Dorsey Carson didn't think he'd ever run for Jackson City Council, but the resignation of Ward 1 Councilman Quentin Whitwell in August opened a door for the attorney and Jackson native who will be on the special-election ballot.
A Mississippi State University and University of Georgia School of Law graduate, Carson has practiced law for more than 15 years, including in Atlanta for three years. He started his own law firm in Jackson in 2013.
With his downtown firm, Carson Law Group, he represents clients locally and all over the nation, including the Jackson Free Press. Carson said his experience with practicing law within the construction industry gives him the edge that Jackson needs in respect to economic development.
Carson also approaches the discussion of improving Jackson schools with special interest—his 4-year-old daughter, Hays, just started preschool at McWillie Elementary School. He is married to Susan Hays Carson, also from Jackson.
Name the top issues facing Ward 1.
Economic development, and by that I mean retaining and recruiting businesses, retaining and recruiting our middle class, and that ties into public education and public safety. And I think generally a sense of going somewhere positive instead of apathy, which has really pervaded city hall for way too long.
I know Whitwell was talking about doing something with Parham Bridges Park. Is there anything that you’re looking into with that?
Not right now. Now that’s not to say that that won’t happen in the future, but you kind of have to pick your project and pick your issues to focus on, and right now my priority is to get a middle school for Northeast Jackson. Were the only ward in the city, the only part of the city, that does not have a middle school nor a high school, and without that there’s not the sense of community that you usually have in areas that really take pride in their community and have a place for their kids to go to school that’s there in their neighborhood.
Three years ago when I ran for the Legislature I had many discussion with a lot of people without that and the general consensus was, well, really there’s only one place you could put that. There wasn’t land available to do that. Well now with Colonial Country Club now being owned by the bank there may be an opportunity there that’s certainly worth looking into.
How do you see council's role in public education?
In general, the council has not been as involved with JPS as they should be. The budget of JPS is actually bigger than the city budget, and the importance of public education in our city is huge on every level—whether it be businesses that are looking to build, expand, recruit in our community, or whether it be, more often than not, middle-class residents who leave Jackson because they've got three kids, and they're not comfortable sending their kids to a middle school. They don't have money for private school, so they move to Madison and Rankin counties, and once we lose them we don't get them back. That's at the core of why we've lost more residents than we've gained over the past couple of decades.
(Editor's note: The proposed JPS budget for 2014-2015 is $295 million; the city of Jackson recently passed a $390 million budget for the upcoming fiscal year.)
So public school seems like it’s a big issue with you, and I know your daughter just started preschool in Jackson Public Schools.
She’s in her second year of preschool. She’s a four year old. The State of Mississippi of course doesn’t pay for 3- and 4-year-olds. Many states do. So we actually pay into JPS in order for her to go to McWillie. It’s a Montessori program. And that’s a prime example—JPS has many success stories that aren’t being told, but elementary school is certainly the largest of those. We have four of the top 10 elementary schools in the state and McWillie is one of them. But we lose a lot of those kids after elementary school. We lose them to other communities.
Do you plan to keep her in Jackson Public Schools past elementary school and middle school?
I hope by then that we have the new middle school built in northeast Jackson where she could do that. That would be my hope. I don’t think any parent would use their kid as a Guinea pig if the educational system is not up to par, but there’s no reason that our middle school system can’t be up to par, not just in one or two middle schools but in all of them.
I guess the trend is, past elementary school, putting kids in private school if you’re still in Jackson, so I was just going to see how you weighed in on that.
I think that a new middle school that kind of followed the models of the successful elementary school, where you had people that applied to get in—I mean, people are surprised that we actually had to apply to get into McWillie, but there were 90 spots and 200 applicants. I’d be lying if I told you I knew for sure what we’re going to do six years from now. The public schools in general don’t really compete with the private schools, what they compete with are the public schools in the surrounding communities. So, that’s my hope, is that we get those middle schools up to par so that we no longer lose our middle class.
Besides creating new schools, what do you think council can do to improve Jackson Public Schools, even on the high school level?
Well there’s a lot. Number one on my list is that we’ve started this Alignment Jackson group modeled after Alignment Nashville. I’m still in the process of learning about it, and Alignment Nashville certainly has had great results—over 40 percent increase in graduation rates. You can’t just ignore that, and we know that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked here so it’s time to try some things that are different. Alignment Jackson is, to me, a really good opportunity to get a public-private partnership to really focus on putting kids on a career path—a successful career path. Way too many times we try to pigeonhole, I think, students into where we want them to go, when often times, some of these students have no interest in going to college, that’s not their talent, and of course even a college education doesn’t guarantee a successful career, so if we get these kids in junior high and ninth grade—where JPS is currently starting with these freshman academies—that’s an exciting project. I’m really hopeful for where that can go.
Unlike the elementary schools, which have a low student to teacher ratio, middle school tends to be sometimes the most trying times in a kids life, and yet many of these teachers are faced with 30 students in their class, so instead of focusing on 20, where its already difficult to manage, you throw in a situation, which is really impossible for the teacher to really reach all of the students.
I think the parent involvement is huge. One thing that we’ve got at McWillie, for example, is a very large and active PTA. I’m not sure that push has really been made in every middle school, but once you get the parents involved in their kids’ education then it changes everything.
I heard a quote recently, somebody told me you could tell the success of a school by whether they had a strong PTA and whether they had clean floors, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
What will you bring to city council, and how will you be effective?
The exciting part for me is that four years ago or even two years ago if you would have told me that I should run for city council, I would said not "no," but "hell no. Why would I go down there and beat my head against the wall?" But now we've got a new mayor who, whether you always agree with where he's going or not, he's going. And he's going in a direction with vision and with a desire to make real changes in the community.
You've got a city council that's much younger than it's ever been, with fresh ideas and they're going to make some freshman mistakes, but there are six other members on the council, and I'm friends or friendly with all of them. Three of them I would consider to be close friends, so we have the ability to put together a unified group on city council that can really move the city forward. The ideas that we have, have an opportunity to actually come to fruition.
Professionally, what I bring to the table is a vast experience of construction. I'm a construction lawyer primarily. Over half of my clients are in the construction industry. Jackson is about to undertake one of the most massive construction undertakings it ever has in improving our infrastructure, so I think I bring some institutional knowledge of that industry and how that works in the private and public arenas so that I can really help guide the city council on some stuff issues and bring some oversight to how we effectively and efficiently use those funds.
What role should council should play in economic development?
That's probably the area we've really been lacking. For businesses to invest in your community, they have to feel welcome. In general, in the past we've had at best apathy, at worst an adverse relationship with the business community. For those businesses that exist here, you're not ever going to live in a community without crime, but when crime happens, you want to at least deal with a city hall that cares, or where you feel like they care. And that hadn't always been the case.
When it comes to recruiting new businesses, economic development is not rocket science. Sometimes it's just as simple as getting on a plane and going to tell somebody who has money to invest in your community: "We want you. We want you to come in and create jobs. We want you to be part of our community. What can we do to help get you there?" That time commitment is the biggest thing. It's not even the money. It's the time to say, "You've got something to offer us, and we've got something to offer you."
It's building relationships. Through 18 years of practicing law, business law and construction law, I've developed lot of relationships across the nation. I practiced law in Atlanta for three years, and those contacts, it's a small world, and those contacts come into play. I know developers that I believe would be interested in coming into Jackson if they felt they were welcome here.
How do you feel about the Costco controversy going on right now?
I’m hopeful that there’s going to be a mutually agreeable solution. I know the solution is not to litigate this up to the Mississippi Supreme Court and have a decision from them five years down the road after going up and back and up again. As I tell people, I don’t know for sure that this is the only location that Costco will consider, even if they say that. I have some out-of-state clients that I charge a higher rate than many of my in-state clients, and I love that higher rate but I’ll take a lot less.
I think it’s the same way with any business. Businesses shoot for the best, and then they look at a reasonable path that works. Costco I think makes a good fit in our community. I don’t believe that’s the only place they could go, is in the museum district. I think with a little effort in working together, I would be shocked if a trip to Costco headquarters would not be effective, if you came with a crew that was on the same page of: We’re all working together to get you here. Here’s why you’re a good fit for our community. You’re a corporate entity that cares about building community. We are one in need of some help and you’re going to make a lot of money while you’re here. That kind of message is one that I think Costco would be interested in, and it’s hard for me to believe that there’s only one location they would come into Jackson if it’s approached the right way.
It seems like transparency on part of the Mayor’s office has kind of been the problem, and the city not really knowing what is going on with Costco. How would you try to close the widening gap between the Mayor’s office and city council?
Well I hope it’s not widening, and I understand what you’re saying. There are sometimes where economic development projects don’t need to be publicized as much, but city council members should be having private conversations with the mayor in a way that’s not political aggrandizing but rather trying to work towards a solution to the problem. Because ultimately if people get embedded in different camps without any long term sight of where you’re going, then it doesn’t do anybody any good.
The next four years cannot be about a fight over Costco. If that happens, then we’ve lost the equivalent of ten or maybe even a hundred Costcos in terms of job creation in the city. I think there are solutions. My impression is that the mayor is willing behind closed doors to have some conversations that are productive, and like I said, not everything can be out in the pubic because sometimes you lose those type of clients, those type of projects if it too public on the front end.
On the back end, I’m a strong proponent of open government. I’ve filed several suits against public entities all the way up to the Supreme Court to get public records. I understand the need for the public to be informed about where their tax dollars go, but I’m also sensitive to the fact that you’ve got to be careful on the front end not to put it out there too soon where public criticism can kill a deal.
With the increase in sales tax, what's your wish list for Ward 1?
It's not just Ward 1, but my wish list for the whole city, because we really are all together in this—but number one is the infrastructure. In my neighborhood when cars have to drive around a big sink hole in front of Jackson Academy for months on end, and you pay for emergency repair work that costs three times more than if you had just done it right the first time, well, this is an opportunity now. We've got this 1-cent sales tax that provides the revenue for us to plan ahead of time, and not spend all our time putting bubble gum on leaking pipes when we can use our funds wisely to replace those pipes that need to be replaced. I think with appropriate oversight we can get more accomplished for less money.
What about this recent budget controversy with the salaries of public officials as opposed to minimum wage workers, and what’s councils role in all of that?
I hope I don’t sound too much like a politician here. I do think every time you make a budget change there should be some analysis that tells this is how much its going cost I think that’s fair I don’t think the mayor I speaking out of terms to ask for that at the same time I don’t think the citizens would object to employees getting closer to a living wage. I think if I had to live off a min wage budget then I would have a really tough time. In fact a lot of people can’t even get insurance because they make so much from minimum wage that they just barely don’t make it so sometimes we have a disincentive for people to work. So I’m cognizant of that, but you also need to know how that impacts your bottom line budget.
I’ve seen several figures thrown out there recently, but in general I would say that people do need a living wage. What the taxpayers want is to make sure that they get what they pay for. They want employees to be responsive to them and remember that their jobs are dependent upon the taxpayers.
I think that’s where the real rub is, not so much in whether you make a dollar more per hour, which in the big scheme of things is not much, but what they want to see is accountability, and to make sure when they call for a permit that they’re not treated as a second class citizen. Or when they go down to pay taxes, or go to municipal court, or whatever involving the city that they’re treated fairly, and they’re treated with a response that shows that, “Hey, we’re paying attention to how we spend your dollars.”
I know the last three Ward 1 councilmen left their seats early. How will you ensure the voters that this isn’t just a stepping stone for you?
I like to see a job through. My experiences from serving on various boards and in the management of my prior firm, usually the way things go in general in life is you spend the first year or two putting out your ideas, with people tell you you’re crazy, it can’t be done. Sometimes people will say even worse. But by years three or four you’re actually implementing those things, and getting those things accomplished. I don’t know how to respond except that way, that I believe it’s a minimum of a four year commitment in order to get things accomplished.
So you’re a democrat, and I guess this is a seat that is viewed as more conservative, or at least the past few people were. How do you ensure voters who voted for Weill or Whitwell that you’re their guy?
When I ran for the legislature three years ago I got more Republican voters out than I did Democratic voters. The people who know me know that I’m more about ideas and about people than I am about partisanship. I’m actually glad this is a nonpartisan election because it has enabled us to reach out to both the left and the right in ways of helping everybody. Potholes are not Democrats or Republicans. Broken water pipes are not a partisan issue. Everybody needs public safety.
To me, the issues that you have on city council are not partisan issues, and I would say in many respects, in my involvement in local politics, including many Democrats that currently sit on city council, I’ve been able to develop those relationships.
De’Keither Stamps and Tyrone Hendrix and I became friends through being involved in local politics, so the relationships that I’ve built there I think make me the most qualified candidate, whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Because the issues are the same in northeast Jackson. My issues in my neighborhood are the same, but my ability to get things done is greatly increased by my political experience.
You do legal work for clients and, you said, a lot in economic development—contractors, Socrates Garrett. How do you ensure voters that you'll make decisions independently from your clients' interests?
It's really not that tough of a question for me. Ethically, I can continue to represent clients that do work for the city. I can represent them against the city, but I just can't vote or have any impact on any votes for settlement or anything regarding that, because I do have one case for Socrates where we're technically adverse to the city. Through the years I've had over a thousand clients. No one client represents more than three percent of my business.
When I was at Butler Snow, Larry Franck was the managing partner. Larry's quote was to always try to have 10 good clients so that you could tell one of them to go to hell. Well, I've got many more than 10 good clients, so I always have the opportunity to not even get close, in my mind, to ethical dilemmas. The experience I have with contractors is a benefit, not a disadvantage and any conflict of interest, I'll just recuse myself.
Tell me something about you that most people don't know?
Well, people that know me know that I like photography, and my favorite subject is my 4-year-old daughter, but most people don't know that really started in high school where I had a darkroom and developed black-and-white film. I had two of my photographs that won at the statewide level, and one of them went on to win in New York. I ended up with an art scholarship to Savannah College of Art and Design that I never took, so my life could be a lot different had I gone and been an artist.