Ridin' the Wave: The JFP Interview with Ronnie Musgrove | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Ridin' the Wave: The JFP Interview with Ronnie Musgrove


Ronnie Musgrove, the former Democratic governor of Mississippi, lost his re-election bid in 2003 after Washington lobbyist Haley Barbour poured millions of dollars into a fierce campaign to take the governor's mansion. That fight, largely between pro-consumer trial lawyers and the anti-regulation business lobby, will likely be one of the most expensive runs for the Mississippi governor's office for many years to come.

Musgrove is now running for the seat vacated by Republican Sen. Trent Lott last year at the onset of the infamous Dickie Scruggs indictment. Lott ducked out to pursue a happy career as a lobbyist before a new federal law delaying senators from lobbying immediately after holding office kicked in.

The Batesville Democrat, 51, is running this year on a general "throw the bums out" platform, which argues that Congress is hurting the nation by increasing the federal debt, and that the lobbying industry has become too cozy with politicians. Musgrove believes the team that has held Congress for about eight years has had its chance to make a difference—and squelched it.

"Time for a change," is his mantra. It sounds mighty familiar.

Let's get the important questions out there first: Do you swear to wear a patriotic flag pin every day you're seen in public leading up to the election? You know, that's one of the top questions affecting Americans these days.
(Laughs) While I was governor, I did wear it, but I wouldn't vote for somebody because of that.

Tell me about the U.S. war in Iraq. The thing supposedly costs us more than $200 million a day. Is the war, to you, worth that much?
We do not need to be there 100 years. What we need to do is, as quickly as possible, put the country in a position to defend itself, get the job done and bring our troops home.

Some of the methods batted around to do that call for pulling out a percentage of troops. Do you fear a drop in the stability of the region should we start to pull out?
We obviously have to get the job done, get into a position where we can start to withdraw our troops. Iraq certainly needs to be better able to take care of itself so we can bring our troops home. The most important issue here is the safety of the United States, and there are a number of fronts to deal with. Iraq is not the only one.

Can that stability, you think, be maintained through a means other than full-on occupation?
I believe that some of the generals have at least hinted at a number of different ways, other than full military occupation. We need that military for other things. Some of the most ardent terrorists have their origins in Saudi Arabia and in Afghanistan, so clearly there are a number of fronts that will continue to be problems. Any effective strategy to protect the United States has to include these other fronts.

My feelings on this matter are more personal than political. Our oldest son, Michael Smith, will start his second year of law school this fall, and he has been in Iraq on his second tour as a sergeant in the Marine Corps. We had tears of joy this morning because his mother talked with him, and he is in Kuwait and is on his way home sometime in September.

Congratulations. I'm sure it'll be good to have him back helping with the campaign bills.
Yeah, it's funny because he was the only one in the family who really wanted the election to be in November, so he could campaign when he got back home.

What's your son's opinion on the war? Has he shared it with you?
Well we haven't talked philosophically about it. He's there to do his job and has done an admirable job, as our troops have done an admirable job. One of the things that is a big concern for me is that the moment he walks away from Camp LeJeune (in North Carolina), he will have completed his service. Then he will be one of those absolutely great Americans that we call veterans, and to me, this administration and Congress, whomever you want to lay the responsibility with, absolutely failed over the last several years to treat our veterans the way they should be treated. I'm talking about the medical care and the college opportunities that they were called upon to provide, but for reasons unknown to me, so many members of Congress opposed. It fails me why they would not, as a country, have opted to take care of the people who have allowed us the freedoms that we have.

That costs money. What'd you expect?
To take care of our veterans. It would have been some of the best money we've ever invested.

I'm sure you feel the pinch in the price of gas, like the rest of us. What kind of energy policy does the nation need? What would you suggest as a means of dealing with it?
That's one of the big problems I've had with Washington. There's so much partisan bickering that there's not real work being done to solve the major issues: the economy, the housing crisis. The economy, itself, has a large connection to the price of gas, and so far, there are no real policies coming out to deal with it because of all the partisan bickering and infighting.

We've seen a lot of that play out somewhat in our own state. Consider Medicaid funding: To me, when you have 81 percent of America believing that the country's heading in the wrong direction and 91 percent this week, I think, saying there are problems with the economy, Washington is not working.

What do you suggest?
Number one: The deficit spending in Washington is really hurting our economy. Some business news sources said today that the deficit spending is pushing our dollar over the edge. We've known that already for years. The dollar's falling in value, and that de-valuation is spiraling up the cost of gas, because the oil we make it from is bought from other countries that, of course, don't use our dollar as their form of currency.

What's the deficit today, 9-what?
$9.2 trillion. Just over the last several years, Congress has raised the debt limit from $4.9 trillion to that $9.2 trillion, and each time they raise the debt, they go borrow more money. There's now somewhere between $500 billion and $700 billion that the U.S. has borrowed from China. Wicker has voted at least eight times to raise that national debt, which allows us to borrow more money and add to the problem—though he has voted against raising the minimum wage at least 10 times. If an individual household worked under that kind of debt, they'd be filing bankruptcy. That kind of out-of-control, insane spending is hurting our economy. Another issue I have is the hundreds of billions of dollars of earmarks and pork barrel that do not have a positive effect on the economy. But you can be sure they do further increase the debt that we borrow, which consequently kills our economy.

Some would argue that pork-barrel spending is the rating system by which politicians are judged. The trick, I thought, was to get money out of Washington and into the backyards of a senator's district, and that if you don't manage that you're seen as a kind of failure.
It's a matter of priorities. In order to get a handle on this deficit, to me, you've got to cut out this spending. Robert Novak said Roger Wicker was a poster child on earmarks. The problem with an earmark is that it never gets debated, so its merits are never considered. Probably 90 percent of pork-barrel earmarks serve no good to the country. Maybe 10 percent have validity, and it seems to me that that 10 percent could probably stand up to debate if we allowed it.

Yeah, but the heat's going to be on you to produce for your region. That means getting your barrel ready.
I believe that 80 percent of the citizens in the state of Mississippi, or better, would say they'd be better off if we have a strong economy by stopping runaway spending and getting the deficit back under control, especially if that means improving the economy and making gas less expensive. That's something that people can see and feel all over the state.

What if the new president, whomever he or she turns out to be, is a spendthrift in their own right? Suppose they have their own expensive agenda that they want the rest of the nation to pay for?
If the president is pushing it, it will go through debate, and that's the way it should be; unlike an earmark, which will never get an argument, no matter how indefensible it is.

You can see from Roger's fundraising that he's done a lot of favors for people over the 14 years he's been up there, and they're paying him back. That's part of what's wrong with Washington. That's why we need a change.

You've referred to the nation's energy problems. How do you feel about renewable energy propositions like an off-coast wind turbine farm in the Mississippi Gulf, or a "Manhattan Project" to deal with the nation's future energy difficulties? Do these kinds of things need to be a reality? Have we reached that point?
It's certainly time to look at a host of new energy proposals, but the problem right now is there are no real incentives or measures to allow them. If you have a weak dollar, if you have gas prices climbing up and your deficit spending is out of control, you won't be able to use available money for investment into alternative energy, and you're ultimately hurting yourself. You've mortgaged away your ability to invest in a good energy policy—which we desperately need—but you've also compromised the health care system and the search for new technology. I know it's time to come up with new forms of energy, but that all comes back to the economy again.

Sounds like your platform is a months-long endorsement of "pay as you go."
My opponent may have voted against "pay as you goҔ three times, but it strengthens the economy.

What is your take on national health care? Can America, with all its wealth, provide full medical coverage to its citizens?
The question should be asked, "How much does something cost versus whom all is covered?" When you look at health care, when I was governor, one of the things we did was we pulled in all the pharmaceutical companies to come up with a formula to pay for prescription drugs, because we needed to hold some costs down. What we're failing to do in Washington is to come up with a plan that looks at cost, looks at access and delivery, but also looks at the best preventive care. For example, my opponent voted against the S-CHIP bill, which is one of the best programs that I think Congress has ever come up with.

Your opponent might say he was voting against expanding S-CHIP.
When you say voting against expanding it, he was actually voting against the re-authorization of the program. If you took President Bush's position and the Republican position, calling for an extra $5 billion, that wasn't an expansion. It was actually a cut in people who were eligible for it. There were some who wanted to expand it to the $50 billion level over five years, but what they originally agreed to was a sustaining of where it was, with perhaps a modest increase. The $5 billion that the president proposed would have cut people and reduced the number of children getting health care.

I think it's fair to say that a couple of presidential candidates are toying with the idea of universal health care. Do you personally think that would work, or should there be a hybrid system involving insurance companies?
I think there are alternative systems, other than a single-payer system, that I don't think we have even looked at close enough. Again, the partisan bickering stalls the process and keeps real issues left on the table. For instance, we're still looking a the problem of the mortgage crisis and the problem with the economy, but all we have to offer so far are pointless band-aid proposals with no real substantive work done on any of them. People know there are serious looming problems with Social Security and Medicare, and they know the partisan bickering is stalling any improvements.

But are you, personally, open to changing the health care system?
I believe you could take the current system that we have and bring health–care providers together and look at increasing and improving the access and delivery. I think we could also take our current system and reduce pharmaceutical costs, which are going up some 20 percent a year.

But do any alarms go off in your head when somebody uses the term "universal health care"? For instance, how do you feel about the system Canadians enjoy?
Every system has its pluses and minuses. To me, the U.S. health–care system is overall the best in the world. However, its access to everybody is a problem. The Canadian system seems to be the best system for dealing with everyday colds, but when you get into surgeries, hospital stays, those kinds of areas, then it pales in comparison to ours.

Nevertheless, if the new president came at you with a new system that seemed feasible, would you give it a fair shake or have some bias against it?
I would give consideration to every proposal that has a very good chance of improving the quality of life here in America. On the other hand, before you look at a completely different system, you want to make sure you've exhausted the possibilities of the system you had in place. I remember when Hillary Clinton and Newt Gingrich, two very different people with very different philosophies, got together and said we needed some significant change in the access and delivery of health care. I thought that was very positive to have two people with such different political backgrounds coming to the same conclusion about health care.

Don't count on seeing it again soon.
We certainly don't see that very often from our own state delegation. Roger Wicker has been there for 14 years, and yet things have gotten progressively worse in the economy, in the high cost of gasoline, and the accessibility and the cost of health care. All of those things have gotten progressively worse because both parties are voting with their leadership without considering every possibility. Roger has a 97 percent voting record with his leadership as opposed to sitting down and working to resolve these issues. That's the kind of change we need in Washington.

I suppose you can faithfully say you would disagree with the new president, no matter what party he or she represents?
Yes, I can. Ideas are not just born of Democrats or Republicans. A good idea should be looked at regardless of its party origin. If it's a good idea pushed by either a Democrat or Republican, I'm capable of voting for it. If it's a bad idea, by a Democrat or Republican, I'll certainly vote against it.

You had mentioned the nation's housing crisis. Do you think we owe any of that to the lack of regulation of non-deposit-taking institutions like Bear Stearns?
The responsibility of government is to strike a balance between the consumer and the business industry. You cannot be so over-regulated that you stifle the ability of business to perform and make a profit. On the other hand, you can not let businesses run amok.

So you would approve new regulation of these kinds of firms if that regulation proves constitutional and feasible?
You have to have in place protections for people who do not have the ability or who are at a significant disadvantage. What has obviously happened over the years is the falling off of the watching of some of these investment firms, and the middle men who are bundling loans and selling them to a secondary market. Later, when the middleman is gone, the secondary market is sitting there stuck with loans that are hard to pay, while the consumer is out here, having to suffer their mortgage rates֖as well as the cost of everything else around, including gas and food—go out of sight.

What we need is fair regulation that stops companies from preying on people and running all over us.

Let's switch gears for a minute. I have to ask this of everybody running for office these days. Is global climate change a reality, and does it need to be addressed at this moment?
So many people have all come to the conclusion on all sides that it's not a matter of "if" anymore. It's a question of "how bad." I believe that the overall program of greening America and the world is positive. We've gotten to the point now where we have to think in those terms all the time. We're stewards of the planet. Of course, it's not just the planet. It's us, too, we're looking out for. When you talk about quality of life, it's not just about money and what kind of car we drive. There are a number of things that make up a good quality of life, and obviously having a healthy environment is important to that.

Rush Limbaugh still calls global warming a hoax. Talk radio hosts still call it a hoax.
When you have President Bush not calling it a hoax, and so many of the other leaders on both sides coming to the same conclusion֖that it is a serious issue for us to deal with֖then it's clear that it's time to take the issue into consideration.

How far are you willing to go to address the issue? Take the Kyoto Protocol֖what did you think about it?
Before you get outside the borders of the U.S., you need to look at what we're doing here. We need a sound energy policy that, realistically, involves the use of crude oil for the long term, but also uses the long-term positive impact of alternative fuels.

That's part of the balance of what government does. Government cannot be overly burdensome, but it has to be fair֖and it still has to be able to make a difference in encouraging this kind of thinking.

How do you feel about the national fuel standard? Would you be in favor of raising it if the president favored it?
I believe we have the technology to raise those standards, and I believe that the public is already demanding it. You would think that responsible energy producers would encourage that, too, as well as the manufacturing industry. If the price of gas remains unstable, then the automotive industry will soon take it upon themselves to raise their fuel economy on their own. They'll certainly be in trouble if they don't.

That's what I thought five years ago, but they clearly didn't, and now Chevrolet and Ford can't get a vehicle stolen from them, even if they leave it running and filled with groceries in a parking lot. Some decisions they just don't seem to make on their own.

That was curious. You would think it would have been a realistic financial decision, but it would also have been an energy-friendly decision.

So you think artificial government regulations won't be necessary, that the economy will force them to do it?
I can't say that, obviously. I think it needs to be a combination. You don't do one without the other. The government needs to step in and do what it can, so long as it doesn't break a balance.

As a senator, you would have a say on judicial issues, such as the government's use of interrogation methods. Earlier in April, the Associated Press said Vice President Dick Cheney and a handful of other top politicians met in secret and agreed to the mistreatment of prisoners. They referred to punching prisoners, sleep deprivation and water-boarding as "enhanced interrogation techniques" or torture. I feel very personal about that. With us having a son in battle, if he were—God forbid—ever captured, I certainly would not want him to be tortured or mistreated, outside of what we've accepted worldwide through the Geneva Convention. We must be able to maintain that moral ground as an example to the world. Our interrogation techniques worked well during WWII, and yet we used techniques that were extremely defendable.

A senator also gets to make some very pivotal decisions regarding Supreme Court judges. We have no idea who's going to be president next year, but if the president nominates a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade, would you approve him?
That is a litmus test that I believe should not be the basis of a decision. I think we need a Supreme Court justice who is intelligent, qualified, capable, but does not look at one particular issue. I am personally pro-life and continue to be pro-life, but I do not believe that Roe v. Wade is a litmus test that you should use to pick somebody.

Nevertheless, many voters want to know your feelings.
I would personally prefer a judge who is pro-life, but I would not want a judge to say, as a litmus test, that I will or will not overturn Roe v. Wade. I believe that's the wrong question.

While we're on the topic of judges, let me bring up falling campaign donations from attorneys. Some say it fell not just because of the Scruggs mess but because lawyers felt if they helped out Democrats they would be the next target of a trumped-up investigation. Remember the situation with attorney Paul Minor and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz? What did you think of the prosecutions' case?
I believe that there obviously have been a lot of questions raised about this Department of Justice, and so many of the questions could have been answered if Karl Rove and others had come forth with all of the e-mails that they said were destroyed. It raised the question of U.S. attorneys being dismissed for not prosecuting based on political matters, and it raises some very serious questions about our system. Our prosecutors need to be above reproach, and for that to happen you need people who are not politically motivated in doing their jobs.

Do you think that's what happened?
I think now you're going to see Congress investigate a number of issues, and before I would cast stones to say a prosecutor prosecuted based on politics, I think Congress needs to complete its investigations.

You know, talk radio hates you. They always did. What do you feel Democrats are up against when they run for a statewide or federal office in Mississippi? What kind of environment do they have to deal with?
So many times I feel like we don't get our message out. … And I'm not sure talk radio reflects the views of a majority of Mississippians. I can't believe that many hard-working, good Mississippians agree with the Republican policy of ignoring the energy crisis and giving us high gas prices that are wrecking every budget in Mississippi. I cannot believe that everybody in Mississippi agrees with allowing Washington to let industry run crazy until one in 49 families in Mississippi are having their mortgages foreclosed. I cannot believe that many Mississippians believe that Washington should be spending money so out of control that our nation has doubled its national debt in eight years. And I certainly can't believe that Mississippians agree with all this pork–barrel spending. Sometimes I think we don't do as good a job as we need of getting our message out. I wish I could get on talk radio more often so I could argue these issues. People may have a pre-disposed idea of where they stand, but everybody should have the opportunity to present their position, and that's not happening right now.

Yeah, but right now they don't care to give you as many hours to counter their opinion as they take shooting it down, so let's screw with them a little bit. How do you feel about re-instating equal time laws that died during the Reagan administration? If the new president proposes the idea of returning equal-time laws do you think you would get on board with that?
I do believe that everybody ought to be allowed to give their views. There is hope and opportunity for all of us that work every day, trying to figure out how we're going to make it to the end of the month, how will we keep the children doing OK. We don't have time to try to filter the news to figure out what angle the news person is coming from or what agenda they're pushing. We ought to be able to simply rely on the news being the news and nothing more. And if you want commentary, there should be a specific place for it.

It's difficult to get that reality these days. It seems that if you have a certain political leaning, you have to pre-select your preferred television or radio station. I believe there is a better way of doing things, and that's simply by letting the news be the news.

You've watched the U.S. Chamber buy the Mississippi Supreme Court over the last few years. How do you feel about that, and what would you propose to deal with it, if anything?
I believe that people ought to have the right to know who is making political contributions so that they know what organizations are trying to influence a Supreme Court justice. If a group is going through that much trouble to install their guy, they're looking for something, and it's important for people to know. That's why I agreed with the former (Mississippi) secretary of state's ruling that organizations funding campaigns should expose the source of their contributions.

Well, we got a new secretary of state now, don't we? So what legislation do we need that could work improvements? Do you feel it's possible to have legislation revealing who's buying whom without affecting the nation's freedom of speech?
Absolutely. I think it's well possible to have legislation that opens elections without infringing on the First Amendment right. I think that all of us throughout government think there ought to be transparency. Transparency does not affect anyone's opinion.

How will your priorities on education translate on the Senate level?
Public education is the most important thing we can do to promote a better quality of life, but I think that's better done at the local and state level. We need teachers who are properly compensated, who are making sure the students are learning, and high standards of accountability to make sure they keep it up. As governor, the bill I was most proud of was the Mississippi Adequate Education funding formula that made sure that all state schools got their fair share.

Secondly, we raised the teacher pay. It was the highest teacher pay raise in the history of the state, because we need to make sure that we pay our teachers. We need to continue to raise the teacher's salaries. We went from 50th to 11th in the country, according to census figures. Yeah. I was proud of that.

How does that translate on the federal level? I believe that the federal government ought to have a limited role in education. It's certainly fair to continue to have our standards commensurate with what a good quality of life should be. … The good part about No Child Left Behind was that it placed education as a higher importance. The drawback was that No Child Left Behind was under-funded. Special education continues to be woefully under-funded at the federally required level. A 1976 law says the federal government will fund special education at 40 percent, and that the state will fund it at 60 percent. I think the federal government is at about 15 or 16 percent level.

Fully funding education might mean taking a few billion out of the Pentagon's $500 billion-a-year budget. Are you sure you want to aim for that?
Again, the huge benefit of No Child Left Behind was that it recognized the importance of education. We should stick to that priority. I feel that [with] my background in education and my strong belief in public education, I'll make sure we do that.

What's your take on the Democratic primary this year?
Some of my Republican friends tell me that their children drove all the way back to school just to vote for Barack Obama. He is generating not only excitement in the younger section of our population, but rallies support on a much larger scale because he brings the thought of hope into what is otherwise a pretty dismal view on government. (My wife) Melody came back in the other night from the grocery store and said, "I don't know how people handle it," speaking on the rising price of food. That's the frustration level that everybody's feeling.

The loaded question: Have you endorsed anybody in the presidential race?
I have not. I have talked about the excitement that Barack has brought to the table. He has increased the enthusiasm of young people, he's lessened the cynicism that we all seem to have regarding our government, and he has shown during the course of the primaries that his message has helped increase voter turn-out by focusing on issues that we all feel are important.

But is that any official kind of endorsement? Smells like one.
We've already had the primaries in Mississippi. I'm not a super delegate, so my support won't do much for anybody. I only hope that we get the primary over in short order so we can unify as a party and be behind one of the candidates before the November election.

Previous Comments


Just once, I'd like to hear a democrat in MS talk like a democrat. This guy sounds more like that nut job Eaves than he does a member of his own party. If he's running to the right, why should I vote for him over wicker? I'm thinking I may skip this race in November. Does anybody agree with me? I know I'm not the only one thinking it.


I'm an independent, but I don't quite see where Musgrove sounds like Eaves except for maybe the pro-life statement. Where else do you see examples of that?


Folks, I just realized that the first sentence of this piece was left off when it was posted. I've added it back in; now the beginning makes much more sense. I apologize: I had to go to Oxford early yesterday and am just now checking the posts. Also, I found that Musgrove's wife name is misspelled in the print edition, and has been corrected in the text above. We will run a correction in next week's issue, and apologize for the error.


Folks, I just realized that the first sentence of this piece was left off when it was posted. I've added it back in; now the beginning makes much more sense. When I read it, I thought it was a continuation from the title.


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