TUPELO • Randy Wadkins never aimed his life at a political career.

A Democrat running in the 1st Congressional District in an effort to unseat Republican incumbent Trent Kelly, Wadkins is a university professor making a first run at elected office.

“I have a 9 a.m. class I have to teach on Nov. 7,” Wadkins said. “Worst case scenario, I get up Wednesday morning and teach my class.”

But that doesn’t mean his candidacy against a well-funded incumbent is an empty act of protest. When Wadkins, an Iuka native, looks around north Mississippi, he sees and hears people who don’t think politics-as-usual is working for them.

And he wants to be their voice.

“There’s just this frustration that people do not feel like anyone is listening in their lives,” Wadkins said. “That is the common theme I have heard everywhere.”

Wadkins is a professor of chemistry and a cancer researcher at the University of Mississippi. He has taught there about 15 years.

Describing himself as a pragmatic centrist, Wadkins got a close look at the political process while serving as a science and technology congressional fellow for Rep. Steven Cohen, D-Memphis, from 2015-16.

“I spent a year in Washington watching what was going on and I was disgusted by it,” Wadkins said.

That’s what drives Wadkins – his aversion to the system and his sense that real people have been left behind.

“It’s nothing about me,” Wadkins said.

Healthcare is among his policy priorities. A perhaps unlikely candidate, he announced his political intentions about a year-and-a-half ago amid an ongoing push by the GOP-controlled Congress to scrap so-called Obamacare.

Wadkins has rejected replacement proposals offered by Republicans, though he believes the Affordable Care Act failed in some ways. Eventually, Wadkins hopes to see a Medicare-for-all style program.

“It’s not socialized medicine,” Wadkins said. “It’s basically reworking insurance.”

On other national issues, he decries the roll-back of EPA regulations and is concerned about climate change. He supports a broad swath of criminal justice reform efforts.

An educator himself, his website details a number of policies to support public education, including some debt relief for graduates in high-needs fields and areas.

On the national scene, Wadkins hopes to see a freshly energized centrism and doesn’t rule out common ground with a president he has criticized.

“Some of the things he has proposed, I’m actually good with,” Wadkins said of Donald Trump. “If he’s serious about building infrastructure, I could work with him on that.”

The political-newcomer talks about local needs as much as national policy, explicitly casting as a district-first problem solver after the model of north Mississippi’s long-serving Rep. Jamie Whitten.

He’s concerned about brain drain and wants to combat it by bringing high-tech jobs to Mississippi.

Steering into mid-term races, Republicans in Mississippi and across the country have touted strong economic indicators, including a vibrant stock market and low unemployment.

Wadkins isn’t convinced the economy looks great from all corners of the 1st Congressional District. And he’s pinning his electoral hopes that people are ready to try something different.

“When we talk about the economy, it’s going great for people who already had wealth, not people from Tishomingo County, Lee County and Calhoun County,” Wadkins said. “You can’t solve a problem if you don’t admit the problem exists.”

caleb.bedillion@journalinc.com Twitter: @CalebBedillion

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