Cristen Hemmins: Education, Equal Pay and Taking On Tollison | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Cristen Hemmins: Education, Equal Pay and Taking On Tollison

Cristen Hemmins is the Democratic candidate for the District 9 Senate seat—challenging longtime senator Gray Tollison who serves as the chairman of the Senate education committee.

Cristen Hemmins is the Democratic candidate for the District 9 Senate seat—challenging longtime senator Gray Tollison who serves as the chairman of the Senate education committee. Photo by Arielle Dreher.

Jackson native Cristen Hemmins decided to run for the District 9 Senate seat (which includes Oxford and most of Lafayette County and part of Panola County) when her opponent, Gray Tollison, introduced Initiative 42A to the Senate. Hemmins, a public-school advocate and Initiative 42 backer, collected signatures for the citizen-driven ballot initiative before she began her own campaigning.

Hemmins has lived in Oxford for 22 years, moving down to complete her master's degree in southern studies at the University of Mississippi after graduating from Vanderbilt University with a bachelor's degree in English. Hemmins, who transitioned from bookselling to independently selling advertising for magazines, works from home, running her own businesses and raising her family. "I am my own boss," Hemmins said. "The job I do is cyclical, so there are up and down times—but I am definitely a working mom."

Hemmins lives in Oxford with her husband Andy, two daughters Lily, 13, and Scarlet, 9, and her son Jude, 11. She hasn't left Oxford because of the community she has found there.

"There are a lot of different kinds of people—it's not terribly homogenous, and I find that really interesting and invigorating," she said.

The Democrat hopes to beat out longtime senator Gray Tollison, who switched parties (to the GOP) the day after he was reelected on the Democratic ticket in 2011. Hemmins' main focuses are fully funding MAEP, equal pay for women and creating a living wage for all Mississippians. Tollison is the chairman of the Senate education committee, so education issues are at the heart of the District 9 race.

What inspired you and when did you start thinking about running for the Senate?

I think after my involvement in the Personhood campaign in 2011, I was sort of an unofficial spokesperson for "No on 26" and was in the commercial that ran statewide and in a lot of different media. Achieving that victory and defeating Personhood inspired me and empowered me. It made me feel like if you put your mind to something in Mississippi, even if it seems like there's no way this can happen, if you get a grassroots campaign going, you can really change things and affect important change for Mississippians.

I would wake up every morning during those months and feel sick to my stomach at the thought of Personhood passing and becoming the law of the land in Mississippi. After that, I got involved in the state Democratic Party and then my county (Democratic) party. We started looking for a candidate to run against Gray months before, and no one was going to run against him.

I couldn't bear to see him run unopposed, bearing in mind the fact that he ran as a Democrat in 2011, and we helped him get elected. I personally had a fundraising party for him at my house that he attended. We worked hard to get out the vote for him and then the day after he was sworn into office, he switched parties. So he used all of the Democrats here to help get him elected and then he switched parties, and then they gerrymandered the district to make it as conservative as possible. We actually have a below average African American rate (in District 9). I think the average is around 40 percent in the (typical) Senate district of Mississippi, and our district has 22 percent—to make it easier for him to keep the district next time around.

What distinguishes you from your opponent?

My opponent likes to talk about what a public-schools champion he is, but his votes don't reflect that anymore, and people need to realize that. He used to vote for the best interest of our public schools, which is a statistic from the Parent's Campaign, and this last session, he was down to voting for our schools around 25 percent of the time, so his votes have completely reversed on school issues. The day I decided to run was the day I saw him on the Senate floor leading the charge for 42A, the decoy amendment they came up with to try to kill 42 for Better Schools, the people's initiative. (I) had worked to get signatures to get that on the ballot because clearly in the last 18 years, we've only seen our schools in Mississippi funded twice. They've (leaders in Jackson) proved that they're not prioritizing our kids and our schools. A ballot initiative to mandate adequate funding for our schools seems like the best way to achieve that necessary outcome. We're dead last in so many things, and I feel like education is the key to moving Mississippi forward on so many different levels, and to see my own senator leading the charge for the decoy amendment that they admittedly and they say themselves say was simply to kill the people's initiative was enough to make me take the step and run.

How has running for the Senate been so far?

I worried that it would feel to me like the Personhood campaign did, I would feel sick every morning I was so worried about it, but this has been and feels much less personal to me even though it's me, personally who's running, for some reason. The reason I got involved in the Personhood campaign and was a leader for "No on 26" was because when I was a college student in Jackson, I took a semester (to study away from Vanderbilt) at Millsaps, and while I was there I was abducted by two men and raped and shot twice as I escaped. So when I was speaking out against Personhood, it was out of concern that this government shouldn't tell someone like me, a victim of a crime like that, what to do with their own body—and that women and their doctors need to make these private, personal decisions. The government doesn't need to get involved, and we don't need politicians telling us what to do in such cases, so that's what I talked about a lot during personhood.

You helped with Initiative 42 correct?

I did. I wish I could have done more. I had sign-up sheets and tried to get signatures from friends around town.

So you are in support of Initiative 42?

Yes.

If you're elected and Initiative 42 passes, what will you do for your district to make sure it's followed up on?

I think it's important that we do what the ballot initiative for 42 said, which was a gradual phase-in. We're not asking for immediate full funding. It doesn't say on the actual ballot, but on the initiative itself, it suggested a five- to nine-year phase-in with 25 percent of budget surplus, and that seems very reasonable and careful and well thought out. I heard Rep. (Greg) Snowden, R-Meridian, who was in town for a 42 debate, saying that they would immediately fully fund MAEP. They want to hurt other parts of the government by spitefully doing what they don't need to do. That's not what we're asking for. What we're asking for is very reasonable, but there are current people in power that don't want to be made to do anything by any outside force.

How would you vote on education issues?

I am concerned that we are seeing a trend towards privatization of public education in Mississippi, and other states where that's happened, it has not been successful. You can look at charter schools in Louisiana or Florida, and see how that's gone, and it's not been a good trend. We're just this year having our first charter schools in MS get going, and I am concerned with accountability with charter schools on top of the fact that you're draining public money from an already underfunded budget for our public schools and putting that into the pockets of private corporations. I know that at this point, the charter schools are only allowed in "D" and "F" districts, but since this is the first year they've been started, they're already talking about expanding that to "C" districts, which in Mississippi would be the majority of the school districts. So the foot's in the door, and I'm worried they're going to bust it open because once that happens, I don't think that will be good for our public education system.

What are your thoughts about the MAEP formula?

The MAEP funding formula is setting the bar so low, really, we are only asking for the bare minimum of adequacy. It's the low end of adequacy that it's based upon. Requiring attendance and the per-student dollars being based on attendance is like another hurdle. That's a problem because I've talked with people in schools (and) superintendents about how incredibly difficult it is to keep track of attendance and how much time and money and effort they spend on that one thing, and it's just so they can get the bare minimum of the money they need. MAEP seems like a very reasonable bar to achieve, and I think it's all the more shameful that we're not even succeeding in reaching that low bar.

People talk about how you shouldn't just throw more money after bad money, or good money after bad. (They say) "the schools were already getting so much," and I think that that's a false argument. We've hardly ever tried fully funding our schools. The last time we did in 2008, the test scores showed improvement. It actually made a difference, so it seems like if you're against 42 for Better Schools, then you're just for the status quo, and the status quo is clearly not working in Mississippi, and I think it's just time that we did something different, and I think adequately funding our schools would be the simplest way to try something different. And the money is there. It's just not a priority with our current leaders, if you look at the money that was spent since 2008, the budget surpluses we've had has gone to all these other areas of government, grown by 47 percent spending, but the K-12 budget has grown by 2.4 percent, so they're just choosing to give the money to pretty much everything but K-12.

What would your other focuses be besides education?

Women's issues in general. I feel like there's so much legislation that affects women and families out of the Capitol, and one of the other platforms of my campaign is equal pay for equal work. I want to work towards helping make sure that women get paid a fair wage—they currently don't.

I just think we could use more women in politics in general in Mississippi. It's hard for women to do this kind of thing because I feel like there's more expected of us as moms and in our households. But I think it's really important that we have more female perspectives because women are by and large the consumers: We're the ones buying the milk, the new shoes and (deciding) how money is spent a lot of times for our families.

I am not sure how to address it really, but a living wage is something that needs to be looked into. There are so many Mississippians that work multiple jobs and still live in poverty, and I think it's wrong. Hardworking Mississippians should be able to afford health care and decent housing and what they need for their families—that doesn't seem like too much to ask.

How has the campaign trail been?

There are a lot of people that still don't understand 42—it's a really confusing ballot, and there are so many confusing arguments and so much spin around it that people are very confused. I've talked to people who support 42 and support Gray. They don't realize that he doesn't support 42, so getting that fact out is imperative for me.

Oxford (has) such amazing schools—a lot of people (here) don't realize what it's like in most of the public schools in Mississippi so I talk about going over to North Panola, which is the more black school district in Panola County because it's sadly segregated. I have a fundamental, moral problem with the inequities between the school districts. The fact that whether you get a decent, quality education depends on where you're born just seems morally wrong to me, and I think that's the one thing I constantly come back to: making sure all Mississippi kids have access to a decent education. How can they succeed in life if they don't have a good school? My kids have a great school (Editor's note: the Hemmins children attend Oxford public schools). I am not doing this for my kids.

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