Francis Smith calls himself a non-politician. The pastor of Total Praise and Worship on Cedar Lane in south Jackson is taking to the campaign trail this spring though, as an independent candidate for the office of mayor in Jackson.
"I'm running for mayor, simply, to bring Jackson out of the slum, out of the abyss, out of the pits of hell," Smith told the Jackson Free Press.
Though this is Smith's first political campaign, he is no stranger to Jackson city government. He served as the Housing and Rehabilitation Manager for the city from 2002 through 2011 under Harvey Johnson Jr.'s first administration and the Frank Melton administration.
In that position, Smith supervised the Housing and Rehabilitation staff as they enforced city codes, executed community improvement projects, assured recipients spent Community Development Block Grants funds properly, and assisted elderly and disabled citizens with housing needs, such as roofing, electrical, plumbing and foundational repairs.
An ordained bishop in the Pentecostal Church, Smith came to Jackson in 2001 to assist his father in pastoring the Bethesda Temple, where his dad still preaches.
"I'm running independent as a strategy," Smith said. He went on to say that he has discussed the election with some other candidates, whom he wouldn't name, and they have agreed to back him in June if they fail to earn the Democratic nomination in May.
The JFP met with Smith in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel on County Line Road in February to talk about his campaign for mayor of Jackson.
In a nutshell, what makes you the best candidate for mayor?
The best candidate would require integrity. I have 49 years of integrity.
I plan, then I execute. I don't stop until it's complete. Track record: I've pastored over five churches. I am an ordained bishop. These churches are still in operation. We have a nice flow of attendance in our churches. (I have) organization skills, management skills, and research and development (skills).
You served as the housing re-habilitation manager. From your experience, what does the city need to do to about the growing number of abandoned houses that people are leaving to ruin in the city?
I've always stated that everything starts from a foundation; everything starts from a base. The city government of Jackson starts with the administration. When we deal with administration, you have a particular department, such as Planning and Development, which entails the office of Housing and Community Development (and) Code Enforcement.
Literally, we need to take charge of our laws and execute them. Boarding up houses, allowing houses to remain abandoned--there's a court system that's in place. Just to even do the proper work, or the proper condemning of a house is so backed up, it's backed up over a couple of years.
We need to execute and expedite more aggressiveness toward dilapidated homes. We need to make sure that the weeds and debris (are picked up). Be more aggressive: Write citations; bring people to court. (Tell people), "Either fix it, or we'll take it."
So if the city does take the houses, what do you propose the city does with them?
It depends on the condition of the house. You do have some abandoned houses that are not dilapidated; they're just not taken care of. Depending on the condition of the home, we would keep it on the tax base, revitalize it, rehabilitate it (and) put what's needed in it, if it's economical--or tear it down.
I believe in two things. If we tear it down, we need to put something in its place. At the same time, if we tear it down, we could also use it as means of helping someone to obtain property that would restore (it to the tax base). I believe if you take everything off the tax base, that's economics that's leaving the city of Jackson.
We would try to revitalize the house and put somebody in it.
Jackson, for quite a while now, has suffered from a crime perception. What steps could you take as mayor to help the city shed that perception?
Again, everything starts with administration. I think the golden number is 525 police officers on the streets of Jackson. I think proper training, proper education, continuous training, proper equipment--I think that's what is needed.
It's good to have a large, vast amount of police officers on the street, but I believe what we have now really needs to be curtailed and educated to change the perception from the citizens to the police. ...
We just don't look at the drug lords and the burglar, and the molesters, the rapists. Crime really starts from the perception of who is actually giving the citation. If the police are going to commit crime, so will the citizens. We have to show a stronger force in our police force to let our citizens know we are abiding by the law. And if you do the crime, you've got to do the time.
Speaking of doing the time, the city is struggling with that because of overcrowding at the county jail. Some of the county supervisors want the city to build its own jail. What would be your approach to either building a new jail or dealing with the problems at the existing one?
I think that the city and the county need to collaborate. They need to work together. I think the city of Jackson needs to be a great part of helping with our housing infrastructure with the county.
The city of Jackson is responsible for maintaining whom they arrest and who goes to jail. We have to make sure that we do our part as a city to hold the criminals behind bars, and not just push it off to the county. If we work together, not just with Hinds County, but work with Madison County and our surrounding counties.
I think one of the biggest problems with Jackson is we think, through prior administrations, that we've become an island to ourselves. If Jackson goes down the drain, eventually our surrounding cities will go down the drain.
The city of Jackson is the capital. The only way Madison, Flowood, Clinton, (and) Ridgeland--the only way they are going to shine is Jackson, the capital, is going to have to shine as well. As long as Jackson is a bad dot on the map, it doesn't matter what Madison builds. It doesn't matter what Flowood builds. They will never be able to shine until Jackson becomes what it is designed to be, and that is the capital.
As my job, as the mayor, I would definitely make sure that I would be collaborating and working with outside mayors to help us house criminals. I believe we can be assisted in that through federal funding (and) through private funding. Getting the criminal off the street, letting him do his time--whether it's in Rankin County or in Jackson--is it a priority? Absolutely it's a priority, but again, it starts with the administration.
You mentioned private funding. Would you support a privately owned and operated jail or prison in the city?
Yes, I would.
We have this perception of crime. We've also got Jackson Public Schools recently facing losing its accreditation, and we've got a perception of business leaving for the suburbs. How are these things--crime, education and business--how are they connected, and how can we work to improve all of them together?
As education grows, so does the city. A lot of crime is contributed to lack of education.
One of the things, as a mayor, that I would do is empower churches, faith-based organizations (and) non-profit organizations to do things that the school system cannot do. There are things such as after-school programs, day-care programs, night programs, housing children, helping them with their homework (and) giving them a meal to eat while that single parent is looking for a job. It's kind of hard to watch children, look for a job and work.
As mayor, I would implement funding to non-profit organizations to help in the school system with after-school care. By doing that, that's going to keep the children off the street, giving them an opportunity to be educated just like everyone else. If we don't put something in their hand (that is) positive, they'll pick up something negative and use it against society.
As a pastor, there's a lot that our churches can do in the community that the public school system just cannot do.
Let's say, midnight child care. The school system just can't do that, but we can. We can watch children through the night, while the parents work a decent job at night. Some jobs are only available at midnight. Every parent can't do that. Some jobs are available on second shift. We have to have means to make sure the children understand they are loved, and that they can be a mayor, fireman (or) policeman. We have to instill in them and let them know that we as citizens do care.
We need to let the parents know that there are organizations out here that will assist them in raising their child while they look for work. There's a lot of unemployment here. One of the reasons is because of the economic situation.
What can we do as a church? What can we do as a non-profit organization? We can assist. Your child doesn't have to be hungry. Your child doesn't have to go without being educated.
We can put teachers and tutors in these institutions, in these churches, in these non-profit organizations to help. If a child feels that he is not learning, if he feels that he is not with the rest of his peers, then he's going to find something that he is going to be good at. Eventually, he is going to end up doing the wrong thing, (and end up) behind the cell or six feet under.
I believe with all the churches in Jackson, Mississippi, this is a grand opportunity to do something that's never been done before. That's to take charge of helping these parents raise their children through means of caring, loving and educating them through the church.
You mentioned the lack of jobs and problems with the economy. There are several proposed developments in the city, from Farish Street to Old Capitol Green. The city recently had a study about a new arena. How much of a priority would you put on these major developments, and how, as mayor, would you balance helping fund that along with funding the other needs in the city, such as infrastructure?
I think that the priority for the city is to clean up the city, first, before we
can bring anything in the city. We just spent $98,000 to market Jackson. Why would I put on a new suit on a dirty body? Why would I bring or try to market the city of Jackson, and we have not controlled the crime, we have not controlled the street, our infrastructure, our water and our sewer?
I would hate to bring someone in and try to sell this city. It's like trying to sell a lemon to someone. When they get out in the street, eventually they're going to find out (that) they got a bad deal. $98,000 could have been spent more wisely than trying to market or sell the city of Jackson. Our first priority is clean up Jackson.
You mentioned the Celebrate Jackson campaign. I looked at the financial records. They haven't spent the full $98,000, but they are still in the process of the campaign (and have now fired the PR firm behind it). What was your reaction to the way the city ran the campaign? It sounds that you would not choose to spend money marketing the city.
I believe every city should be marketed. I believe everybody deserves clothing on their back. I believe everyone
deserves to eat food. However, what I don't believe in is to try to present something that is not. Jackson is not ready to receive the world. Jackson is not ready to be exposed.
We must get this city clean. We must clean up our streets. We must clean up our housing and neighborhoods. We must clean up the crime rate.
I can't see bringing in a good entity or a good business, or trying to welcome someone in, and as soon as they get
here, they're being robbed or vandalized. If the city of Jackson wants the prostitutes and the drug dealers and the streets clean, it can happen. The only reason why it's not happening is there's not a strong desire.
Yes, we want the crime to stop, but what are we really doing? We have the police that can only do so much. They can only do so much with the equipment they use. How are we saving money in the police department? How are we saving money throughout the city?
There's a lot of money being wasted throughout the city. Nobody has talked about that. Nobody wants to talk
about that. There's a lot of friendship within the city. Nobody wants to talk about that. There's a lot of under-handing going on. Who suffers? The city of Jackson suffers.
Every time there's an election, we find that the streets start getting paved. You see more police on the streets. Every time there's an election, we see more presence of city government. This should happen 365 days a year. This should happen every day. Does it happen? No.
We are not ready to market Jackson, whether we spent $98,000, whether we spent $1. We are not ready to market Jackson, because we first have to clean our house up before we can even invite anybody in.
Do you think that, possibly, it would help with the crime problem, if we brought in big business that provided more legitimate jobs?
You said help with the crime rate?
That goes back to perception. There's a word that we use called ignorance. Ignorance is not a bad word. If you had a knife and you had a baby, there's nothing wrong with the baby, and there's nothing wrong with the knife. Because the baby has not been educated to use the knife, because of ignorance, the baby would do something horrific.
It's the same way with Jackson. We have to be educated. Bringing businesses in: That's good; that's a great thing. There's nothing wrong with that. The citizens here in Jackson, they have to understand and be educated. Bringing businesses, in and of itself, is not going to stop crime.
We have to, as an administration, be more aggressive towards crime. We have to take crime by its tail and let crime know it is not going to be tolerated in this city. Even as far as running a stop sign or running a light or speeding down the street. It doesn't do any good bringing businesses in here, because they won't stay if the crime continues to grow. Bringing the business by itself will not stop crime. It will not even contribute to stopping crime.
I believe what needs to take place is we need to set standards in our administration, letting citizens know they are protected. We are out on the streets, the city government is being what it is supposed to be: administrators to the public. We are supposed to serve. We're not serving. The city of Jackson, they serve to a certain degree.
When we took oath, when we took position to become civil servants, it was to be servants of our city. The city of Jackson has failed to do that.
Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. recently announced the details of a long-term master plan for the water system. We're looking at about $300 million of work over the next 20 years. We're also facing hundreds of millions of dollars in sewage system and street repairs. How would you look to fund these major infrastructure projects?
Everything has a starting point. It's sad to say, this infrastructure problem has been going on for years (even) prior to me being brought into this world.
However, we have to deal with in now. The (Environmental Protection Agency) has a requirement. We have to meet their requirement. Where is the funding going to come from? Everything has a starting point. I have to go back to the original. Everything starts with administration.
Yes, we can talk about grants. We can talk about other types of funding. No one will want to assist Jackson if Jackson keeps doing what it's been doing. If we keep doing what we've been doing, we're going to keep getting what we are getting.
We have to change an administration. That's not to say we have to change personnel. No. As a mayor, that's the last thing I would ever want to do is send someone home. To change administration is how we go about business, how we
Contractors don't want to do business with the city of Jackson, because we don't do business right with developers, or the way we just do business in general. So with that being said, what do we do?
We literally have to change the way we administer our city business. Once we get that on track, then we can start looking, inviting other businesses and economic development, bringing projects and putting them on our tax base.
Where is this money coming from, the $400 million? It's out there. It's literally out there. And I literally believe that with grant systems and with bonds, things can be done a lot better than what they have been done, if you put the right people in the right position.
There are people in position that are carrying just a title, and know nothing about the position. If they even had a desire to learn more about their position that would even be workable. We have folks that have titles (who) know nothing about the duties that go behind that title.
My job, as a mayor, would be to look at the police, planning and development, public works, telecommunication, administration--all of that needs to be measured with a fine rule. We need to change our perception of how we do business and how we bring economic development into this city to produce funds in this city to take care of the structures, such as our water and sewer, crime, whatever the issues are.
The Bible says money is the answer: Money answereth all things. I'm a witness: Money does answereth all things. If we do it right, we'll end up right.
What would you say to a business owner who is thinking about coming into Jackson, but says, "Why would I move into a city that has these problems with the streets and water? I need better streets. I need a better water system to move into the city"?
I would agree with that owner. Jackson needs to have incentives to bring businesses in and incentives to keep businesses here. That has not happened. We wait too late, before something happens, then we try to resolve it.
Wholesale, retail industries (like) Sam's (Club) are leaving to Madison. One would say it's because of their infrastructure having problems. Others would say it's a business decision.
Regardless of what it is, regardless of what their reasoning was, I believe Sam's is a great place to do business. Sam's--every time I've gone there--seems to be doing very good. We don't know the books, but there's always a lot of people there.
What's going to happen with that is if Sam's decides to move into Madison, (Sam's) is going to lose a lot of small businesses (as its customers). They're going to lose a lot of entities, such as churches. This is where a lot of small businesses and churches get their supplies from. They're not too quick to go into Madison because of the distance.
(Sam's) would lose a lot of business that surrounds them here. If the structure was the problem for them, I don't know if Jackson would have gone in to see if they could assist or help them, or help the owner of the building to get the structure together or not. The fact of the matter is: What did we try to do to keep them here in Jackson? What did we try to do?
It's one thing to try. It's one thing just to wait, and then say, "Well, we could have." What did we do before the event happened?
I would invite businesses to come into this city, making sure that our street program has to be top-notch. We have bad soil. Everyone knows that. The soil shifts. We have to have a program, that when potholes happen, we have to have something to fill them right away.
There's a lot to talk about, even on the engineering portion of the streets. For someone to come in and say our streets are bad, our water is bad, our sewer is bad, it goes back to administration. This is why it's very important to start with administration, getting these infrastructure problems under control. They have not been under control for some time.
I hate to say it: We want the Taj Mahal here. We want golden streets here. We want what one would call the 'bling-bling.' We really would enjoy that. We want big stores here. We want nice restaurants here. I would enjoy that as well. I'm sorry. It's just like telling a child: "We can't do that until we first clean our house. You cannot invite any company until you clean your room."
This is basically where Jackson is. We have to do it. I don't expect Madison to do it. I don't expect Flowood to do it.
I don't expect another city to do it, another state to do it. We have to show the state of Mississippi, we have to show Washington (D.C.) that we are trying our best to bring Jackson back on the map as the capital.
What does that mean? We have to work hard at it. It's going to take everybody to do it. It's going to take every business, church, the public schools, the neighborhoods--it takes everybody to do this.
What can we do? We can learn to work together and show love to one another. This is where I live. This is where I pay taxes. This is where I shop. We have to do better than what we've been doing.
Where's the money going? I don't know where the money is going. I will say this: if I make $100, and I put it in the bank, it should do one of two things: It should either grow, or that $100 should remain there when I go back after it. For some reason, with the city of Jackson, we get money every month from the tax office. Where does the money go?
We can say it goes here, here, here and here. The people of Jackson pay taxes; they want to see where the money is actually going. When we start putting $300, $400 million under the ground, we still won't see it. Yes, we'll get to flush our commodes. Yes, we'll get running water. At the same time, we have to be wise. Even though we're putting money under the ground that we'll never see, we also have to put something on top of the ground to kind of pacify us while we're making these great changes.
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