JACKSON — Robert Gray, the long-haul truck driver who surprised even himself by winning the Democratic nomination for Mississippi governor, was allotted 10 minutes to try to persuade state Chamber of Commerce members they should support him rather than Republican Gov. Phil Bryant in Tuesday’s election.
Gray barely spoke for two minutes.
Unlike politicians who spend years hearing their own voices echo in legislative chambers and banquet halls, Gray stops talking when he runs out of things to say — perhaps appropriate for a man whose CB handle is “Silent Knight.”
“I’ve been to your places to pick up and know a lot of your employees,” Gray said, motioning to corporate banners for poultry processors, shipbuilders and tech companies. “I’m looking forward to working with you.”
If he becomes governor, 46-year-old Gray will complete one of the most remarkable and unexpected treks of Mississippi political history.
The first-time candidate didn’t even tell his closest relatives, his mother and his sister, that he had signed up to run for governor. He won the Democratic primary in August without spending a dime and without even voting for himself because he said he was busy running errands that day.
Gray has spent about $3,000 on his campaign in the past three months, and said he has parked his rig to focus on campaigning.
Bryant has spent $2.7 million this year and still has $1.4 million in the bank.
“Truck driver Robert Gray is a novelty candidate and seems to be a nice fellow, but he’s totally unequipped to serve as the state’s chief executive officer,” one newspaper, The Greenwood Commonwealth, wrote in a decidedly lukewarm endorsement of Bryant for a second term.
Still, during his low-key campaign appearances around the state, Gray has been talking about substantive issues like expanding Medicaid and putting more state money into education. Those issues resonate with voters such as Jackie Andrews of Byram, who said she wants Mississippi to overcome its perpetual struggles with poverty and health problems.
Andrews said she disagrees with Bryant’s steadfast opposition to expanding Medicaid under the federal health overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law. Bryant says he doesn’t trust the federal government’s promise to pay most of the tab.
“We’re always on the bottom with health care,” Andrews said. “You’d think the state would take the money.”
Jackson resident Lydall Lowe said he recently met Gray, and took a photo with him, while the candidate campaigned at a local crime-prevention meeting. He was enthusiastic about Gray’s proposal for Mississippi to create a lottery.
Gray said that during two decades of delivering sweet potatoes and other goods across the country, he has met people who make it a point to stop in lottery states to buy tickets.
“When people stop, they spend money,” Gray said. “People buy fuel, they buy food.”
In winning the primary, Gray knocked aside outspoken trial attorney Vicki Slater who was given long odds to unseat a Republican governor in a strongly conservative state but was at least expected to force Bryant to drain his own campaign fund. Lowe said he voted for Slater and was surprised that Gray won.
“Everybody said, ‘A truck driver? What is this, man?'” Lowe recalled with a chuckle.
Bryant, who speaks with the polished ease of a TV game-show host, has had the luxury of largely ignoring Gray and has been giving campaign cash to other Republicans. Bryant insists he’s not taking re-election for granted, and was planning to make several stops around the state, with other Republican candidates, heading into Tuesday.
“The people that I have seen lose that thought they couldn’t lose, did so because they thought they couldn’t lose,” Bryant said. “And so we’re going to run hard to the last day.”