The JFP Interview with Steve Holland | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The JFP Interview with Steve Holland

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For R.L.'s interview with Joey Fillingane, click here.

In a matter of 24 hours, Steve Holland went from seemingly being the director of "Punk'd: Mississippi Edition" to directing funerals.

On Feb. 8, Holland set the Internet afire when news broke of his bill to stop calling the large body of water to our south the Gulf of Mexico and start calling it the Gulf of America. Legions of angry bloggers, Twitter users, news organizations and a Republican Latino-rights group assumed that the bill was just another example of Mississippi's racism and immediately lashed out at Holland and the Magnolia State, while bigots embraced the move.

By mid-day, Mississippians familiar with Holland's history of antics let the rest of the country in on the joke: The Democratic state representative from Tupelo was poking fun at Republicans for offering a slew of anti-immigration (aka anti-Mexican) bills.

For a brief moment, Holland seemed to be a media darling. Then, over the course of the next three days, Holland directed eight funerals. Even Holland, who has a reputation for being a cut-up, remarked that the rapid mood shift was surreal.

But that's Steve Holland. In his nearly 30 years in the Mississippi Legislature, he's often been on the side of earnestness in fighting for people he calls the "least, last and most vulnerable," but then he'll do something wacky like satirically call for an end to abortions in the state or author a bill to permit hunting of wild hogs year-round.

Lately, though, Holland is the hunted one, so to speak. With the Republican takeover of the House, Holland feels that he's been shut down and can no longer be an effective legislator.

After his term ends, Holland says he will hang up his voting stick and retire. "I'm looking forward to getting out," Holland said. "If it wouldn't cost my people a special election, I'd just get up and go home today. I just don't like being here now."

That doesn't mean he's getting out of politics. His 85-year-old mother, Sadie, is a Justice Court judge in Tupelo, and he may be interested in running for her seat if she decides to retire. He's also working on a book called "Tales of a Southern Undertaker" and wants to start a leadership institute for kids in rural Lee County.

"When this one is over, sayonara for me," Holland said. "I'm gonna sit at home and laugh at these sons of bitches and throw darts at 'em.

When somebody told you that the Gulf of America was trending on Twitter, what did you think?
I really did not think it would have that kind of attention. And of course, as I began to explain my position, I think it subsided some. But the initial reaction was absolutely astronomical. People went ballistic all over the world. I did about 30-something interviews in the course of three or four days, including the BBC and some far-right prick on Houston far-right talk radio, and I finally told him to go to hell right in the middle of the interview. I didn't care what the people of Houston, Texas, thought about anything.

Some of the reaction came from people who thought you were on their side.
You had some of them sending me emails saying, "Yeah, we're for you. Get rid of the Hispanics." Well, that's exactly what I was opposite of. I did it as a spoof, a tongue-in-cheek, to show how silly I thought it was that the movement around here is to devoid our society of anyone who's not Aryan and white and fairly wealthy. The least, last and most vulnerable haven't got a chance with this crowd. And they've always been my people, and their voice has been greatly diminished with this majority taking over.

What about when people started saying that this is kind of a sensitive issue, and you shouldn't be joking about it?
I would say to them, "Get a life." I got a lot of people saying I was wasting the taxpayers' time and money—tons of emails said that I should be removed from office. I've been getting those now for 28 years. I have 70 percent of the people that would whip your ass over me and 30 percent that wouldn't piss on me if I were on fire. That's pretty damn good odds in this world. That's the best odds I ever heard of, quite frankly, and I can live with that. People who know me know my personality, they know what I really stand for, what I've always stood for, and I don't sense that I'm going to change too much at this point.

People in this building even said you were wasting time and money.
Well, hell. We're in our seventh week, and we've had four bills. Look who's wasting money—the Republican leadership's who's wasting money. You're talking about wasting money, we have been here, and we've passed four bills in this House of Representatives. That is almost treason, and certainly, we ought to be charged with loitering on public property. They're feeding the bills one at a time on these worthless mediocre subjects. No meat-and-taters stuff that's come out, yet, and I don't sense it is going to come out.

I talked to Sen. Fillingane about some of the immigration bills. One is to restrict undocumented workers from getting state financial aid, but there's no evidence that's a problem.
They're continuing to throw red meat to their base. I wish they would realize that they have a majority, and they ought to try to govern. Even with their wrongheaded attitude about governing, they ought to try to make it work as they see it instead of trying to throw this kind of superfluous legislation at us. It's really, in 29 years, the most mediocre session I've ever served in by far.

What was it like going from the Gulf of America frenzy to working at your funeral home in Tupelo?
I had a lot of funerals that weekend, and I was working in my real job in the private sector, and I kept getting interrupted by these reporters who were fairly impatient. I had to tell them, "I have a funeral starting in 10 minutes," and that's my livelihood. I'm a Thomas Jefferson legislator. That's an avocation, at best, to me. Something I do out of civic citizen responsibility. So you can call me back or leave me your number so I can call you back after I get this dearly departed in the ground, but until then, hell no; I'm not going to talk to you about anything.

Your funeral home is handling the arrangements for Billy Sutton, a soldier who died in Afghanistan.
It's hard to juxtapose that. I flew up yesterday morning real early with (Adjutant Brig. Gen. Augustus Leon) Collins on a helicopter for the arrival of his body from Dover Air Force Base, and, oh my God, such a poignant moment. ...

I have to flip-flop from the seriousness of a moment like that to the silliness of this legislative session. It's draining.

I live in two different worlds that are equally taxing and equally time-consuming and emotionally stressful. And it makes for an interesting commentary on life, but I've done it for a long time and, obviously, I enjoy it. I meant to retire last year, and the people literally begged—now, nobody held a gun to my head—but they said, "Please go one more term," and I did, and that's all I'm gonna do is one more term.

When this one is over, sayonara for me. I'm gonna sit at home and laugh at these sons of bitches and throw darts at 'em.

Before the session started, you said you were going to be as conciliatory as you possibly could.
But they're not being very kind. I voted for the speaker. I voted for his rules change, and they screwed me to the wall. I got nothing for it. All's fair, now. As long as they're nice, I'll be nice. But if they're going to be a smart-ass, I'm smart-assing back to 'em. They're not gonna run over me just because they're in the majority. And they're going to operate by the rules of the House. I've been here a long time; I know those rules. I've had a lot of exposure to those rules, and that's all I ask—nothing magical, nothing above and beyond general fairness.

I didn't get called yesterday (to make) a fiscal note. If Snowden didn't hear me, I'll bring him a spare hearing aid I got ... left from a corpse last weekend, so maybe he can hear better. Or better yet, I'll start standing up on my desk and jumping up and down, and I believe he'll see and hear me then. I'm going to get recognized.

So what is it? Is it just philosophical differences? Do Republicans want your seat?
They can't get my seat. What they'll do with my seat in reapportionment is make it about 60 percent African American and get rid of me, but I've announced my retirement. I'm not coming back. I'm through. I'm positive of that.

I don't know what it is they want. They just don't like anybody that's not like them. And they don't like anybody that's smart or who's had exposure. They're not transparent; there's not much sunshine as I see it.

I thought Democrats might not go back to the chamber yesterday so there wouldn't be a quorum to vote on the Sunshine Act.
The floor is our marketplace. A lot of us have been relegated to the marketplace. We have no committees. I've dealt in health and Medicaid most of my life, and I was banished from those committees, so the only marketplace I have is the floor of the house.

The sunshine bill was the biggest fight so far this year.
The Ryan Petit Child Protection bill was a pretty big fight.

I guess what I'm getting at is if Mississippi is going to get where Wisconsin was, when Democrats left the state in protest of the governor's union-busting reforms?
I doubt if we'll get quite there, but we're gonna get close. That's what they want. They want a pure divide. They don't want to walk hand-in-hand with anybody; they want it all, and they want everybody else to be subservient to them. Mississippi is such a poor state, and I don't care if they did get the majority. People have so many needs for the government it's unbelievable, probably more so than any of the 50 states in the United States. We can't dismantle the government as we know it, and they're trying with their joint rules change—they've done a pretty good job.

What am I going to do? They have completely hamstrung me. I've been on appropriations all my life; now I'm on ways and means. I love the assignment. It's OK by me. It's not my where my passion was nor where my expertise is, but I'm not too old to learn. But this rules change is just consolidating power in fewer and fewer (hands). I was part of the crew that did away with former Speaker Buddy Newman and his Delta regime and his tight-fisted control of the budget process.

Why should the average Mississippian care about the rules of the House?
You're going to have these far-right conservative budgets with no way to leverage them at all. ... The committee process is brilliant, but ultimately, legislation is made on the floor of the House and the Senate where all the representatives and senators of the state are jointly responsible for mending and molding that legislation. We have now had most of that ability taken away from us. We can't jack an appropriation up without saying where it's coming from. And they've taken the rainy day fund off the table.

Well, that's where the money is. They're just going to keep building a bank for the state of Mississippi, which is what the Republicans want to do. I've always held the philosophy that a government and a church that has money in the bank is really not fulfilling its mission.

Short of having bills read, how are you going to exert yourselves?
Just keep fighting. Seek recognition and do a lot of exposing of the other side to their limited-government attitude and try to build grassroots efforts from the people.

I think a majority of the people in Mississippi thinks the government pays a good role in their lives, not a bad role. You got a few who don't like public schools, but this state cannot progress in any area—economic development, quality of life—without a strong public-education system, and I think we're seeing a complete assault on the public-education system. When have you seen the chairman of education in this House mention public schools? All their press conferences have been about charter schools.

Their argument would be that public schools aren't working.
So you're just gonna turn your back because they're not working? You're going to defund further? We'll listen to the charter-school debate, but it's not a cure-all. It's certainly not for everybody. It's not a mass solution to what our problem is. Early childhood education is probably the best thing to do for dropout prevention, increasing readiness for the K-12 experience, bring up ACT scores.

How much does school consolidation have to do with it?
Consolidation is like peeing in the Pearl River to get the Gulf of Mexico to rise.

The Gulf of America.
The Gulf of America, excuse me. Yeah, some districts probably should be consolidated. There's nothing on the books now to prevent any school district from consolidating if they wanted to. Certainly it's the right of the Legislature to consolidate schools, but locals should be involved in that.

What about the state's colleges and universities? They're returning to the issue of consolidating HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities).
It's so sad. I travel our college campuses, and I live education. I get so invigorated when I go on any of our college campuses. And it's so sad that we've seen tuition go up for 13 years now. It's an assault on the middle class. Thank God we've had so much public fundraising, and our people have come to the aid of our colleges, but our percentage of contribution in the last 20 years has continually gone down. And that is when we had leadership.

We are somehow continuing year after year to de-emphasize the value of our institutions of higher learning.

Are they doing it just to be able to say that they put austerity measures in place?
I've lived with these conservative types for years, and it's just government-light. Cut their feet off, cut 'em off at the knees, and let 'em wobble around and see if they'll make it. Very little sensitivity, very limited vision. It's just philosophical.

But hell, I got Republican friends, and they're poor as hell, and they have to depend on the public-school system to get their kids educated. They just don't get excited about that kind of stuff. I see no passion from them.

I cannot remember the last time I have seen a Republican go to the well of the House and speak passionately in favor of any governmental service of any nature. They'll always speak against. They'll always tell you what's wrong with it. It's really incumbent on them to defend.

Not me anymore; I'm in the minority. They've got to come out in full force and say, "We're slashing 5 percent from (Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning)," and say, "God bless you; do the best you can." And they'll suffer the consequences for that more than I am. It's going to pit brother against brother up here, agency against agency.

How much do you buy into the idea that there's a desire to create a permanent Republican majority?
I think that's what they'd like to have. And they'll probably have that the next 10 years. I don't see it going much beyond 10 years unless the people rise up at the end of this four-year term and come back to the mother's milk. The people are going to see firsthand what's going to happen with the dismantling of government. To say that the government of Mississippi—to say it is too big and too large is the biggest understatement I've ever seen in me life. It is not. You give me one agency that's too big and too large, that's too much for the citizens based on the needs that we have.

Why the hostility to online sales tax when Haley Barbour gave the cover to do it before he left?
You'll have to ask one of them about that. I don't understand that. Of all the things that could bring in $300 million to the state, that's as good as a casino. If you could secret ballot that in the state of Mississippi, 80 percent of the public would support a tax on Internet sales.

How are you going to spend the rest of the legislative session? Just doing stuff to amuse yourself?
I'm writing on my book and writing love notes to all the widow women I've loved over the years, drinking a little at night and carousing around a little bit.

It's a sh*tty session, and I'm looking forward to getting out. I'm the most optimistic, happy fella you'll ever meet, but this is a pile of sh*t on my life. It is a pure albatross around my neck.

If it wouldn't cost my people a special election I'd just get up and go home today. I just don't like being here now.

I have a tendency to trade a barb for a barb, and I'll probably keep doing that. I have a pretty damned trashy mouth, and I'll probably still keep cussing, and I hope I don't get so angry (that) I have another stroke.

I am the only Democrat left in Lee County. I got all the African Americans in the county, and (Republicans) got all the Aryan whites. My opinion is not worth a cuss to anyone, but I'm gonna keep sharing my opinion.

CORRECTION APPENDED ABOVE: This story originally stated that Rep. Holland would retire after this legislative session. He will retire at the end of his term in 2013. The JFP apologizes for the error.

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