“So, this guy’s wife is running for alderman in Oxford.”
Afton Thomas was confused when she saw Richard Cross’ Jan. 28, 2021, tweet. Thomas had just barely turned in her paperwork to run for the Board of Aldermen a few hours before Cross’ tweet about her went out. Who was this man, she thought, and how did he know I was running for office?
“You go, and you fill out a qualifying form, and that form asks you for your name, address and ward that you live in, if you’ve ever been convicted of anything, and then they ask you for $10, and you sign your name—and that is it,” Thomas told the Mississippi Free Press. “You can do it in five minutes. … So I did that on Thursday, of that week, and on that same day that gentleman got that information? It hadn’t been in the paper, yet.”
Thomas herself doesn’t even have a Twitter account; she found out about Cross’ tweet—and Cross himself—when friends brought it to her attention.
Some of Cross’ audience was equally confused.
“According to The Eagle, no one h(a)d qualified to run against Mark as of 1/27,” local Gerry Logan tweeted in response, referring to an Oxford Eagle article that reported Mark Huelse, the incumbent in Thomas’ district, was running unopposed. The Oxford Eagle updated its report on Jan. 29.
Cross attached a screenshot of a tweet by James Thomas, the candidate’s husband that read: “The Oxford Board of Aldermen just voted to allow bars to stay open an additional hour for home football games (11pm Friday and Saturday night). This is in the midst of one of the highest per capita rates of COVID in the nation.”
One commenter said, “Does ‘this guy’s wife’ have a name?”—pointing out that Cross failed to identify Thomas whatsoever outside of her marital status. Her husband, James Thomas, is a University of Mississippi sociology professor who is likely of interest to Cross as a result of some previous political tweets that gained media attention and perhaps a recent controversy involving the state auditor.
Afton Thomas pointed out that even later on, media outlets felt the need to tie her to her husband unnecessarily.
“When it was written about in the Eagle, it was, I felt good. I was like, ‘Oh, look, see, that’s my record. That’s, that’s good,” Thomas said. “But the last sentence was ‘she’s the wife of JT Thomas,’ and I think that could have been left out.”
Cross, a host at Sports Talk Mississippi, could not be reached for comment despite several attempts at contacting him via that “text with our hosts” function for his radio station and emails to his work address.
‘She Invests the Best of Herself’
Laura Martin moved to Oxford the same year as Afton Thomas, in 2012.
“No other candidate that I have seen declare their candidacy for any of these municipal offices has been identified by their partner or by their spouse, right?” Martin said. ”… I don’t think it’s irrelevant. I think that Afton is running as Afton, and she stands on her credentials.”
Martin has worked parallel to Thomas in community service work, never ending up on the same board, but always aware through their friendship.
Thomas is the president of Move on Up Mississippi, a foundation dedicated to improving the lives of children in Mississippi, and the vice president of Lafayette Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow, which provides funds for services in Oxford including the Boys and Girls Club.
The local candidate also serves on Friends of the Museum board at the University of Mississippi Museum and is a member on the steering committee for Leadership Lafayette, a program run by the Oxford-Lafayette County Chamber of commerce designed to prepare future community leaders.
“She walks the walk, right?” Martin said. “Like, she clearly cares about these causes in the community, but then makes sure that the people that she cares about are also connected, and not just the people that she cares about.”
Martin has often been the recipient of outreach work Thomas has done at Move on Up Mississippi.
“I don’t know where she finds the time, but she commits fully to everything she does,” Martin said. “She invests the best of herself. … I don’t think you’re gonna find somebody that would work harder with a more compassionate heart than Afton.”
Thomas received her bachelor’s degree in theater with an emphasis in technical design from the University of Missouri at Columbia in 2003, and a master’s degree in theater emphasizing related children’s education from California State University at Sacramento in 2009.
She worked in several business administration roles over the span of her career, including in talent management and human resources positions. She has served as the associate director for programs at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture since 2018.
Thomas thinks that Oxford could re-allocate its local support better, saying that the community has more than enough resources to support its citizens. “We have far too many resources in Oxford to have so many of our friends, neighbors and fellow community members struggling to make ends meet,” Thomas said.
She plans to work to strengthen relationships between the City of Oxford and local organizations, so that nonprofits and municipal efforts can work hand-in-hand.
“The City could make more space for hearing about the work that those nonprofits are doing in finding ways to support it,” Thomas said of local government. “… That can be done not just in money, but just in coalition building and putting them in conversation and making space at a meeting to hear those needs.”
Thomas used an example from social media. Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill temporarily converted the city’s miniature libraries into food pantries; at the same time, Oxford Community Market had done almost exactly the same thing at the Army Pavillion.
“If there was a space for nonprofits to share what they are doing in their efforts, that overlap could have been avoided,” Thomas said. “There could have been more of a partnership.”
Thomas also hopes to help expand affordable-housing opportunities in Oxford from several angles, both establishing an affordable-housing trust for the city and encouraging Oxford’s largest employers—the City, university and school districts—to raise their wage floors and lead by example.
“You don’t have to get all the way to (the living wage by) tomorrow,” Thomas said. “I understand that isn’t feasible but raising those wages can help people to buy a house, you know, in the long run.”
‘It Feels to Me Like She Knows Everyone’
Alice Ricks got to know Thomas via their daughters, who became fast friends as toddlers. Later, while becoming close through their children, Ricks and Thomas served on the same committee for Excel by 5, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the wellbeing of pre-school-aged children.
At Excel by 5, Ricks watched Thomas plan the organization’s annual Excel-ebration event. Ricks said Thomas exceeded expectations in her new role, improving the event by encouraging new organizations to participate and trying to reach a broader audience in the community.
“She doesn’t kind of come in and, you know, sweep away the way things have been done before and need everything to be brand new,” Ricks said. “She really is thoughtful about what’s working well, what are the strengths of something that’s already been in place? And how can we improve upon that?”
Not long after she had moved to town, Ricks was attending an event where she didn’t yet know anyone when Thomas approached her. The two met for the first time, and Thomas was exceptionally friendly.
“She is energetic and fun, and has an energy that really sparks other people to feel motivated and excited to do what she is, you know, to engage with her and to be part of that,” Ricks said.
Thomas herself hadn’t moved to Oxford too long before, but her community involvement and welcoming disposition soon meant Ricks saw Afton as knowing something about every part of the city.
“It feels to me like she knows everyone,” Ricks said. “And she has been so engaged in many different ways in the community, and her relationships and the people she knows, really cross all of Oxford.”
Ricks described how Thomas goes out of her way to make sure that she gives attention to each child while volunteering in their classrooms, even if it is digitally. To volunteer for class, parents were asked to send videos of their short lesson or activity for the day.
“She makes sure that in that lesson, she shouts out every single child that is in that classroom,” Ricks said. “She doesn’t know all of those children personally … but she has made sure to get the class list from their teacher, and makes sure … that every single kid at some point in that video will hear their name, and feel special, and know that Ms. Afton was thinking of them when she made that video.”
Ricks went on to describe how Thomas not only makes people feel seen, but heard as well.
“She is really genuinely listening to the person that she is speaking with; even when there are 1,000,001 other things going on around her, she is focused and genuinely listening to the person that she’s speaking to,” Ricks said. “I think that’s because she really always does deeply want to learn about the person that she’s talking to.”
Determined Despite Attorney General Opinion Release
Thomas moved her family less than a five-minute drive from their old home last summer, adding a backyard for her two children and soon-to-come puppy.
Mississippi’s Attorney General Lynn Fitch’s office released an opinion on Feb. 1, 2021, stating that people running for municipal ward seats should have lived in their ward for two years prior to the election, rather than just having lived in the municipality for two years before, as a new interpretation of Mississippi Code 23-25-30.
A March 17 ruling by Mississippi special Circuit Judge Jeff Weill, which the Gazebo Gazette first reported, ordered that D’Iberville Ward 3 candidate Zack Grady be placed on the ballot despite the D’Iberville Municipal Republican Executive Committee declining to certify his candidacy. Grady’s opponent, incumbent Craig Diaz, is appealing the decision, the Tupelo Daily Journal reported.
If Lafayette County Democrats and the City of Oxford followed Fitch’s opinion, Thomas would be disqualified from her race. But up until the release of Fitch’s opinion, Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson, and about everyone else in the state, had been under the impression that candidates needed to only live in their municipalities for two years prior to elections to qualify for office.
“I understand living in a place for two years,” Thomas told the Mississippi Free Press. But, she added, moving between wards within your community—“whether that is to grow your family and move into a larger home, or downsize”—should never disqualify a candidate.
When asked, the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office highlighted that the opinion was not binding, so localities do not necessarily have to follow the rule.
“It’s just advisory as a result of an official opinions request that came to our office—so nothing has changed,” Communications Director Colby Jordan said on Feb. 5.
Several candidates—Erin Smith and Harry A. Alexander in Ward 1, Ryan Grover in Ward 3 and Justin Boyd in Ward 5—have dropped out of their races for the Oxford Board of Aldermen.
Vying to Be First Black Alderman in Ward 2
African American people make up 38 percent of Mississippi but, if elected, Thomas would be among the first Black representatives for Oxford’s Board of Aldermen and the first for her ward. Kesha Howell-Atkinson was sworn in as the first African American woman on the Oxford Board of Aldermen in 2019 after her father, Ulysses “Coach” Howell, passed away. Howell served as the first African American person on the board, the Oxford Eagle reported, and held his position representing ward 4 for 26 years. Preston Taylor, an African American man serving alongside Howell-Atkinson on the board, has represented ward 5 for the past 20 years.
“A lot of it could have to do with just the basic hurdles to voting rights that we’ve had to overcome,” University of Mississippi assistant law professor Yvette Butler said. “And then issues with education and how we fund education, and then how we incentivize or not to get people involved in politics.”
The first African American U.S. senators, both from Mississippi, took office in 1870 and 1875 during Reconstruction in the aftermath of the Civil War—but white violence and the anti-Black suffrage additions to the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 installed Jim Crow restrictions that kept Black Mississippians from legally or safely voting until the 1960s. Most Black southerners weren’t truly free to vote until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, just months after Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Selma.
Despite the passage of the Voting Rights Act, African Americans in the state still face unique obstacles in getting political representation. Government positions often require people pay a three-figure fee to be qualified to vote where they are running and to have a high school diploma. And the felony voting restrictions are still in place.
“Some of these policies disproportionately affect people based on their socioeconomic status, but there’s a huge overlap between people who have a lower socioeconomic status and people of color,” Butler explained.
The felonies that disqualify voters in Mississippi are: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of motor vehicle, statutory rape, carjacking and larceny under lease or rental agreement.
Mississippi’s original disenfranchisement laws chose which felonies would lose citizens their right to vote based on what crimes they thought were more likely to be committed by black Mississippians, senator Hob Bryan told the Jackson Free Press.
This means 16% of Black Mississippians are disenfranchised, but only 11% of Mississippians overall. For many public office positions, candidates must be able to vote in the election for which they are running—or be “qualified electors”—so even if a felon (meaning one of the disqualifying felonies) wanted to serve on a local government, they likely wouldn’t be able to.
Although some of these crimes are obviously severe, others are seemingly inconsequential. Bigamy is the crime of marrying someone while already legally married. Felony timber larceny is any theft of trees worth more than $250, but some logs can be priced well over that, meaning that a smaller chunk may exceed a worth of $250, and no one without expertise would know. Mississippieans found guilty of the aforementioned felonies cannot vote, even after serving their sentences.
A 2014 Clarion-Ledger report showed that several Mississippi cities were arresting African American residents disproportionately more often, as compared to their white neighbors. At the same time, studies show that African Americans use drugs at the same rate as white people, but are arrested more than twice as often. The disparity in arrests correlates with data from cities like Chapel Hill, N.C., and New York City that show police tend to patrol historically African American and low-income areas more heavily than whiter, richer neighborhoods.
Butler explained that the concept of racial justice looks to break down pervasive obstacles like these that make up some of the structure of systematic racism.
“Racial justice is sort of like ‘let’s look at all of the different ways that society is unbalanced, and try to figure out what policies should be in place in order to even that playing field,’” Butler said. “Basically saying that formal equality—where the law treats us exactly the same—isn’t what we need because the law treating us exactly the same doesn’t make up for past discrimination that has set people up to still be behind, but has done nothing to fix past instances of racism that made people fall behind in the first place.”
Despite obstacles for her candidacy, Thomas is hopeful for her campaign.
“(The) person who suggested me—I don’t know (them), personally,” Thomas said. “That speaks volumes. It gave me confidence to think, ‘oh, my goodness, someone who just knows that I’m a worker bee in the community thinks that I could serve and represent on this board’.”
Thomas sent out a call for volunteers to help with her campaign on March 29.
“I do have intentions to maybe have a team and myself take something to your doorstep, step back and knock and talk about me to keep everyone safe and comfortable and mask up and begin that in March and April,” Thomas said in February.
Primaries are April 6, and the general election is June 8.
In Oxford, three candidates are running for mayor: Republican Kyle Davis, Independent Brandon Pettis and incumbent Robyn Tannehil, who recently switched from the Democratic Party to the Independent Party. Democrats Billy Crews and incumbent Ricky Addy are running for the Board of Aldermen in Ward 1; Democrat Thomas and Republican Huesley will square off for the general election in Ward 2.
The ward III candidates are Republicans L. McQueen Miscamble and Democrats Brian Hyneman (D) and Alexandria White. Ward IV’s incumbent, Democrat Kesha Howell-Atkinson, is running unopposed.
Democrats Preston Taylor, and Tracey L. Williams and Republican Barney Chadwick are running in ward V; Republican Jason Bailey and Democrat Migueel Centellas are running in ward VI. Democrat Linda Porter Bishop and Independant John Morgan are running for the at-large seat.
Mississippians can find more information on how to register to vote, and Oxford-voter-specific information, here. A photo ID must be presented at the time of voting. If you do not have one, but voter-ID-specific cards can be found at each county circuit court.
This is the first profile in a series about Black women running for local office in Mississippi. These profiles are not endorsements.