The JFP Interview with Bill Luckett

What possessed you to run for governor?
“Possessed” may be the right word for it—a combination of events and push. I do a speech about the Delta where I quote Fannie Lou Hamer, who said, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I wrote a paper in college when I majored in American government at the University of Virginia about the cycle of poverty in Mississippi. Here we are: I was an 18-year-old (then); I’m 62 (now), and I could turn that paper in tomorrow. We try, but we don’t quite get there. That, and friends of mine urged me to run because they know me from various positions of leadership on different boards like hunting clubs and banks.

How do you feel the climate is for a Democrat statewide?
I’m the underdog, let’s put it that way. We’ve got one elected Democrat out of 10 in statewide office. The other nine are Republicans. But I’m into entrepreneurship and business as well. I (believe in) giving people a leg up and not a handout, but a hand up is important, too. When you’re in a part of the state that just lags, we who are more blessed than others—I really just feel a social urge to help people. Maybe it’s part of being an Episcopalian; maybe it’s a part of doing hard work as a kid. I was a janitor at the office of the building I now own. I was a house painter. I painted the nicest houses in this town. I’m still a house painter. I was a house painter through law school: I painted (former Ole Miss Chancellor) Robert Khayat’s house when he came there as a young civil-procedure professor. I had five law students working for me as house painters, making a living with me, while I was in law school with them. So I’ve always been busy, entrepreneuring, coming up with ideas.

That’s different from many Democratic politicians in this state.
I have a very strong work ethic. I’m so pleased to know that Mississippi is number one for getting off welfare to work. I read that statistic the other day. Most people don’t like being welfare recipients. They want to have a meaningful job. And they do better, frankly, off of welfare. They get some sense of purpose in theirs lives. But a lot of people don’t have that chance. You’ve got to be able to move your mindset (to imagine) growing up one of these neighborhoods over here, born to a 15- or 16-year-old mother, and right back repeating that cycle of poverty and the whole system of schoolhouse, to courthouse, to jailhouse that we’ve got going on. Mississippi and Louisiana are the two worst states in the world in terms of incarceration rates. Russia’s second. We spend three times as much per year, per prisoner, than we do per year, per student. I’m not soft on crime here; I’m just pointing out that if we could eventually transform those numbers and get prisoners more productive in terms of doing things that help society while their freedom is restricted, and get students an earlier opportunity, we’ll start seeing fewer prisoners. I’ve had these epiphanies come to me sometimes. Even one came at an Ole Miss football game. I was thinking, “Here I am. It’s $55 a ticket, and you have to pay a lot more than that just to get good seats.” How many Mississippians could afford to do what a lot of us take for granted?

JFP
4/8/10