The JFP Interview with Bill Luckett

Photo by Troy Catchings

In Clarksdale, Miss., Bill Luckett may as well already be governor. An attorney by training, he seems to have a hand in nearly every significant activity in town. Down the road from his law office, a revitalization effort is afoot in downtown Clarksdale. Ground Zero Blues Club and Madidi Restaurant, two ventures Luckett owns with actor Morgan Freeman, are central to this progress. Luckett is in the middle of renovating two more historic structures, the McWilliams Building and the Alcazar Hotel.

While he hires work crews for larger projects, Luckett will spend Saturdays repainting windows. When he checks on progress at the Alcazar halfway through our interview, he can't resist lifting a bulbous skylight from the floor, where it's waiting to be installed. He clambers through a window onto a roof that workers are resurfacing, apparently oblivious to the chipped paint and sawdust sticking to his pinstriped suit.

Luckett, 62, has never held public office, though he served on the Coahoma County Democratic Party Executive Committee from 1974 to 1983. He formed a political action committee, Progress for Mississippi, in June 2009; in September, he confirmed his intention to run for governor in 2011.

Candidates must wait until January 2011 to file qualifying papers, and Luckett is spending much of the intervening months boning up on issues and making trips to other parts of the state. He seems both eager and serious when we meet in his law office for an interview. On his desk near his right hand, he has a stack of policy reports covering economics, prisons and education. To his left, Luckett keeps his pilot's log. Luckett flies his own twin-propeller Cessna 4414 to speaking engagements around the state.

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?

You're going back to school?
I've been going back to school. I have a passionate concern about our ranking nationally in just general education. While we have pockets and pockets of places in Mississippi that excel educationally, we also have a lot of places where we fail, or near fail, on a consistent basis. I know we're ranked 50th in education. And I think we're ranked—correspondingly—first in poverty.

They're intractably related.
So I've been going to classrooms here at different schools—here in the city school system primarily. I've been witnessing first-hand what's going on in the Clarksdale Municipal School District.

What have you noticed?
What I noticed surprised me. I thought that class participation, student-wise, was excellent. The teachers seemed qualified and earnest and eager. They had good control of the classrooms. I was impressed at how good it looked. I walked out of each of the classes shaking my head, like: "Why are we 50th nationally, and why is this school failing, or near failing?" A lot of the Delta systems are like that, and other parts of the state are as well.

I started digging deeper and drilling down, and as I got more into it, I came away with one conclusion for sure and a few others that aren't so clear or definite, yet. The one conclusion I came away with is that the students were already behind when they got to that class. In other words, a first grader was really operating at what a pre-K (student) should have been operating at, and an eighth-grader was operating at a fifth-grade level. …

Education is my long-term, passionate, get-us-off-the-bottom goal. It's going to take a number of years. It's going to be more than any one, two, three or four terms in office before I think we see some tangible results. We've got to start. I know there are efforts underway. Just about every politician you hear talks about: "Let's improve education; let's improve education." I think I may (have) more of a passion than others.

Have you come up with any ideas?
One of the big areas is getting into early childhood education. Again, this is not novel. There are a lot of groups out there doing it.

It's still pretty novel for Mississippi.
Well, in a way it is. We don't even have mandatory kindergarten, although I think 97 percent of the eligible kids actually attend. But we're already too far behind by the time kids get to kindergarten, unless they've been educated in a home setting—read to, pushed to start making words, pronounce things and do simple addition. A lot of these students don't have that benefit.

One of the solutions I see is in involving and engaging our faith-based organizations, our non-profits, just get a good system of volunteers from the PTA involved. I think we're going to have to teach some parents how to be better parents in this process.

We've got a lot of formidable problems, and they're multi-faceted. It's going to take a multi-faceted approach to solve them. But with the lack of revenue like it is, to try to press pre-K, formal education classrooms, we're going to have to involve the volunteer sector.

Are there groups or people—in state or out of state—that you're looking to as sources of advice or positive examples?
I welcome every opportunity I find to talk to the Mississippi Association of Educators, Mississippi First, Mississippi Building Blocks, the Barksdale Reading Institute folks. I welcome the opportunity to talk, and sometimes I'll initiate the discussion. So I've been meeting with people like this fairly frequently.

At Koinonia Coffee House, you mentioned that you'd visited the KIPP charter school in Helena, Ark. What impressed you about that?
One year, over at Madidi Restaurant, we were doing a fundraiser, if you will, for Teach for America. It was an appreciation, "but bring the check, please"—one of those things. And part of the program was a couple of people who came from Helena, Arkansas, and introduced themselves as working for KIPP: Knowledge Is Power Program. It's a charter school, founded by some former Teach For America teachers. … The numbers they explained to us just floored me. … They said their scores nationally and statewide (at first) put them in the bottom one-fifth percentile. They were 81 or something. Four years later, those same students were in the 19th (or) top one-fifth percentile. Their counterparts back in the public school system were still in the bottom one-fifth. Now, every one of those 26 graduates is going to college. It's an impressive story.

My first stop when I got home that night was to Google KIPP and start reading about it. Then I called some friends of mine in Clarksdale who I know are concerned like me. … We started looking for certain parts of the state, like around here in Clarksdale, to try to get an opportunity to open a charter school. The more I discussed, the more pushback we seemed to get. I thought: "Well, if it works in a charter school, why won't it work in a whole public-school system?" So I embrace that concept. It's not rocket science what they do. It's quite simple actually. The teachers—there's a bit of cheerleader in them. There's a little "ra-ra" going on. But they work longer hours; they raise the expectations bar higher. They get shorter summers and (work) Saturdays. It's just more of a concentrated effort.

You mentioned the challenge the state faces in getting revenue. Are there changes to the state should make on that, changes to the tax code?
I do sympathize with our elected officials in the House and the Senate. They've got a certain amount of revenue to deal with and they've got people tugging at them from every perspective: "Fix our roads"; "we want more police"; "We need better schools." It's a tug-of-war going on.

What I don't seem to be seeing any of are studies geared toward looking at alternative sources of revenue. And I don't mean increasing taxes. But perhaps looking at collecting the taxes that are actually legally due on purchases made on the Internet (from) out of state. Maybe it's just a lack of personnel at the Tax Commission, but when you or I buy a book on Amazon, or you or I buy something from L.L. Bean, we're not only not doing business with our local retailer, we're sending that business out of state, but we're not paying state and local taxes on it. When I learned that Black Friday, which is typically the biggest retail day of the year, was exceeded this year by Cyber Monday, which is the Monday right after the Thanksgiving Black Friday, I thought: "Look at the revenue we've probably lost, and the business, generally, to keep the retailer down the street, on Main Street, open."

When you hit that "Enter" button, and you pay with a credit card, and you get something out of state sent to you, you didn't favor the local guy—your neighbor. Those wages were lost that would've gone to the worker locally, who would've processed your order or handled the sale, and we don't collect a penny of tax.

Do you know how much Mississippi might be losing per year?
I don't know. I've got a very good Forbes magazine article about this very thing. We're not the only state that's suffering.

Are there other states that have implemented the tax?
There's a compact of a certain number of states who have pronounced or said they're on board with a flat tax nationally. But to enforce the collection of a tax when you're buying something from, say, Wisconsin or Maine, is difficult. The Mississippi State Tax Commission can only reach so far.

But there is a law on the books that's a use tax that we're supposed to pay anyway when something comes in across state lines. You're usually caused to pay that when there's an automobile purchase. When you get your tag, they catch you there. Or if you bring an airplane in and you seek to register it, they catch you there.

Those are big-item sales, and sure that's the bigger item, tax-wise. But the bigger volume—everything from books to clothes that we buy over the Internet—is just escaping tax. It bears some study, and it may prove it's not workable. But I don't see an effort to collect those things that could already be collected.

You've mentioned your interest in solar power before. How would the state get involved in that?
Well the state could provide some incentive to do it: some tax breaks, some research and development, some university involvement. That's just one of the things I think about. None of these are novel or exclusive to me, but I've just been pretty well convinced that it's something we should look at real hard.

I want to ask you about another aspect of revenue. What do you think of the state's approach to economic development?
Well, I do like the effort, but I don't think we make enough of an effort at cultural tourism. We have a wealth of that that we offer the world. I like the efforts being made by the Mississippi Development Authority and the sub-set of that called the Tourism Department. I wish more were being done there, because I think it'll pay us rich dividends.

I chair a group here in Clarksdale called Clarksdale Revitalization Inc., and we had our monthly meeting last night. There's an effort underway to get a site where Aaron Henry's drugstore was located made into a museum-type setting. Move his personal residence onto the site where his drugstore burned down and make a museum out of it. People are asking me all the time: "Where's Aaron Henry's drugstore?" That's the same thing that led me and a couple others to open Ground Zero Blues Club. All the tourists come into Clarksdale wondering where they can hear some live music.

How did you meet Morgan Freeman?
I met him in the mid-'90s when he called to get my help as a lawyer and as a construction-educated person with a house project he had going on at the time. I not only practice law; I think I'm a frustrated architect. I used to buy cabins and creek houses on the bank as a kid, and I've always had some form of renovation of old buildings.

We just became very good, very quick friends through that. That project took us about three years to get it finished. By then we were visiting each other back and forth in each other's homes. So that's when the idea (for Ground Zero Blues Club) came up. We started talking about seeing all these tourists on the street, wondering where they could hear music. And we said: "Let's start a juke joint."

Initially, we had music two nights a week; now it's four nights a week. We opened Madidi Restaurant first. We opened Ground Zero Blues Club on May 11, 2001. Before that, you could've taken a deer rifle and fired a bullet here down either the parking lane of Delta Avenue and not hit a single car. You would've ended up in the berm of the railroad track, having hit nothing. Now you get 60 cars down the street. It's hard to get a parking spot some nights. From no restaurants on Delta to five restaurants now—we kind of became those anchors, and this town has grasped that little bit of an opportunity.

Is there any kind of example there for how the state can approach its own development?
Well, a lot of people I hear comment about me: "If he'll do for the state what he's done for Clarksdale, we need him in there."

But what would happen to Clarksdale if you left?
Well, I've got Clarksdale. It's well in hand now. I'm still involved in some projects here. Other people have picked it up.

It just takes leadership. It takes a little bit of risk. You've got to be an entrepreneur. With gain comes pain. Without risk, what do you have? Not everything works, necessarily, to make a profit. But all of it works to start jobs and get a little buzz going. People feel the vibe, and now Yazoo Avenue is coming back to life.

You mentioned civil-rights leader Aaron Henry. Did you know him?
I knew him well. He took me under that proverbial wing when I was a 25-year-old lawyer coming back here to practice law with my father in 1974. He may have seen something in me; I don't know. He said: "Let's work together. Let's build a better town. Let's build a better state." He got me involved, early on, in the Democratic Party, as co-chair with him. I think I said in that speech I gave the other day: What that meant was he found somebody to do a lot of the work. But I'm not lamenting that fact at all. We worked well together, and he gave me a lot of the insight that he had. … I did that 'til 1983.

What was Clarksdale like during your high school years?
Clarksdale was a segregated town, with white schools and black schools. My senior year, in 1966, a young lady entered the ninth or 10th grade in my high school as the first integration effort. My parents were tolerant, moderate people. But Clarksdale was divided with a railroad track, like many southern towns. We weren't unique by any means, but Aaron Henry was following in the footsteps of Martin Luther King Jr.

Aaron Henry was nonviolent, although he was treated with violence—firebombs, bricks through his front windows. I was at his daughter's wedding at his house, hoping nobody would throw a brick through to ruin the day for his daughter's wedding. But I never have seen a Ku Klux Klan person in a robe or sheet. We haven't had fire hoses and tear gas going on in Clarksdale. Aaron Henry settled matters and resolved issues differently. That was good for this town. We weren't scarred so much as other places were. We didn't have the hangings and shootings that went on.

What work does the state need to do in terms of race relations?
I wish I could wave a magic wand. I tell you, what really needs to keep happening is somehow subtly just get black and white people together more. Find some common themes. We've found it with music at Ground Zero Blues Club. People are there just having a good time. Most of the time, we have a good mixed-race crowd. It's usually got a crowd of locals and foreigners from both directions, east and west. It's a great unifier. Kind of like the "Invictus" movie, with (Nelson) Mandela, with Morgan (Freeman) playing him. They got behind a rugby team.

So it's prosperity then? With prosperity comes better race relations?
I would hope so. I know that living in the poorest state in America, and living in the poorest part of the poorest state in America, we have a long way to go to be prosperous. I'd love to see everybody in this state prosper and get us beyond this one-third of us who are at poverty or below. With that, when everybody prospers, we all share in the tax burden better or equitably. There's less inequality.

We have a flat, five percent state income tax. Everybody pays the same rate, not necessarily the same amount, but if everybody were prospering, it helps us all. I try to get that message; I think it ought to resonate. It helps you to want your guy—your fellow man across town or down the street—do well.

How do you think being from the Delta affects your candidacy?
I think it gives me more drive and more determination. When you've been exposed to the poorest part of the state, the yearning to get out past it is stronger. But bear in mind, the Delta is just a microcosm of the entire state. The entire state is the poorest in America. We just happen to be in the poorest part of it.

I'm afraid, from my research, that the gap is widening between 50th and 49th in a number of areas. Some of the research I've done is startling: A white male in Washington, D.C., has an average life expectancy eight years longer than a white male in Mississippi. Eight years. An average citizen in Coahoma County has an average life expectancy six years less than an average person in Rankin County in Mississippi. These numbers are staggering, and they're depressing. Black males in Mississippi earn about a third as much as a black male in Maryland. The white males in Mississippi are 48th (in average income) and black males are 50th. (White males are) not that much better off. They earn far less than blacks in most other states.

We're all in this boat together and a rising tide can float all the boats. I just see that we've got a ways to go, and I want to help get us there.

Before Gov. Barbour, not a lot of people looked at the governor's seat as an especially strong position. He seems to have wielded the veto and things like that powerfully. How do you feel about the amount of power he's amassed for the position?
I think that history tells us in the way we're constitutionally arranged, the way we're set up as a state government, that the governor and the executive branch are supposedly no stronger than the other two branches. I think Haley is a very astute politician, and he's been successful most of the time at reaching the result he wants. I think that some of the strengths in the governor's office are the fact that the governor can call a special session, which puts a lot of focus—media and just the fact that there's a single focus involved—and gets everybody looking at a single issue at the same time, which has got to have some strength or value there.

Plus, the governor's office has the proverbial bully pulpit for drawing attention to things. There are ways to take what's available to that office and put it to good use.

How did you feel about Barbour's resistance to accepting the stimulus funds for unemployment insurance?
I wish he had accepted it, because it was going to the unemployed, who are typically around the Delta and in any of the heavy agricultural areas of the state are seasonally unemployed. A lot of them depend on that to get them over the hump. … (In agricultural communities) there are about four to six months a year when people are laid off, so to speak. They're seasonally unemployed. And I know that his position seemed to be: "Well, this isn't just free money. We've got to pay it back some day."

A lot of those types of later payback expectations never get realized. There are ways those somehow get forgotten. Post-Katrina, the state owes debt. A lot of the political entities owe debt back to the federal government for rebuilding the infrastructure. A lot of them are hurting. I know Bay St. Louis was extremely debilitated in terms of all the energy systems, the utility poles, and they're really worried with the population not coming back like they'd hoped. I hope there's some forgiveness in there.

I thought the same thing, but I probably would've made a different decision. I know the decision that was reached, but I would've looked at it a lot harder.

What do you think of Barbour's plans to sue the federal government over the health-care bill?
Well, I hope he doesn't, but I know he wants to. I hope that's not the case. I don't think the health-care bill is by any means perfect. There are parts of it that I just really took issue with, but I think generally we have to provide our citizens with some way to get help when they're sick.

I really wish we would put a lot more emphasis on the preventive side of it so they don't get sick. But when you've got 600,000—a quarter of (Mississippi's) population without insurance—and I've got a stepson in this very situation. He falls in a crack between not making too little and not making quite enough, and he doesn't get insurance. It's a very difficult, real problem for a lot of people. When you get up close and personal with those who don't have it, it comes back at you, you see it firsthand.

I've read compelling arguments in both directions on it, but when we're number one, in the United States, in health care expenses, and we're 37th in quality of care, according to the World Health Organization, there's something wrong with that picture, in my mind's eye. … Sickness doesn't respect persons. It hits anybody, anytime. For most people—even if you have insurance—it could wreck you financially. Those are risks that I think ought to be shared.

I've seen you getting down on the dance floor at the 930 Blues Café. I don't think I've known of a gubernatorial candidate to be that uninhibited on the dance floor.
I'm not wild. My wife and I just like to dance. We have a good time. Francine's a great dancer; I just try to keep up with her.

Previous Comments

ID
164267
Comment

Read this JFP Interview with Bill Luckett in case you missed it.

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-03T18:26:16-06:00
ID
164271
Comment

Here is my experience with Bill Luckett. He announced early and I was eager to find a candidate I could vote for (this is before I was asked to run). I really wanted to like Mr. Luckett. I asked for his platform. I was invited to attend a fundraiser. I liked his facebook page and asked about his platform. I was sent an invite (several) to fundraisers. I looked for any information on his platform - only found fundraisers. Later, after giving up on him having any substance, I overheard someone complaining about being at a funeral (graveside, I believe) and Mr. Luckett handing out political fliers. ( They thought it was tacky. ) I then heard about the residency issue. Mr. Luckett recently sent out a press release that gave the impression a regular lunch event was a Luckett Supporter gathering. It was not. I was at the event - not campaigning because it was not a political rally, but because I enjoy being around like-minded individuals. I don't try to co-opt events for my own gain. ( I did answer questions from a reporter when asked though. ) My experience with him and/or his campaign has given me the impression that he is ethically challenged. Maybe my standards are too high. Maybe that behavior is acceptable for politicians and salesmen. I, however, do not find it acceptable and could not support someone who does. I am actually torn between keeping silent so as to not be seen as trying to influence the runoff or giving my experience/opinion to inform potential voters. ( I decided to err on the side of freedom of information )

Author
BobbyKearan
Date
2011-08-04T08:56:05-06:00
ID
164282
Comment

What has he done for Clarksdale? Started 2 businesses that have made him and Morgan Freeman money? That's not doing anything for Clarksdale that's for himself. My niece use to work for him, she lives in SC now but she has laughing fits everytime she sees something about him running for governor,she hopes to God the people of Miss aren't that stupid to elect him.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-08-04T17:31:20-06:00
ID
164287
Comment

BubbaT: Just out of curiosity were those businesses bad for the community? I don't know what those businesses were and certainly the profits were good for Luckett, Freeman and the other investors, if any. Were the jobs that went with those businesses a negative? Were the majority of customers unhappy? Usually successful businesses get that way only by generally satisfying the needs of the customers, employees, suppliers and investors—not perfectly of course, no human endeavor ever is, but positive on balance. Just to be clear, I have never met Mr. Luckett and have no opinion of him as person, businessmen or a politician. My only point is ask why the only benefit from the two businesses were to those gentlemen. Richard A. Sun, CFA

Author
RichardASun
Date
2011-08-04T21:48:45-06:00
ID
164288
Comment

@Bobby - I should clarify that Luckett didn't say the lunch was for him, but so many people there knew him that I assumed it was. You and some DuPree supporters were quick to set me straight, though, and I appreciated you talking to me. :)

Author
lizwaibel
Date
2011-08-05T07:49:46-06:00
ID
164302
Comment

Richard- creating a few of jobs does little for Clarksdale overall. I have alot of family that lives there, and they can't think of one thing he has done for Clarksdale.

Author
BubbaT
Date
2011-08-05T15:24:21-06:00
ID
164310
Comment

Just in, verbatim: Luckett “Get It Done” Runoff Tour Bill Luckett, candidate for governor, will hold a press conference to discuss the second leg of his “Get It Done” Tour. “Mississippians are ready to end the cronyism, stop the good ol’ boyism and turn off the political careerism. Mississippians are ready to say no to the politicians who have created the problems and now claiming they will fix the problems… let’s call that Phil Bryantism. It’s time to build a new Mississippi where ALL Mississippians stand together building great schools, more and better paying jobs, safe neighborhoods, and strong families and communities. We can do it. We will do it.” When: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 at 10:00am Where: South Steps, Mississippi Capital, Jackson

Author
DonnaLadd
Date
2011-08-08T12:00:58-06:00
ID
164315
Comment

@lizwaibel - He may not have said it, but his press release didn't mention the meeting. It was very ambiguous and misleading. I would have worded it much more clearly. ... of course, reading the "Get it Done" release it seems like he has read my blog and listened to my Water Valley speech.

Author
BobbyKearan
Date
2011-08-08T13:39:06-06:00

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