Ben Carson’s campaign somewhat quietly appointed a longtime Republican operative with a penchant for segregationist policies as their Mississippi chairman.
Yes, you read that correctly.
The Carson campaign statement about the hire touted Pickering’s 1976 call for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade, something that Carson himself has publicly supported. It did not however mention Pickering’s extensive history opposing civil rights in Mississippi.
“I am honored that Judge Pickering has joined my campaign,” Carson said in the release. “I am grateful for his trust and confidence and look forward to working with him to offer my solutions for Mississippians and Americans across the country.”
Also omitted from the release was fact that the former judge switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 1964 as a result of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, a decision he made at the urging of his law partner at the time, J. Carroll Gartin, a leading member of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. The Sovereignty Commission is best known for being the center of an FBI investigation for the murder of three civil rights workers (serving as the inspiration for the film Mississippi Burning.)
Not only that, in 1967, Pickering signed a public statement in which he said he wanted to preserve “our southern way of life” and that civil rights workers were causing “turmoil and racial hatred” throughout the South.
He later served in the Mississippi State Senate, lost a nomination for a Senate seat to Thad Cochran, and became the chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party.
Pickering made national headlines again in 2001 when he was nominated for the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. in, prompting enormous opposition from the Mississippi NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus. People for the American Way, an organization devoted to equality in the United States, drafted an extensive report denouncing the nomination, saying “that several of Pickering’s published opinions as a federal trial judge suggest a hostility to civil and Constitutional rights.”
People for the American Way Senior Fellow Elliot Mincberg, who co-wrote the opposition report, told The Daily Beast that Pickering has a long history of prejudiced and manipulative behavior.
“He engaged in very, very questionable conduct to essentially coerce the Justice Department to cut down a sentence for an individual who was convicted of cross-burning, an incident that he called ‘just a drunken prank,’” Mincberg said, referring to a documented 1994 case.
The nomination was blocked by Senate Democrats. He was renominated in 2004 for the post, but was unable to assume the bench because of intense Democratic opposition in the Senate.
“With the renomination of Charles Pickering to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, the White House called into question all of its promises to demonstrate that the party of Abraham Lincoln was truly committed to civil rights,” Sen. Dick Durbin said at the time.
Since then, he has attempted to clear his name, first appearing in an extensive interview on 60 Minutes during which he claimed that he had been “trying to protect equal rights” for decades.
Over a decade later, his legacy is decidedly negative. Nonetheless, his deep ties to the Republicans in the South, particularly in Mississippi, could ultimately make him an asset to the Carson campaign.
“Given the lack of African-American voters in the primary and caucuses, this is a move that is certainly not going to hurt him,” Scott Huffmon, the director of the Winthrop Poll Initiative in South Carolina, told The Daily Beast.
Huffmon, who plans on polling likely GOP primary voters in the state in the coming weeks, said he doesn’t think many African-American voters are particularly inclined to support Carson there in the first place.
No matter what impact this questionable appointment may have, Carson is heavily relying on African-American voters to help propel him to the Oval Office.
“I met with a group of black pastors yesterday and people are waking up in droves,” Carson said back in July. “I think they’re realizing what’s been happening here.”
The campaign even released a corny radio rap ad to appeal to black voters recently. Even so Carson nabs just 19 percent of black voters in a prospective general election match up against Hillary Clinton, according to a Nov. 4 Quinnipiac poll. No Republican presidential candidate has seen double-digit support from the African-American community since George W. Bush in 2004. Carson’s campaign did not respond to a question about Pickering’s past.
Pollsters like Huffmon however don’t predict a lot of crossover from the predominantly Democratic black voting bloc in the general election. But this is primary season, which means every candidate, Carson included, is making plans for the short term. And for now, when attention is primarily directed toward ridiculous sound bites over policy, Pickering will likely not raise any flags for most voters.
“I really think most voters are really not going to be familiar with campaign consultants,” Huffmon said. “A lot of folks can barely name their member of Congress.”
Even if voters do take notice, Pickering’s story of redemption over the past decade—positioning himself as an advocate for equality despite his track record—could also fall in line with Carson’s own redemptive narrative.
“Everyone is kind of aware of his horrific racial past. That’s not in question at all,” Leah Wright Rigueur, assistant professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, told The Daily Beast. Her book, The Loneliness of the Black Republican, chronicles the intersections between African Americans and the Republican Party.
“People can do horrible, awful things. Carson’s story is all about that,” Riguer said, speaking of Carson’s constant stories about finding faith to help him relinquish his allegedly violent past.
“If Pickering is to come forward and say, ‘You know what, I have been redeemed. I’ve put away that side of me. We have civil rights legislation. I’m not the racist that I once was.’ That kind of fits into this model,” she said.
Pickering’s faith, his formerly serving as the president of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, fits into this model as well. He is deeply conservative, religious and likely to help cull donations from a wide swath of Southerners, many of whom are already supportive of Carson as a candidate.
And if all else fails, and this appointment does draw the ire of a potential voter, Carson’s campaign has employed a cop-out that has paid dividends in the past.
“If this were ever to become a big thing, Carson’s fallback—and it has worked in his favor—has traditionally been: ‘This is an example of liberal media bias,’” Riguer said.
As of now, the position has remained at most a footnote to a campaign putting out other fires. But time will tell if the bias sets its sights on Carson again.