Bennie G. Thompson has worked for the government his whole life. Born and raised in the small town of Bolton, located 20 miles west of Jackson, he worked as a high school civics teacher before becoming the first black mayor of his majority-black hometown where he still lives today. From there, Thompson joined the Hinds County Board of Supervisor where he served for 13 years when won a special election to fill then-U.S. Rep. Mike Espy's seat in Congress in 1993.
In that time, the Democratic Party to which Thompson belongs has been in the majority for a total of six years. Still, eight terms and three presidential administrations later, Thompson, who served as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee the last time Democrats held power in the House, from 2007 to 2011, wants to return to Washington, D.C., for a ninth term.
As a member of Congress, he sees his role as a conduit for grants and other kinds of support, but he is frustrated that cities and counties in his district don't always take full advantage of federal cash.
"I've run a city, and I've run a county. At the federal level, I know the resources to bring to areas if those areas choose to want them," said 64-year-old Thompson.
The congressman points to the Mississippi Delta, which comprises the largest portion of his district in terms of area, as a crushed by what he characterizes as a full-throated effort by the region's powerful white political and business establishment to keep Delta residents poor and uneducated to maintain a supply of dirt-cheap labor.
Thompson names Greenville, the Delta's largest city, as a symbol of that decline. Nevertheless, he believes that other Delta cities such as Clarksdale and Cleveland are primed for economic growth.
Coincidentally, Greenville just also happens to be the city where Heather McTeer, his opponent in the March 13 Democratic primary, served two terms as mayor.
"Far as I can tell, my opponent's a good person," he said of McTeer, adding that he appeared in television commercials supporting McTeer during both her mayoral campaigns.
The Jackson Free Press sat down with the congressman in his office in sleepy downtown Bolton to talk about his path to power, economic development in the 2nd Congressional District and Mississippi politics.
You used to teach high school?
When I finished Tougaloo (College), I taught school for two years.
What did you teach?
Social studies. I have a political science undergraduate degree and, basically, I became politically active my first year in teaching.
Why was that?
Because that was the year a lot of the civil-rights emphasis in Mississippi was in getting African Americans elected to public office. The municipal elections were in 1969, but in '68 I was teaching in Franklin County, Mississippi, and coming home on the weekends.
Was this a segregated school?
Oh, yeah. The schools were technically were desegregated in Mississippi in January 1970. We had what was commonly referred to as a freedom of choice, but that was a joke. Black kids chose to go to some of the white schools, but very few white kids chose to go to the black schools, so that was a farce. It ultimately went to busing, and when busing came along the growth of the segregated private schools started. I ran in 1969 for the board of aldermen here.
How old were you at the time?
Twenty, and I turned 21 before I took office. I served four years on the board of aldermen here, and that was part of our effort to try to work with the community. There were five aldermen. We thought taking three would give us a working majority then the mayor and town clerk would still be white.
But it didn't work out.
Those four years, not much was done because the mayor has veto power and it would take four votes to override the mayor. We passed motions to improve the water system here, the water system, to apply for housing grants an the mayor always vetoed everything and we could not get the fourth vote to override. So four years later, we decided this wasn't working out. So I ran for mayor at the community's suggestion.
Was Bolton predominantly African American at this point?
It was always African American. It's just that until we ran in '69 they had never had an election. We forced them to have an election in this town. We could not find any records of elections being held. So I ran for mayor.
From 1973 on, when I served as mayor we were able to get a new city hall, a new fire station. We upgraded our water and sewer system. We obtained firefighting equipment; we lowered our fire insurance rating—a lot of things that should have been done all along. The good thing is Bolton sparked the renaissance of black people running for office in Hinds County because we were the first people to elect black people in the county.
Even before the city of Jackson?
Long before the city of Jackson. We were the poster child for what an aggressive voter education and registration campaign could do. My being fairly young, I spent a lot of time talking all over the state about what communities of color could do if they put their minds to it. To the extent I organized the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors because we did not have a real forum to get our concerns heard . . . And to that organization's credit, it's still alive in 2012.
We grew from about 10 mayors back then to pretty close to 100 now. And where they used to be concentrated in the Delta, now they're all over the state. So that's a credit to the black political participation. During that time, Sen. Henry Kirksey and I sued the Hinds County Board of Supervisors in 1971 to redistrict Hinds County. At that time, Hinds County was about 40 percent African American, but there were no blacks on the Board of Supervisors. We got a decision in the latter part of 1978 that said Hinds County has to redistrict, you can't run in districts that are mal-apportioned and deny African Americans the right to choose a supervisor of their choice.
Well, when we got the court-ordered plan, this area was one of the majority African American seats on the board of supervisors. So I was asked to run in 1979, and I was fortunate enough to win. I served from 1980 until I was elected to Congress. So I've been a change agent for a while.
People who spent their careers doing civil rights often get pegged as angry, which is something I've heard about you—that you're an angry black man with a chip on your shoulder.
It's all how it's interpreted. I'm a proud black person. I take nothing for granted. My first school I attended in this town was called Bolton Colored School. I walked past Bolton School to get to Bolton Colored School. My mama and daddy worked, paid taxes, but their son had to attend an inferior school. That's history. I don't ever want history to repeat itself. To that extent, I have always been a champion of making our system of government work for everybody. If that's perceived that I'm angry, then I'll be angry. I've been married to the same woman 43 years. I've belonged to the same church in this little town all my life. I was a Boy Scout, a paperboy. The only thing is I became involved in the community. Now, if I was a white boy growing up doing that, I'd be a star. I wouldn't be called angry. I wouldn't be called having a chip on my shoulder. I'd be called somebody that's going to go places.
If you were to ask people what I've done to be considered angry, they couldn't tell you. I have friends who are ordinary people. I hunt. I fish. I eat at Waffle House. You know what I'm saying? Because I don't fit the mold of what the system wants of a person, why does that make me angry?
Do you feel like you have a bit of a right to be angry?
No, I feel that I have a right in America to choose the route that I take. And that route is one of being a change agent, and many times the system acts negatively to change agents.
The big thing now for candidates of color is to run race-neutral campaigns. What do you make of that?
In a perfect world, that's fine. But in reality there are still some changes that need to be made. In our state, we're debating issues like voter ID, which is a poll tax on steroids. We are dealing with an effort to destroy public education.
You mean charter schools?
Yes, charter schools. We're looking at a lot of things that cause me real concern. In a lot of instances, people still are struggling to be the best that they can be. I look at the banks in this community. The majority of them don't have any person of color on their corporate boards of directors. We still have a lot of work to do, so why can't a person talk about those issues when they run for public office?
Why do I have to run a campaign that does not address them? Other people do, and that's fine. Bennie Thompson prefers to run campaigns based on the truth.
You've been in public service your whole adult life. Given people's attitudes toward Congress nowadays, why do you want to come back for a ninth term?
I've been able to work with a lot of communities in my district that need champions. When I talk to mayors and supervisors, they're looking for an advocate. I've run a city, and I've run a county. At the federal level, I know the resources to bring to areas if those areas choose to want them. I don't want to run a city or county anymore. I want to help those local officials. When those officials have come and identified problems to me, I've been Johnny-on-the-Spot.
But I don't have a magic wand. I didn't inherit this district. This district was created long before Bennie Thompson was born but I do all I can to make it better. I support community development projects, health projects. I was the only (Mississippi congressman) to vote for the Affordable Care Act that the president promoted.
When NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) was proposed under Bill Clinton, I was the only person in our delegation to vote against it because I knew what it would do for a substantial number of lower-wage employees in our district and in our state. Fast forward, and I was absolutely correct.
Do you think NAFTA contributed to the decline of places like the Delta?
Oh, ain't no question. In just about every area in Mississippi, there was an apparel operation that afforded employment to people. When NAFTA was passed, we lost 1,100 jobs in Greenville Mississippi. Fruit of the Loom had a major facility in Greenville. As soon as NAFTA passed, they closed it. Jockey was in Belzoni for over 30 years, and we had case after case of that.
But the Delta was predicated on cheap labor, and a long time before mechanization came, people harvested crops by the sweat of their brow so you had a real need for a labor supply, and those elected officials discouraged any opportunities that would be a threat to that labor supply. (Then-Sen.) John Stennis was Armed Services (Committee) chairman when we located more military bases in this country than at any other time, but none of them were located in the Delta.
You're saying there was a concerted effort to keep people in the Delta poor and uneducated?
Oh, ain't no question. That's well-documented. When you start representing a district that didn't have the infrastructure to make a difference that is a challenge. A member of Congress is only one person. I can't apply for the grants. I can encourage communities to do it, and if they do, I can do all I can to help them get it funded.
In other words, people are leaving too much money on the table.
No question. That's because there are still some capacity issues in communities that are not really up on applying for the programs, managing the grants, and in return a lot of communities suffer. But if you look at every program that has been offered during my 18 years in office, anything that would alleviate pain and suffering, I supported it. So my job in Washington is to support good legislation. The other part of my job is to encourage people who are elected, appointed, or in responsible positions locally to take advantage.
Why don't you just get on the phone to Mayor Whomever and say, 'I've got this grant, and I need your application tomorrow.'?
I do it all the time. Some do, some don't. But most of the mayors, with the exception of a few, are part-time. They have limited budgets so they're challenged also. It's those local officials who tend to be the most aggressive are the ones whose communities reflect things happening. All the grants are competitive, but you have to apply.
So what's it going to take? People talk about the Delta like it's a Third World country. I say Third World as opposed to developing because the attitude is that there's no developing going on.
Years of neglect will generate many of the things you have. The only transit system in the Delta is a federally funded transit system in spots. We don't have a state transit system so to a large extent, the lack of basic infrastructure compounds the problem. But again, those state and county leaders are the ones who are going to have to take advantage of the opportunities to make things happen. And if those things are not a priority, they don't get done. A member of Congress can suggest, urge, and highly recommend that communities take advantage but at the end of the day, the decision rests with the leaders of those communities.
Are communities in the 2nd Congressional District unique in that, compared to the other districts in the state?
They're unique in the sense that the challenges are greater.
Are we at the point where you could argue to a company looking to locate a business that they should come to the district as opposed to somewhere? Or are there structural issues that need to be addressed first?
There are places in the district that are more conducive to certain kinds of development. If a company is going to invest its money into an area, there are certain things that they look for. They look at how the schools are performing, the health care issue, the housing that may be available. They might want to know where there's a symphony or where can my children get a pizza.
Somebody might say I want to be close to a river or an interstate highway. There are a lot of variables, but it is public knowledge that when industry is coming that they are going to look for certain things.
Just having a lot of people who need jobs is not going to guarantee you that industry is going to invest its money.
Where are those opportunities?
Vicksburg, for instance. They have the river and a port. They have a major hospital, River Region Health Center. There's available housing and an airport nearby.
Canton is a community that is positioned to do great things. If you go further north into the district, Batesville is doing a good job.
We worked with getting Lockheed Martin located over here in Clinton in the old WorldCom building. Well, that's 350 jobs. They looked at Jackson, Clinton and Vicksburg. My role was to say whatever criteria you have, you can get a better fit in Mississippi than you can in any other state. They came back and said, "You're right."
The GE plant that's located in Batesville. They've been here for going on four years now, and they love it.
So we're able to start the process of attracting some Fortune 100 companies to the area. Some of our communities are gonna have to understand the likelihood of getting an industry in your town might be more challenging than you can overcome, but you can still do the things to keep your community safe and sanitary.
You mentioned Canton, which is experiencing a lot of growth, especially in terms of its immigrant population. Mississippi is considering immigration legislation similar to what Arizona and Alabama have done already. As ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, which oversees the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, what do you think about states treading into immigration matters?
It's strictly federal jurisdiction. We don't have the resources at the state level to become the immigration cops.
But the argument is that the federal government isn't deploying the necessary resources.
Well, that's what they say. The jurisdiction of my committee has border enforcement; Judiciary has interior enforcement. But Alabama just went through its effort of trying to be immigration cops, and it's proven to be very embarrassing, including the fact that one of the first people to be caught in that trap was one of the Mercedes-Benz executives.
Plus, if you get a state person involved in a federal immigration case, that state person has to follow that case. I don't believe we have the resources at the state level to start deploying those resources for immigration purposes. Those state and local resources ought to be going to catching burglars, robbers, murders and others committing state crimes.
It's just an effort by certain people in this state to single out immigrants for the wrong reasons.
Do you see this an extension of some of the earlier civil-rights fights you were involved in?
It could be because if you look at the background on a lot of immigration challenges, most of the people who are in this country illegally are here for economic betterment reasons. They work hard at work that otherwise somebody may or may not do. (At) the cotton gin here in Bolton, 75 percent of the employees are Latino. The migrant labor stream is alive and well and this state.
If we all of a sudden close the doors to that stream with the threat of passing certain legislation, it's going to have significant adverse impact in our state.
You don't think there are enough out-of-work American citizens in Bolton to fill those jobs at the cotton gin if the immigrants went away?
I'll put it to you like this—time will tell. The question is for the type of hours worked and the physical labor that's required, you might or might not. But it's a business and if a business is not able to get the labor supply it needs locally, who are we to tell that business who it can employ?
On related homeland-security note, you've spoken about domestic terrorism. How well are our homeland security agencies positioned to deal with things like the recent Ohio school shooting and last year's incident involving Rep. Gabby Giffords?
There has not been a successful terrorist attempt coming from the outside. We've successfully sealed our borders so terrorists have been kept out since 9-11. What we do see is a growing escalation of what we call lone wolves. The gentleman who killed those individuals in Arizona and shot the Congresswoman, he acted on his own. There was no connection to any foreign or domestic terror organization. He's just a crazy fellow.
This young man who killed the three kids in Ohio, it looks like a combination bullying-mental situation, but he acted on his own. Sure, they're dastardly deeds, but there's no conspiracy. And I'm not sure we can protect every person in every situation but if somebody wakes up on a particular day and wants to do harm, and doesn't mind getting caught, that's a real challenge.
Lastly, do you know Mayor McTeer?
I helped her get elected. I cut a commercial for her when she ran, both times.
How do you think she's done in Greenville in terms of our discussion about progress in the Delta?
I'd say to you like this: The sheriff of Washington County is supporting me. The tax assessor is supporting me. The chancery clerk is supporting me. The clerk of the county is supporting me.
You've got a lot of money.
What's that got to do with it?
They have to run, too. Nobody wants to anger a powerful congressman.
O. K., brother. Whatever you say. I knew them before they were elected. Just like Heather, I helped them get elected. I've never told them how to do their jobs but they respect me for being a straight up kind of guy. When I was elected, there wasn't a single African American in Washington County government. Look at it now.
At some point you're not going to want to be in Congress anymore. What does the future U.S. representative for the 2nd District have to do, or be, to represent it effectively?
You have to care about it. It can't be a public-relations effort. You have to know individuals and communities. You have to listen to people. I don't have all the answers, but I'm willing to go to the smallest areas in my state and listen to people. I have a staff that understands we're here to serve the public. We don't have voicemail on these phones. When you call here, you get a name. You talk to a person. And just like I made myself available on Sunday morning, I don't know too many other people who would do that.
This is my second meeting. I had one at 7 o'clock this morning. So when I don't have the energy or the drive, I'll know. But I've been a blessed individual. I've seen a lot, I've helped change a lot and, I make no bones about it, I want my state to be better.
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