The 2009 JFP Interview With Faye Peterson | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The 2009 JFP Interview With Faye Peterson

Photo by Kenya Hudson

Former Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson, 44, dropped out of the Jackson mayoral race last week, though some joke she more likely dived out the window just to get away from the crowd. The mayor's race features 16 candidates: Democrat, Republican and Independent. There had been 18, but two of the five female candidates dropped out, including Peterson.

Peterson served as district attorney after an appointment by then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in 2001. The Jackson State University and Mississippi College School of Law graduate then won re-election until former District Attorney Ed Peters, and Jackson Mayor Frank Melton—whom she prosecuted in 2007 for the Ridgeway Street duplex demolition—supported Jackson defense attorney Robert S. Smith in his successful race against her.

The day Peterson dropped out, she endorsed returning Democratic former mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.

You picked Harvey Johnson, but was it a hard decision picking between the candidates? There seemed to be enough qualifications between them. Get enough candles together, you'll eventually find one that will burn, right?
Well, there's smart, and then there's knowledgeable. One of the things I thought was the most serious issue with Jackson right now is the budget. And what's important to me is someone who is able to make decisions to defend the city council's vote on the budget and aligning the finances of the city of Jackson and making it stable.

I think Johnson can get in there quickly and look at the problems that have been created since he left and get it stable—just get it stable. There's been an attempt by the media to merge the last 12 years, the time between the Melton administration and the Johnson administration, as problem times, but if I'm not mistaken the city was not in the shape it is in now under Harvey. I've never known Harvey to be a wasteful person or wasteful with city money.

I'm sure Marshand Crisler, as head of the budget committee for so long, probably knows how to count, too, don't you think?
I don't want to get into bashing the other candidates. I don't want to do that.

Look, I can't help goading you into hitting somebody.
I know you can't, and I'm used to that, but you're right—we do have a good selection of candidates who will bring different things, but that prior experience that Mayor Johnson brings is the little bit extra that we need. I believe the city is really in a financial crisis, and it's more serious than we know, and in order to stop the city from going completely bankrupt it will take somebody who can get it stable and get it stable quickly.

You've mentioned Johnson's help in setting up the court facilitator's position in the district attorney's office. How much work did that really require out of the mayor's office?
We had some grant money, and the city contributed its part. A lot of times there are these inter-local agreements that have to be negotiated between supervisors and state agencies like the DA's office and the municipal government, and everybody has to agree to give up something in order to get a long-term benefit. I remember when we were negotiating that, trying to get the city to commit some of their funds to help us with that. They had some genuine, legitimate concerns at the time, but all I had to do was remind them that the city of Jackson provided 90 percent of the cases we did. Ninety percent of the people being held in the detention center were City of Jackson residents who were under arrest, so they had a viable interest in making sure that people moved through the system quickly, that it would help to make the law enforcement agency work a little more effectively.

Did city government come around fairly quickly to the proposal?
Just like everything else, they were open to it. They helped to work out the agreement. I was very impressed because they were clearly concerned about trying to do those types of things.

You know, you dropped out of the race after a very short run—only a few weeks. What first convinced you to try to run in the first place? You were probably the last candidate to file, and the field was pretty crowded, even weeks before you joined the party.
There had been a lot of people who had been asking me to run for over a year, and I kept saying I didn't want to get back into politics. But you keep getting asked to do this over and over again, and you start to think that maybe you do have something to offer to the city. I know that I'm an incredibly hard-working person, and when I take on something I give it above and beyond dedication. I'm not a politician, I'm somebody who gets things done—and people wanted somebody to get things done. Unfortunately, the timing just wasn't the best it could be.

You must have developed some opinion on the incumbent's (Melton's) job performance over the last four years.
I can't say for sure how I would characterize his job performance because there have been so many things that have distracted us from the mayor's office to the point where you have to ask yourself who exactly is running the city? Melton had such potential, and unfortunately, he hasn't been a mayor. He came in with the very best potential to get a lot of things done for Jackson. He had a good segment of the population hopeful and expecting a lot of things to happen, but unfortunately it was all talk. You have to have real substance to go behind your talk. Shame really, because there was a real united push to get him in office.

Point to a shortcoming.
The budget being the way it is—not all of that can be blamed on the recession.

Oh, come on. He was saying the other day that the city's got the best budget ever. We got good money in the reserve fund.
The sales revenue has gone down a million dollars; there are businesses that are still leaving the city; you hear that they're asking the departments to make 3 percent cuts in their budgets. One or two of these things means we're in a recession. But all of these things, and the many other things we read about, tells us that things are not what they should be.

You can't look just at today. You have to have a mind for the future. You have to be able to look down the road and not be shortsighted, but I have not heard of any long-range plans. We never hear this administration talk about where we're going, and that's unfortunate.

Be honest with yourself and tell me how much of your decision to run was bitterness at Frank? This is the guy who advocated for the guy to replace you as district attorney.
Actually none. You may not believe it, but there was no vengefulness in my earlier decision. I don't want people to think that I did it because of Frank, because I did not. Frank, to me, is a non-issue. I have lived in Jackson all my life, and Jackson was the issue. It was the fact that people don't have anymore hope for their city is the issue for me. It's about wanting to encourage people to vote, to stay, to not give up on the city because of a couple of embarrassing things that have happened.

It's terrible the sense of hopelessness you find around us today. You talk to people, and they think that it's just not going to get any better, that Jackson is going to hell in a hand-basket, and who cares anymore? Well, I care. I still care, even though I dropped out of the race. I've never left Jackson, despite its problems. Frank was a non-issue. The issue was the community I love. I get tired of hearing people outside of Jackson saying, "How do you live there? It's such a terrible place." It's not. It has some situations, but when you're bad talking Jackson, you're bad talking me. You're talking about me.

No vengefulness? None at all? You do believe that Melton's influence had something to do with how the last race turned out, don't you?
I do. I think so. He's a master at manipulating the media, and putting out false perceptions. He made a deliberate effort to make himself look like the victim in a situation in which he was nothing like a victim, to make it appear that I was a bully or whatever. I know that a lot of his supporters spent a lot of time on the radio personally bashing me, making a lot of flagrant lies about me. I think it's bad policy to get on the radio and call anybody out by name. You don't get on the radio and call people dumb, stupid and say they don't know what they're doing when you don't even know what the prosecutor's office is about.

So, no; I would not be so naïve to say that he was not a factor in that race. He was an unfortunate factor in that race. Between him and the things that Ed Peters did—when they put a person on the news to actually lie about a case—things that you cannot counter when you are in an election that late.

How much influence did Peters really wield? Do you believe that he commanded the vote of white voters?
I can't confirm or deny anything like that. I just know there were many issues coming at me all at one time.

Peter's influence in the county was impressive. Remember that lawyer who sued your office, but only two or three months after Peters abandoned it?
Yeah, Kathy Nester, who's not with the public defender's office, filed suit against my office regarding practices with check collection, the way people were being sentenced on those checks was a constitutional violation. I remember talking to her. I said, "Now listen, all that stuff happened under Peters. You haven't even given me a chance to get my foot in the door. Why didn't you file it against Ed? Were you scared?" She kind of laughed about it, but I think, looking back on it, that she may have actually been scared of Ed. She didn't want to file it against him, so she waited and filed it against the new administration. (Kathy Nester told the Jackson Free Press that plaintiffs had approached her with the issue near the end of Peter's career, accounting for the overlap.)

What happened with that case?
The case got dismissed because you can't charge somebody with something somebody else did.

Yeah, but you still wound up having to render some changes to your office because of that, didn't you?
Not really. I was doing a lot changing anyway. The first thing I did when I took over was get an audit done on both the books and the procedures of the DA's office, and in that audit it had suggested that we do a lot of things that had to do with check collecting anyway.

So, you were already putting the office in compliance with what Nester's suit was demanding.
I was putting it in compliance because I didn't like the way things were getting done. When she filed it, I was like, "We have no reason to continue somebody else's bad practices." That's pretty much what the court said, too: "You should have filed it back when the offending administration was in power." It was a good issue, though. It was a very good issue, but she should have filed it under Ed, not me.

So was he that powerful?
You can't be in a position like that for that long and not have a lot of influence. He was a symbol in the community. Some like you; some don't. He was what he was. I actually had no issue with Peters until he determined that he wanted to unseat me from my job. My whole thing with that was he should have left well enough alone. I was not bothering him.

Do you think he participated in the election because he'd been asked to participate by Melton?
I have no way of knowing. He and I had never had any cross words, or anything else. I know I have worked my tail off and never once blamed him for anything or said anything to make him look bad. People tried to goad me for years to bash his administration, but I didn't. I'd actually liked him. He'd been my boss. Whatever business other folks had, I didn't want to play those games, and I was really disappointed when the rumor started circulating that he was going to endorse the other guy. I'd heard he was just looking for somebody, anybody, to run against me.

Now, that I didn't know.
Yeah, he was looking hot and heavy for anybody to run against me, when most people were saying, "Faye's doing a god job. We don't need another DA."

Here I was thinking he'd jumped behind Smith because they'd had some connection in the past.
I'm not a beggar. I'm not going to run to anybody and say, "please, please." If you make a decision, that's fine.

You never once asked him why?
No. By the time I'd heard it, I'd said, "Fine, if that's the kind of game you want to play."

You two had never spoken?

Since the election?

Heck, I'd have made a point to call him at some point.
We may have spoken in 2006, just before Frank was indicted (by the state). It wasn't a bad conversation. He was trying to assist the mayor with some things that were going on, and he knew he could call me, and we could work on it. We were as pleasant as always. And then, months later, when he decided to fish for a challenger, I dismissed him, but I deserved to be respected, just like he deserved to be respected.

I had never said anything bad about him, never been disloyal, but at some point you have to let go and let other people shine in their light.

I was personally disappointed, but that was the extent of it.

Here's a bright reporter question: Do you think Peters would have had less influence over your last election had he been under the threat of indictment like he is now?
Oh, that goes without saying. I don't regret the outcome of the race, and I don't want people to think that I'm still living that civil war. I'm not. My practice is wonderful. I'm enjoying being able to do things on my own terms. I still help people and the community, but it's on my terms now. You're asking the question, but I need you to know that I don't spend my days wondering what if things had been different. I've moved on from there.

Tell me about your practice. You do mostly defense work, right?
Yeah, mostly criminal defense. I get a lot of cases outside of Hinds County, which is good. I do some in Hinds County, but I get to travel. I do a lot of family law, divorces, child guardianship and support, all that stuff. That's fun. I also like having an office of my own because it allows people to come by with some very interesting questions. My office is located in the neighborhood, and it's more open to people. It's accessible. I have clients who just come by and want to sit.

Where is it?
Edgewood Terrace, over by Chastain Middle School. I like having people just come by and talk one-on-one. I couldn't do that as easily before. There was too much to do.

Have you had a chance to go one-on-one with the current district attorney?
I do have some cases pending before the Hinds County, so I'd like to not antagonize the current DA.

I gotcha: You have no desire to come out and call him a clown. Message received.
Nope, no, no. I've had no complaints with the DA's office. I've had several cases in Hinds County, and they've all done just fine. His staff, like mine, does the bulk of the work, and from what I've observed of the ones I've had to deal with, they were still learning in some areas. After all, they have to do things differently when working for Hinds County. They're overwhelmed, just like my staff was, but they're happy with that.

Were you surprised when the indictment came down on Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter?
I was. I had no idea the suspicion of that was going on.

As a defense attorney, do you think he has a pretty good defense, that prosecutors will have a difficult time proving there was a real exchange of services in his corruption allegations?
I'd be afraid to say anything, because I haven't looked at the deposition. He's got some high-powered attorneys who can put out whatever spin they need for their client, but I don't know the details of the case, the nuances, and I'm not about to make like a prosecutor or the defense for that case.

I ask this of a lot of people who have the capabilities of living just about anywhere in the world with success: Why did you opt to live in Jackson?
It's my home. My whole family is here. I have generations of families here.

Well, they'll still be here if you live in Rankin.
That may be fine with you, but this is where I grew up. I love Jackson. It's just that simple. I don't want to move away from my Mom, and my brothers and my sisters and my family and cousins.

Yeah, but I always hear the "lower taxes over there" argument. Do you feel that local taxes are a strain on your business? Wouldn't it be cheaper to seat your office in Ridgeland? You can still visit whatever cousin you need to back in Jackson.
Dang it, I don't want to be in Ridgeland. Everybody wants to run somewhere, but sometimes you just need to be where you are and help your home to prosper. I'm not running from Jackson looking for greener grass and then talking about my former home after I'm gone. Nothing is so bad here that I feel like I need to leave. I'm not going to abandon my roots.

The conversation isn't as long as some of our past conversations, but then the conversation went and changed when you decided to drop out.
(Laughter) People stop me right and left saying they wished I had stayed in. I get a lot of that, and I appreciate that.

Perhaps they were happy with the idea of a capable woman running for the office—no slight to candidate Dorothy "Dot" Benford, of course.
I appreciate that. I do. Really, but it was tough. I had made my decision at the last minute, and even then I was wondering how I was going to balance everything with a campaign. These past weeks have been stressful, especially on my kids. Eventually, though, I had to say life is short. I love this city, and maybe in the future I'll get another chance to serve the community, but for now I'm a single parent. I can't get around that. I don't have a spouse at home to make sure that the teachers are called back and their e-mails are responded to, and getting on top of the children's projects and getting the kids here or there. It's primarily me doing all of that. My ex-husband is great, but he's not here every day like I am.

I've meant to ask you about that. During all the Q&As that we've ever forced upon you I don't think I've ever addressed what happened with him. Does the ex live in Jackson, or out of state?
He's an attorney here in Jackson. He lives in Clinton.

So he helps with the kids?
Oh, yeah—he's fine.

So, you didn't kill him and eat him at any point then, right?
(Laughter) No. Look, for attorneys, we're very close, but the primary day-to-day is still on me, which I don't mind. He's helpful. He gets the kids a lot, but we have different personalities. I'm more a nurturing supporter. He's more firm. (continued laughter)

One thing that I didn't ask that I meant to a few questions back: At what point did you come to realize the extent of Peters' influence? How long were you working for him before it became apparent?
I worked for Ed a year and a half. He had been DA for 26 or 27 years. I wasn't really interested in the politics of what he was doing when I worked for him. I really wasn't interested. I didn't even realize he had been there that long when I went to work for him. I knew he seemed to know a lot of people, but when I was an assistant (DA), I wasn't interested in the power of that office. I was just grateful to be working there.

Did you ever feel cheated by the white voters of the county? I understand Peters had a lot of influence in the suburban areas.
There will always be a segment of voters who will always say horrible things about me; that will get online and blog bad things. Even now, they're probably saying some terrible things, and you know you'll never please everybody. I was happy with what I brought to the office. There were a couple of years that we never lost a murder trial. We would bring in three or four verdicts from juries at the same time. We had gotten to a point where we were trying violent crimes within eight months of the crime happening, that we had reduced, across the board, the number of cases being prosecuted (through increased plea bargaining, including for life sentences).

I liked the fact that we had a good relationship with all the law-enforcement agencies. I was just proud to see the assistants doing the type of legal work they were doing. They were taking on some very challenging cases, and I was glad that people were getting to know the names of the attorneys that worked in the office, to see them reach that growth and potential was great. They were starting to get confident in the office. They were so good that I think that people thought it would be very simple to run the DA's office. The question, I guess, was "Even if you change the DA, don't the attorneys stay?" Well, no. Most of them have moved on, and I see that they're doing wonderful things now in Madison, and Rankin and the AG's office, or wherever they've landed themselves. Some of them are assistant U.S. attorneys, some of them are in Warren County and Lauderdale County—everywhere they are going they're going to do good work, and I miss them all.

Did the court facilitator stick around?
I know the person serving in that capacity is now someone different, but I don't know if the position is still being used in the same manner or not.

No one's whining to you saying, "Faye, they're not doing it the way you did?"
I don't allow that.

You can't stop people from whining.
I don't think it's fair to undermine the present administration. That's why I have never publicly bashed the administration, because I understand the tremendous pressure the DA is under. He's got a lot to do, and a lot of policy decisions to make, and I don't think a former DA should come back and beat on him unless she intends to run for that position again, and I don't.

You really don't?
I don't. Not now, anyway.

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