Champion of Delta Politics and Public Administration
By Becky Gillette
Yazoo City native Hayes Dent, fifty-eight, owner of Hayes Dent Public Strategies, has overseen some of the largest and most influential political campaigns in the state during his career, including helping Sen. Thad Cochran overcome Tea Party Republican challenger Chris McDaniel in the primary election in 2014 when Cochran, who is now deceased, was seeking a seventh term as U.S. Senator.
“Perhaps as much as anyone else, Hayes was responsible for Thad Cochran’s re-election,” says prominent Delta businessman Woods Eastland. “A lot of people thought Cochran had it after the primary went into a runoff. Hayes worked tremendously hard to get the Delta vote out in that runoff. Hayes knows the people, works very hard and works for good things.”
Walton Gresham, president of Gresham Petroleum Co., admires that Dent is very politically astute.
“He has been an asset to whomever he has worked for,” says Gresham who, like Eastland, is a former Delta Council President. “He is on top of all the political trends.”
Cochran was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time, a hugely important position that benefitted Mississippi in numerous ways. It was an off year with no presidential race that year, so voting in the primary was light.
“We had a very big undervote,” says Dent. “The turnout in the Mississippi Delta was not what it should have been. I think everyone assumed Sen. Cochran would win. We went back to the old school political play book, got out the phone book, and found twenty to twenty-five volunteers who each agreed to be responsible for getting 200 people out for the vote. Every single one of the Delta counties had a larger turnout in the runoff than in the primary, which is unheard of. It just doesn’t happen.”
Hayes has also been a candidate himself. He ran against Bennie Thompson in a special congressional election in 1993 to replace Rep. Mike Espy, who had resigned to become Secretary of Agriculture under Bill Clinton. That district was about sixty percent African American, and Dent lost that election by ten percent.
In 2019, Dent ran for the Mississippi Senate in a district that was fifty-one percent black voting age population at the time. Due to legal maneuverings, by the time the election was held, it was a fifty-nine percent majority black district. Dent lost against Joseph Thomas by a margin of about two percent. In June, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dent’s position, and reversed the district to a fifty-one percent black voting age population.
“I would have won if they hadn’t changed the lines,” says Dent. “To say that is disappointing is a massive understatement. But, I have learned way more about everything, really, from failures. Fortunately, I have had a lot more successes than failures. Losing is part of life, though, so you have to adapt to it. While I am okay with voters making their decisions, I must say I am frustrated with those who continue even today to gerrymander voting districts to help friends. When this happens, the only loser is the voter. It’s still a sad tale, particularly in the Delta.”
Running for political office requires a tough skin.
“You have to get comfortable with people saying bad and even untrue things about you,” says Dent. “I got my first paycheck in politics in 1978 when I was sixteen years old. The biggest change since then is the attacks, personally and professionally, that people feel completely comfortable making. In some cases, opponents know it is not true and make them anyhow. You can see first-hand how low people are willing to stoop. I don’t see it reversing anytime soon. We are just in a very odd time right now in the American public square.”
The intensely partisan environment is not helping things. Dent considers that while there’s never been a more exciting time to be alive, the metrics by which government is measured have never been worse.
“My goal since I was a teenager was that my work would ultimately help get Mississippi off the bottom economically,” says Dent. “I’m fifty-eight years old and am still working on that one.”
Dent has decades of experience in politics and public administration. Highlights include working in President Reagan’s re-election campaign in 1984 and on the staff for the late Gov. Kirk Fordice in the 1990s, including being an alternate board member for the Appalachian Regional Commission. Dent was chosen to help set up the Delta Regional Authority based in Clarksdale, a similar regional community development agency formed in 2001. He moved to Cleveland and worked as the first executive director of DRA.
“It was a fantastic opportunity,” says Dent. “Federal agencies are big and overarching, and you can’t always fit a program into a certain need. With DRA, we had the flexibility to conform with what the region needed.”
Dent also handled Lynn Fitch’s campaign for state treasurer in 2011.
“Her race was exciting to be involved in,” Dent says of the woman who is now Mississippi Attorney General.
Dent also had opportunities that could have led to high places. He has been married to Carolyn Hutcheson, who is from Dallas, Texas, for twenty-five years. In 1994, Dent was invited to come work for G.W. Bush in his campaign for governor of Texas. Had Dent done that, he might have later followed Bush to the White House.
In 2003, Dent found himself working eighty hours a week for DRA, and decided he wanted to have more time to help Carolyn raise the kids, who were six, four and two at the time.
“So, I opened my public affairs firm,” says Dent. “Carolyn gave up a fantastic career in advertising to be a full-time mom. She’s done an unbelievable job and I simply can’t overstate the role she’s played in all our lives. My brother, sister and I had an idyllic, Mayberry-like upbringing in Yazoo City, and I wanted that for my kids. For me, personally, my wife and children, it has been such a success I wouldn’t trade for any elected position in the world.”
His family has been involved in politics for generations. His great-grandmother, Annie Kinkead Dent, was president of the Mississippi Women’s Suffrage Association in 1914.
In 1989, Haley Barbour helped Dent get a policy job at USDA.
“I had the opportunity to help from a staff perspective with the 1990 Farm Bill and that work led to being able to work for Gov. Fordice,” he says. “He was a unique boss, one I learned a great deal from.”
His family also has a long tradition of military service. After basic training and Officer Candidate School, he ended up with a field artillery unit in West Virginia while working for President George H.W. Bush in Washington.
“Our unit deployed into combat action in January of 1991,” says Dent. “We moved into Iraq in February of 1991 and participated in combat operations until the Iraqis surrendered on Feb. 28th, 1991. I led my unit through 346 miles of enemy territory without a casualty.”
Dent’s role models include his father, Bob Bailey. Politically, Clarke Reed and Bill Gresham were huge mentors during his time with Fordice. Dent also considers Chip Morgan and Jim Herring major role models. Special friendships have also been important, such as with Steve Guyton, a close friend since 1978.
At Hayes Public Strategies, his goal is to get it right for clients. In addition to political campaigns, the company does public relations, grassroots advocacy, economic development, traditional lobbying, crisis management and business development.
“Throughout that process, we have built a strong network of contacts throughout the state of Mississippi, in Washington, D.C., and around the country,” says Dent. “I’ve had a great partner for fifteen years, Steve Browning. Government affairs and working inside the legislative process has changed drastically since I began in state government. You have to adapt to those changes to keep up and be successful.”
He is proud of the success of their children.
“Hayes III graduated Ole Miss in December of 2019 and has adapted to the Covid-19 world by staying in Oxford and working at two jobs he really enjoys while also now managing some real estate our family owns,” says Dent. “Margaret will be a senior this fall at Ole Miss and did a fantastic job even having to cut short a semester in Italy due to Covid-19. She came out of it stronger than ever. I can’t wait to see where she lands, but it will be significant. She’s just that kind of person. Our youngest son, Kinkead, is a scholarship quarterback on the Ole Miss football team and besides that is a great student and great person.”
For recreation, he is a big fan of tennis.
“I really love the sport whether it’s playing it, watching it, or even talking about it,” he says. “I am also coming out of an extended period of not hunting much and beginning to enjoy that again. Fortunately, both of our boys have taken it up and love that, as well.”
Dent is a deacon at First Presbyterian of Yazoo City, and service on the Yazoo Port Commission and the Yazoo Historical Society. He is a board member for Delta Wildlife, and is very active in veteran activities in the region.