 50 and win it outright.

And in New York City, the Rev. Khader El-Yateem is running in the Democratic primary for New York City Council District 43, which encompasses a part of southwest Brooklyn that includes Bay Ridge. While the city trended for Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary, El-Yateem’s district handed its votes to her challenger Bernie Sanders.

El-Yateem is one of two city council candidates this year backed by Democratic Socialists of America, the other being the Green Party’s Jabari Brisport, who is also running in Brooklyn and will be on the ballot in November.

El-Yateem is both openly socialist and a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign aimed at Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians; if elected, he would also be the first Palestinian-American to serve on city council, having been born in Bethlehem.

Needless to say, his campaign is a rebellious one in a city known for both its capitalism and pro-Israel politics.

The challenge for El-Yateem is to get the turnout needed to win. For its part, DSA has knocked on roughly 15,000 doors getting out the vote for the candidate. His campaign estimates that 5,000 voters in the district are of Middle Eastern descent, but roughly 250 of them voted in the Democratic presidential primary last year.

Regardless of whether he wins or loses, El-Yateem’s campaign serves as an example for other Arab Americans who have been hesitant to run for office. Zein Rimawi, who is a member of the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, explained that dynamic to the Village Voice.

“You can be a councilman, you can be a state senator, a congressman,” he said. “And it doesn’t make any difference if you are an Arab or a Muslim. You have a chance to be there.”

Update: September 13, 2017

A Democrat stunned in a special election in Oklahoma Tuesday night. In November, Trump won the district by 11 points, and Jacob Rosecrants, the Democratic candidate, lost his race by 20 points. Tuesday night, Rosecrants ran again in the special, and won by 20. That’s the third special election Democrats have flipped in Oklahoma since November and in a fourth, in May, they lost a race by two points in a district that Trump had won by 50. 

And in New Hampshire, in a 29-point swing, Democrats flipped another district Tuesday night. 

In Mississippi, there were reports of people — many students — showing up to the polls and being told they were no longer registered. If you were among them, reach out to us at The Democrat, Rehner, finished second to McGee, forcing a runoff election in October.

El-Yateem lost by seven points.


Top photo: The campaign for the Rev. Khader El-Yateem, who is running in the Democratic primary for New York City Council District 43, which encompasses a part of southwest Brooklyn that includes Bay Ridge.

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