SUNDAY MORNING WITH: Wirt A. Yerger Jr., Businessman, Miss. Republican pioneer, 79, Jackson

What led you to identify with the Republican Party as a young man at a time when the party was in the minority in the South?
My feeling for the GOP’s political positions led me to the party, versus the ultra-liberal Democrats’ views. I believe in conservatism and even then there was little room for my principles in the national Democratic Party. The Republican Party was the place to make a difference. In the 1950s, Democrats believed in massive government spending. They wanted to expand government into realms previously reserved for the free market and private enterprise. The Democrats wanted to use taxes to take the wealth of some and give it to others who would mostly vote for Democrats. And the press was absolutely in love with the Democratic establishment leaders. I guess some things never change.

Tell us about your childhood and the people who influenced your life.
My parents influenced me greatly; family is important to me. The Boy Scouts reinforced my values and taught me to work with others to accomplish tasks and progress in learning and skills development. The teachers in the Jackson Public School System and the professors at the University of Mississippi were very instrumental in my education, and my experience in the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command was instrumental in my maturity.

For our younger readers, explain the conflicts between the “Lily Whites” and “Black-and-tan” factions of the GOP back in the 1960s.
In the first place, we weren’t the “Lily Whites.” I came into it after a lot of those battles had been fought. In 1956, it was all over and the “Black-and-Tans” had in large part faded away. Essentially, Mississippi had a puppet party controlled by interests in Washington, D.C., with no discernable purpose in helping advance policies in Mississippi. I understand a lot of people wanted to make race a defining issue for their own political purposes, but to me, principles have always been more important than race. I have always advocated a colorblind society. We need that badly still.

What’s your assessment of the two-party system in Mississippi today?
Incredible progress has been made as opposed to when I got involved in the 1950s and there was only one party. When I got started, the Democrats issued a lot of threats and never imagined the Republican Party could be successful in Mississippi. Now, seven of eight statewide elected officials and both U.S. senators are Republicans. But Democrats still control many areas of the state, so there is more work to be done. And, under the excellent leadership of Chairman Brad White, I have more confidence in the Mississippi Republican Party today than I have had for many years.

Jackson is about to choose new city leadership. What do you look for when choosing municipal leadership for Jackson for the next four years?
I want competent leaders with integrity and vision to lead Jackson into the future.

Sid Salter
Clarion Ledger