Rep. Erik Fleming has been a full-time representative of Hinds County since 1999. Before that, he was a reporter for both the Jackson Advocate and the Mississippi Link newspapers.
With a campaign coffer of less than $30,000, Fleming is working hard against a well-financed incumbent riding a million-dollar wave back to the U.S. Congress. Incessant gerrymandering of districts makes it hard to derail an incumbent, but Fleming's got the fight to keep running to the end.
Though Mississippi has a record of churning out moderate to conservative-leaning blue-dog Democrats, Fleming is a stark contrast to his Republican opponent.
During his time in the Mississippi Legislature, the 45-year-old NAACP member submitted bills to strengthen the state's union presence, raise minimum wage, return disenfranchised voters to the polls, aid immigrants' rights and provide better health care for senior citizens and the handicapped.
Similar to his goals on the state level, Fleming says he'd like to put the middle class back in the driver's seat. He wants better wages, better access to health care, better access to education and a better retirement system—which means protecting Social Security and the pensions that people have earned throughout the years.
You've mentioned the curse lobbying money has on congressional decisions. How would you address that?
As a state legislator, we're guided by the Mississippi Ethics Commission, and I think there needs to be a federal ethics commission and a federal ethics commission independent of the congressional committee to oversee what's going on. We need oversight—serious oversight.
What else are your high priorities?
Oh, let's start with the high cost of (government-financed) drugs. I want to allow the government to negotiate with drug companies, but the first thing we've got to do is ban the drug commercials. There used to be a federal ban on all these prescription commercials—
The Levitra commercials getting on your nerves, too?
No more Levitra, no more Viagra and that stuff. The cost of that advertising is helping to drive up the price of the drugs. We're the generation where we tell the doctor that we're sick; we don't tell them what we need. I think to start cutting costs we need to look at that. I don't mind what's being proposed as far as the federal government being able to buy in bulk, using federal purchase power, but you've got to address that prescription drug advertising.
How do you feel about stem cell research?
At the state Legislature this year we created the study committee addressing that, and that was the best route to go, instead of just jumping ahead with the research. I'm not a big fan of embryonic stem-cell research because of all the moral issues that plague it.
A popular argument is that plenty of embryos already get flushed down the drain after fertility procedures.
Yeah, there's a whole movement called the Snowflake Project that encourages those cells to be adopted, and they haven't had a whole lot of takers on it. When you're talking about embryonic stem cell research or people who donate eggs for the purpose of having children, we need to study the issue more from the medical/ethical side and come up with a strategy to deal with this issue. Right now, I think it would be foolish to pick either means without more study.
I've just received a note from my ever-helpful editor that there are more than 400,000 unused embryos in fertility clinics. You ready to adopt?
Not 400,000, no.
That's a lot of balogna sandwiches.
Yeah, unfortunately the Snowflake Program, I think, has found only about 80 folks to buy into that.
So if an unbiased medical committee came up with a recommendation touting the possible miracle of embryonic stem cell research you wouldn't stand against it?
Yeah, I think it would be foolish for us not to explore it if the commission came up with this recommendation or we had scientific proof that embryonic stem cells were better than the adult stem cells as far as curing diseases, but right now it's such a new science it's hard to gauge one way or another. Right now, I think we just need to curb our enthusiasm and just weigh everything out.
You describe yourself as a defender of Social Security. How did you feel about Bush's attempt to privatize it?
There are 17 million reasons that I don't support the privatization of Social Security, and one of them is that WorldCom building I see everyday in Clinton. If you want to improve Social Security you have to open up the SS trust fund to invest in more government securities, rather than just treasury bills. If I owned a company and said you could play in the stock market but you can only play in one stock you wouldn't make a whole lot of money doing that. Second thing: don't raid the SS trust fund to balance the budget, which has been common practice. This is something that's been going on, I think, since Lyndon Johnson was president, and that needs to stop.
If you want to entice younger investors to save money or invest in the stock market, then take away the tax penalty on investments, because right now if you invest more than 25 percent of your income then you have to pay taxes on that. Either raise the ceiling higher than 25 percent or eliminate that penalty altogether.
One of the problems with the recent drug bill out of Washington is that the drug companies wrote that bill. They set it up where they could mark up the price of drugs to a higher level and then say they're giving a reduction, similar to what we're doing with gas. Gas went up to $3, and now everybody's happy just because it's a $1.99—which is still much higher than it was before. By the way, I've been telling everybody to (take advantage of this short-lived gift from the oil-men in Washington) by gassing up their cars and taking as many people to the polls as you can to vote Democrat on Election Day.
Have your thoughts on raising the national minimum wage changed?
I've introduced legislation to do that here in the state already, and I think its ridiculous that anybody in Mississippi votes against raising the minimum wage. My opponent has voted against it for nine straight years. Right now, the purchasing power of $5.15 an hour is actually $3 an hour. It's been almost a decade and it's well time to update that.
Can I assume you're also for cutting interest rates on student loans?
Oh, I'm all for it. You see, what the Republicans did was cut funding for student loans and then turned right around and raised interest rates. We need to restore full funding to the Pell Grants and reduce interest rates to help pay those loans back. Tuition in the state of Mississippi has gone up 25 percent in the last few years, and the Legislature has been trying to meet costs, but when you've got some schools that only need 30 percent and other schools that need 70 percent, they're going to make up the money either through private endowments or tuition increases, and the majority of the schools have tuition increases. The Republicans aren't friends of anybody other than the one-tenth of 1 percent who control 52 percent of the stocks traded on the stock market. Those are the only ones they care about.
What's your take on oil subsidies?
Let's look at Exxon. Exxon gave a retiring individual $400 million. Now if they can give that to some guy, then why can't they invest that capital into building another oil refinery? They could have built a refinery and named it after the guy. It's obvious that they don't need any help if they can just give away $400 million. Instead of subsidizing an industry that will probably be extinct in 100 years why not invest in alternative energy sources. We're one of the top soybean producers in the nation. Why not get into bio-diesel production?
Well, there's stiff competition for those beans. People tend to eat them. And the oil goes into our canned lasagna.
Yeah, but I think there can be a balance there. Soy is not the only crop than can produce diesel, and Mississippi has a lot of crops to compete in that market rather than trying to grow corn in Mississippi. We're opening a new ethanol plant in Vicksburg, but my understanding is that we'll be importing most of the raw material used to make it. It's good to be a processor but that's kind of like the oil refinery on the coast. None of that oil it's processing comes from Mississippi. It creates jobs, which is good, but we're not the main folks feeding the machine, so to speak.
Is it time to update CAFE standards?
It's time for a review of that. The auto industry needs to be serious about that. One of the things we're getting beat in the market against Japan is that they're able to market hybrid and fuel-efficient cars. The government needs to do something, but we can't bankrupt the industry forcing it to either.
A step-by-step increase in CAFE standards would be good but instead of the government imposing them there needs to be an attempt to have some meaningful dialogue about it. If everything goes right, I'll get to serve on the Senate Transportation Commerce Committee, and I'll be in a position to negotiate those kind of talks.
The Iraq War. Do you have a plan?
The commander-in-chief has to listen to suggestions. If he's not willing to listen to suggestions then we're stuck where we are, whether or not we have a plan.
If it was up to me, we would start moving some of our troops back to Afghanistan, because that's where we're most needed, and deploy troops on the borders, especially on Iran and Syria. Then we need to get out of this mindset that we're fighting a conventional war. About 200 years ago the British army tried to fight a conventional war against some colonists and they got beat because the colonists were fighting under bridges and from behind trees. We need to update our methods because we've got folks who can create a deadly explosion with a remote control and a bomb in an animal carcass.
Think about it: We caught the No. 2 terrorist in the world not with 147,000 troops but with 127 Special Forces soldiers. In order for us to deal with the insurgents we have to change our style of fighting. Also, we don't need to be building permanent bases in Iraq while we're shutting down bases in Mississippi.
Is it time to leave?
I think if the war has escalated to the point where it's a civil war then we need to get out, and we need to go if their army is strong enough to defend their own government. We've been biding our time waiting for them to get it together but we'll be stuck there another 10 years if we keep using that strategy.
Do you worry about being a cut-and-runner?
I take offense to the "cut and run" label. I would hope my opponent doesn't try to use it because he took three deferments when it was his time to serve in Vietnam. I served. I'm a member of the American Legion, and for him to go against people like Rep. John Murtha and others who have actually seen combat is hypocrisy. I mean, none of these guys making these military decisions killing thousands of Americans, except Rumsfeld, fought in the military and did their time to defend America. Bush didn't. Cheney didn't.
Then you have to consider the financial risks of this war. You're talking about a total of billions of dollars put to occupying a nation and all I can think about is how much nation-building we could've done here with that money. We could reduce the cost of prescription drugs, lowered the national debt. We could've avoided cutting the COPS Program, which put 100,000 police on the streets. In Mississippi alone, it put 1,722 police on the streets, whereas now those jobs are no longer funded because the Republicans cut that out.
Talk of impeachment keeps bubbling up on the blogs, especially in light of Bush's possible dishonesty to the public leading up to the war. What are your thoughts on it? Would you favor it if it came to that?
There are other things that we really need to be working towards: getting people out of the situation where they owe $28,000 each to cover the national debt and improving the quality of life for our people. An impeachment trial would do more harm then good, but if impeachment proceedings come forward then I have an obligation to consider it.
Rumsfeld has made plenty of mistakes, sending the troops over without a plan, without armor, without training. I would say that Rumsfeld needs to go, but the president has to make that call. All I can do with that is make a suggestion.
You've advocated immigrants' rights in the state Legislature. Will you take it to the national level?
Well, I think there's common agreement that we need to secure the border, but I'm not sure the best way to go about it is building a wall. It's ironic that we've got Ronald Reagan stamps on literature calling for us to build a wall along the border, when it was Reagan who said the famous words, "Tear down that wall," in Berlin. I think investing millions of dollars in a structure that people can tunnel under isn't sound. That sad irony is probably that a lot of the people hired to build that wall will probably be immigrants. Let's get out of this insane stuff and deal with reality. We've got technology that can protect the border, but we need more border patrol, too. Montana has no border patrol at all; anybody can come in through Canada without a problem. And we need to better secure our ports. I think only one out of every 10 containers coming into the U.S. are inspected. There are Asian immigrants getting smuggled inside containers.
But then we've also got to deal with the bureaucratic mess. It makes no sense to be able to get some people from certain countries in within a six-month period, and people from other countries it takes four or five years. You've got people who've filed paperwork for years, but are still considered illegal because their paperwork hasn't been processed.
In any case, our chief immigration problem in Mississippi isn't who's coming in—it's who's leaving. Some of our best and brightest have looked at their home state, and they're saying, "There's nothing here for me. I'm gone." People are looking at their diplomas as freedom papers and a passport to get out of Mississippi.
Where do you stand now on the pro-choice/pro-life debate?
I still think outside of exceptions of rape, incest or the health of the mother, I'm not in favor of (abortion). I'm pro-life because I'm anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. If I'm going to be pro-life, I have to be consistent.
What are your views on the morning-after pill?
I'm a proponent of the morning-after pill as emergency contraception.
**With a campaign coffer of less than $30,000, Fleming is working hard against a well-financed incumbent riding a million-dollar wave back to the U.S. Congress. Incessant gerrymandering of districts makes it hard to derail an incumbent, but Fleming’s got the fight to keep running to the end.**
Oops. My above post was incomplete. It quoted a passage from Adam's story. My question is: How could gerrymandering be favorable to Lott when U. S. senators are elected statewide?
I was going to ask that question myself. It does seem kind of odd; Rep. Fleming actually benefits from gerrymandering in the 72nd District, but I don't see how it would do him any good in a statewide election.
Good interview, though.
- Tom Head
I agree, Tom, it was a great interview.
That is a good question. I didn't notice that in the story. Maybe Adam will have something brilliant to enlighten us on. It happens all the time. ;-)
I’m a proponent of the morning-after pill as emergency contraception.
Is it bad that I feel totally responsible for this? (and
Let's have all the argumentative b1tches say "hell yeah!"
I guess I should change my display name.
- Lori G
Formerly-Ali, you definitely made the bigger impact--and I think you've given Rep. Fleming a lifelong phobia! :o) "Oh my God--that looks like Ali Greggs! Quick, hide me!" "That's my sister, sir." "Are you...are you sure she's not Italian...?"
- Tom Head