Richard Sellers comes from a long family line of educators. Currently a special-education teacher at Brandon High School and a member of the Mississippi Army National Guard, Sellers, 31, believes serving on the Jackson City Council is a natural extension of his service experience.
Sellers and his wife, Amanda, a medical student at UMMC, do not have children, but Sellers says he is passionate about making Jackson Public Schools as desirable for families to send their kids to as local private academies and suburban school districts. If elected, Picayune native Sellers promises to leave his teaching job to give all his attention to being a councilman.
You have not run for public office before. Why now?
My wife finished med school a few years ago and is in the process of finishing (her) residency at (University of Mississippi Medical Center). I'm establishing my career as a teacher. Honestly, I never saw politics on the horizon for me anytime soon. It's something that interested me, but I assumed it would be much later. With that said, at the end of the summer, with Mr. (Quentin) Whitwell resigning, we were interested to see which way our ward would go with candidates. Then, after a few announced (their candidacy), I started thinking about it more and more, and it seemed like an opportunity, through the special election, (whereby) I might be able to serve the city of Jackson.
Looking back at the city council over the past year, is there any vote or discussion you wish you could have been a part of—something they got wrong, something they got right?
One thing we've really got to do a good job on is infrastructure. (With) the late mayor (Chokwe Lumumba) coming in and working on the sales-tax increase and getting the council involved, I would have liked to have been involved in the implementation of that. Some of the ways they've done the oversight committee, I'm interested to see how that process works.
What about that process has troubled you?
I just want to make sure that the council, the people with boots on the ground, have the authority to spend the money on the priorities that the city needs. We've got a lot of needs in the city. We've got 8 percent of our mainline water pipes over 100 years old. We've got to address those issues. Repaving projects like Fortification (Street) that are going to be budgeted into that increase, I think we've got to manage those better because our business owners were really hurt by the lengthy process. So hopefully, the council can have some influence in getting contractors to move through the process quickly and help our businesses and our citizens get back to life as normal.
Have you developed a wish list of infrastructure projects for Ward 1?
The streets, mainly. The potholes, making sure they're fixed in a timely manner. Making sure that the boil-water notices are held to a minimum and that the problems we're having with the water system are addressed. We've got about $15 million that we're going to be able to spend on projects, and the mayor is saying that could be four to 10 projects. But there are hundreds of millions of dollars in projects across the city, and we need to prioritize what's most important for the city as a whole, not just northeast Jackson.
What else does the ward need?
We need to make sure we have good schools in place for our kids. The things that I see (being a real) emphasis on are: economic development in the ward and the city, building our tax base by attracting business that will bring jobs for citizens, so our citizens don't have to go seeking employment in the suburbs. We can't do anything about the fact that the Braves decided to locate in Pearl. We can't fix the fact that the Renaissance (at Colony Park) is a mile outside of the city limits. But we can be more attractive to businesses that want to establish themselves in the city of Jackson. So (we need to work) with those business leaders, (make) sure they know that Jackson will support them, (do) what needs to be done on crime prevention, (the) education system and for infrastructure (so) they feel comfortable moving their businesses into the city.
We've got some economic development happening in our ward right now on a large scale with the District (at Eastover) project. I'm really excited about that, just the refreshed new vibe that will bring to that area and potentially the first new movie theater in Jackson in years and years.
But even on a small scale, we've got business owners like Nathan Glenn who have been established in Fondren for many years but sees the appeal of northeast Jackson to bring a new business in and just opened The Feathered Cow. So we've got business owners in the city seeing northeast Jackson thriving, and it's going to be a good place to relocate or locate new businesses.
In northeast Jackson, there are often tensions between business and residents. We saw that with Whole Foods, for example. How would you help manage those conflicts?
The good thing about me being in that Ward 1 position is that I'm going to be there everyday. I'm going to reach out to our residents. This is going to be my first priority; whereas, individuals who have served in the past have had to split their time between personal business, the city council and other obligations. I feel like I will be able to listen to what our residents are saying, get an idea of what their needs are and then balance that with the needs of our local business owners and try to come to resolutions.
What's your assessment of the business climate in Jackson?
Jackson does seem to have a reputation of not being friendly with business. I think that comes from previous administrations, long before Mayor Yarber's administration. And I think he's doing a great job reaching out to businesses. I think we have similar backgrounds coming from education.
Mayor Yarber is someone I think I could work well with and together we could change some of that perception that Jackson is a tough place to do business. I think, in general, Jackson has an image outside of the city limits is less than desirable, from crime to poorer education systems (that) tarnishes Jackson's name a little bit, but I think there are some misconceptions there.
And I think there's a lot of ignorance outside of Jackson as to what's really happening in (the city). Jackson is thriving in a lot of ways. You look at the revitalization of Fondren in the past 10 years and how it's exploded with business and economic growth, and it's a great place to raise a family now. I think that can happen all across this city.
Our new police chief, Lee Vance, is going to do a great job with JPD. He's a guy that's been with the department a long time. I think he sees the needs, and I think he's passionate about changing the crime problems in Jackson.
Dr. (Cedrick) Gray at JPS, he's got a vision for what he wants to do, but as a city we've got to support. All the stakeholders (need to) jump in and be involved, not just the principals and the teachers, not just parents. Businesses, community members, all have to buy into JPS and make sure all our schools are a great place to learn.
Do you have children?
Until Amanda finishes residency, it's probably not the best idea. But moving forward, we do want to have children, and we want to send them to public schools in Jackson. Right now, I don't know if that's the best option, but I want to be a part of that change, for JPS to be a place where anyone could send their kids.
I think you have a lot of middle-aged families who live all across the city who have kids and, by the time they get to be school age, have to make that decision whether it's best to send them to a school that is failing, or is it easier to move to Clinton or Rankin or Madison to get a better education for their kids if they're not able to afford (Jackson) Prep or (Jackson Academy)? Prep and JA are wonderful schools. They are an asset to our community, but they're not for everybody. I think we need to have a good public-school option for our citizens in Jackson.
But what is the role for a member of the Jackson City Council in education?
Don't get me wrong. The city council doesn't make decisions on a day to day basis for the schools like the school board, but in approving budgets, I think the influence that the city council in a positive way, can help JPS be successful. We spend a lot of money on public schools in the city of Jackson. We spend more than most areas of the state and the product that we have seen is not reflective of the money being spent. We've got to change that. We've got to make sure that as a city we address some of the problems that JPS has had. I think Dr. Gray is doing a great job at that, but we've got to give him the support from the city for him to implement the things I think he needs to make JPS successful.
On a day to day basis, I think a councilman can hear the needs of the community, what his or her ward is really feeling about the schools and bring those concerns to Dr. Gray in a more structured format. One thing that I know would be really beneficial for northeast Jackson is bringing in a middle school or high school in the ward. With Murrah not being in the area, it makes it hard to send your kids across town to go to high school.
I'd like to ask about some of the bigger economic developments in town. Starting with Farish Street, do you have an opinions on what's happened there or should happen?
I would love to see Farish Street mimic the appeal of Beale Street in Memphis. I think everyone in the city and the state wants to see Farish Street thrive. I think that could be a beneficial thing for downtown.
What about One Lake?
I love the idea of One Lake. I think it could be really attractive for our city and I think it could be a wonderful place to have more business development come. Chattanooga has really thrived with that concept along with other cities—Baton Rouge, along the river front, which are similar parallels to what we could do with One Lake in Jackson. But being able to overcome some of the obstacles in terms of gaining support I don't know that it's a project that will ever go through in the city of Jackson. If it could be done in a budget friendly way where there wasn't a great burden on the city to devote funds away from other priorities, I think it could be a good project.
Are your concerns primarily economic?
I think being fiscally responsible with anything we do in the city is a primary concern, making sure we aren't wasting money when we've got infrastructure needs that have to be addressed first. So the funding for the project, I'm not familiar enough with the details to know if the city could support it but it is an attractive option if the city was able to go forward.
What's kind of the central thrust of your campaign? What are you running on?
The three key issues are bringing in and build a strong tax base that can support the city as a whole, eliminating the crime problems that we have in Jackson through supporting Lee Vance and his administration, making sure he has the tools he needs to do. (Thirdly,) Making sure we're positively impacting our communities through cleaning up the streets. I think the crimes problems we have in Jackson are direct parallels to some of the education problems we've seen over the past few years because if we're not graduating kids and presenting them with opportunities to go on and be successful, to get good jobs then at best those students that JPS has failed, our city, our state, our nation as a whole is going to support them through the entitlement system. At worst, those students that have flunked out, that have dropped out are going to be involved in the crime problems that we have in the city. So I think addressing education, in the long term, is really going to help our crime problem in the city. Short term crime problems, I think Lee Vance has some great ideas for.
The city council votes unanimously on most issues, what are the kinds of things you would vote no on?
Irresponsible spending, making sure our budget priorities—that we're taking care of the needs the city has—but that all frivolous spending is eliminated and we're devoting all our extra revenue to infrastructure improvement. The one thing that I think my special education experience in general can bring to the city council is that on any given day, I work with 50 different teachers throughout our high school to help our students. I work with our administration, I talk to parents daily. I'm building relationships with so many different people from so many different backgrounds, but we all have one common goal and that's student success. When you work towards a common goal, you can work with people who have different ideological views.
As a strong conservative, I probably have some different views that some of our council members on things, but I think if we work together on the goal of success for the city of Jackson, moving the city forward, I think we can come to understands on the direction for the city.