ACLU Leader Steps Down to Focus on Attorney General Race

Jennifer Riley Collins is the Democratic candidate for Mississippi attorney general. The election is in November.

Jennifer Riley Collins is the Democratic candidate for Mississippi attorney general. The election is in November. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

JACKSON—Jennifer Riley Collins, the Democratic candidate in Mississippi's race for attorney general, is now a full-time campaigner after she stepped down from her role as head of the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi.

Cassandra Welchin, the chair of the ACLU board, said the announcement came with "a mix of sadness and excitement for Mississippi."

"We will miss her and her inspiring leadership," Welchin said in a June 28 press statement.

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About 50 people showed up at a venue that would seat 1,200 to hear Republican candidates explain why voters should elect them as Mississippi's next attorney general—the state's chief legal officer who holds the power to bring or defend against lawsuits on behalf of the state.

She thanked Collins for "six years of tireless hours" and "dedicated service," pointing to her work growing the organization and focusing on issues like criminal-justice reform, "gender justice" and voting and LGBT rights.

"As the senior attorney in the ACLU of Mississippi, Jennifer has been an advisor and when necessary attorney of record, on ground breaking litigation to ensure LGBT rights were defended and police targeting of minority communities is a thing of the past," Welchin said in the press statement.

In an interview with the Jackson Free Press in March, Collins shared her views on LGBT rights, immigration and criminal-justice reform, and how she would handle those issues if elected attorney general. She also criticized Mississippi's reliance on private prisons.

"I think it was not the best economic or social decision that was made," she said. "I think right now in the State of Mississippi, as across America, there is bipartisan support for criminal-justice reform because America has learned that throwing people into prisons is not the right answer. The right answer is restoring people."

'Our Loss is Potentially Mississippi's Gain'

In the June 28 ACLU press release, Collins said she was "extremely proud and fond" of the ACLU and its staff.

"With a grateful heart, I offer my sincerest thanks to all who have been so supportive of the organization and of me personally over the years: staff, board members, and, of course, our partners and ACLU of Mississippi members," she said. "Without you, the organization would not be as strong, relevant and impactful as it is. I am so honored to have been the leader and co-conspirator for positive change in Mississippi. I will watch with much excitement and anticipation as it continues to promote, defend and extend civil liberties to all Mississippians."

In the release, Welchin hinted at her belief that Collins would serve Mississippi well as attorney general.

"While the ACLU of Mississippi does not endorse or oppose candidates, our loss is potentially Mississippi's gain as Jennifer has made the decision to resign so that she can direct all her energy on the goal she has set before her," she said.

The ACLU has not yet hired a new executive director, and will spend the next few months searching for a new leader, Welchin said.

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During the JFP's afternoon interview with Jennifer Riley Collins in downtown Jackson, she explained what she believes she can bring to the attorney general's office.

"During this transition period, it is our priority to find the best individual to lead, while still maintaining a stable and effective organization," she said. "We will share the job announcement soon and ask for your help in identifying candidates who can help ACLU of Mississippi continue along the impactful trajectory Jennifer has set us on."

Collins does not have a Democratic challenger in this summer's primary. In November, she will face the Republican nominee. The Republican candidates are State Rep. Mark Baker of Brandon; State Treasurer Lynn Fitch; and longtime GOP lawyer Andy Taggart.

Mississippi Chooses Primary Candidates on Aug. 6

Mississippi will hold party primaries for all statewide offices, including attorney general, on Aug. 6.

Mississippians must register at least 30 days before an election in order to be eligible to vote, and must show an accepted form of photo ID at the voting booth, a list of which is available on the secretary of state website. County circuit clerks across the state offer all residents free photo IDs that they can use to vote.

For the primary, voters must postmark registrations by July 8, or return them to the county circuit clerk in person by 5 p.m. on that day. Absentee voters have until Aug. 5 to return completed ballots. More information on voting is available online at the secretary of state's website.

The general election takes place on Nov. 5.

Follow state reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman and follow his photojournalism on Instagram @ashtoninms. Send tips to ashton@jacksonfreepress.com. Donna Ladd contributed to this report.


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