Mississippi pride runs deep for Jocelyn Pepper Pritchett, who goes by Joce (JO-see). The only time she has lived out of state was when she was away at graduate school, and she has been back ever since.
Pritchett, 47, is making history by running for public office. She is the first openly gay statewide candidate to run in Mississippi. She and her wife, Carla Webb, were one of two couples who were plaintiffs in the same-sex marriage case Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant that was recently ruled in their favor. Pritchett and Webb now both have parental rights to their children without needing to carry power-of-attorney papers.
Webb is a dentist and works on the lower level of a two-story building that houses both their businesses in Flowood. Pritchett Engineering is on the second level—now part campaign office, part engineering firm.
The couple has two children: Grace who is 7 and Ethan who turns 3 in August. After giving birth to her daughter, Grace, Pritchett decided to change her work pace and start her own shop, Pritchett Engineering and Planning in Flowood.
Pritchett was born and raised in Bellefontaine, a small town between Grenada and Starkville. She is the daughter of a teacher and a state forestry worker, and grew up the oldest of three.
Her sister, Jean-Anne, lives north of London, England, with her husband who's in the U.S. Air Force, and her brother, John Paul, lives in Calhoun County. Her parents have both passed away.
What qualifies you to run as state auditor?
I have lived in Mississippi all my life except for a couple years in grad school, and I'm a civil engineer. I've worked in transportation for about 25 years, and I've worked with almost every state agency out there. I understand their missions, their funding structures, what they're supposed to accomplish for the state, and I've worked with a lot of the cities and counties out there in the last 25 years. I understand the procurement processes that they're required to follow, and I know a lot of them are not following them correctly. I feel like I can make a difference with that.
How will your work experience, especially starting your own business, inform how you work as the state auditor?
I guess as a small business owner, you have to balance everything—the money going in versus the money going out—so I am used to making sure that the money adds up in my business. It's a bit smaller than running a state, but I think the principles are the same.
That's the experience I would like to bring to the auditor's office, to be able to fiscally balance and manage those taxpayer dollars and make sure that they're going for what they're supposed to go for.
What are some of those principles?
Integrity is a big issue. I think there is a lack of integrity in the current administration's approach. So I would like to change that. But also, just making sure that the numbers add up. We have—and that's part of my engineering background coming into focus—I think we have a lot of corruption in our state agencies. I think the last two or three years have really shown that, with scandals at the (Mississippi) Department of Corrections and the Department of Marine Resources, different county administrators, all kinds of stuff going on, and the auditor's office has not caught that—the FBI has had to come in and clean house, and that shouldn't be happening. We should be catching our own problems before the feds have to step in, so I think bringing that sense of integrity to managing state agencies' finances is greatly needed right now.
Editor's note: (Pickering has said he called the FBI about complaints over business dealings at Walnut Grove Correctional Facility.)
How would you investigate public corruption?
The auditor basically goes through the books of the agencies. In a nutshell, the auditor's office goes through those books and makes sure that the contracts are being procured in the most appropriate way and the most legal way—and that the money is going where it is supposed to go. So to me if that's being done, it makes it a lot harder for the corruption and the scandals to happen.
I also liken it to your personal finances and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service): People don't cheat on their taxes—not because they want to help the government but because they are scared of the IRS. I am not saying there needs to be an atmosphere of fear around that office, but I think there needs to be a healthy respect for that auditor's office. We don't seem to have that in a lot of our state agencies, cities and counties right now, so I would like to garner a healthy respect for that office.
What areas specifically or sectors would you like to shine a light on in the public sphere—which departments?
It looks like there's already been a huge light on a couple of the agencies lately. But I also think those cities and counties could use some cleaning up. I get the sense from just reading the news and being outside that a lot of those cities and counties maybe don't have the training that they need to handle the expenses right (the state's money, the expense reports that they need to file and the reports they need to file to basically be transparent about what they are doing with the state's money).
I think some of the cities and counties just don't have the experience necessary or maybe even the expertise to do that, and so I think there's some of that that can be done. I think I could help some of them manage and report their finances better. Sometimes it's messy, I think, because they aren't doing it well, but that also opens up an avenue for more corruption. If somebody knows that nobody is going to look at how they file an expense report then it's easy to pad that expense report every month, so I think there's a little bit of that going on.
... The big issues are the different agencies who are letting large no-bid contracts over and over and over go to the same companies with no procurement process—I think that's got to stop, and that's got to change, and I think that's what happened with the Department of Corrections. Those large contracts where nobody's looking just makes it too convenient for those state agency heads to start helping out their buddies or take kick-backs, and I think for the most part people want to be good and do a good job and they don't want to be corrupt, but we make it too easy for them to be corrupt. It just opens up an avenue that doesn't have to be there.
You mentioned the Department of Corrections. Are there other departments that the current state auditor hasn't looked into enough?
I know that they cleaned out the Department of Marine Resources a couple of years ago or maybe last year, the FBI did that. I don't have any specific agencies on my radar—I think what I would like to do is come in and do a sweeping review of all of them, and when those bugs pop up, we'll go after them.
You talk about the "old-guard establishment." What will you do to change that?
I think my presence will change that. There's never been a woman to hold the office of auditor—not that it makes a huge difference. I think women and men can both handle any job equally, so that's not a big deal. But I'm hoping as a Democrat, I can bring some checks and balances to that office that haven't been there.
Right now, the old-guard establishment holds almost every statewide office, and when one party and one group of people handle everything, that also opens up some avenues to corruption that I think I can change. I am planning on having a Democratic governor behind me to help, but I think that just having the auditor's office and being from a different party and having a different outlook will bring some checks and balances financially that haven't been there.
What recent examples of corruption were concerning to you?
One thing that was disturbing to me was how the mayor of Terry was handled. That was a recent scandal, there have been lots of folks who have cheated on expense reports or lied about the money that they had or let contracts go that they shouldn't have, things like that. All of that needs to be caught and all of that needs to be stopped, but when one person is singled out, and made a huge spectacle of when others are not—especially over such a small amount when there are so many large amounts of money being mishandled—I think it's smoke and mirrors and that frustrates me. I think the administration just tried to grab some cheap headlines over that at that man's expense, not that what he did was right; certainly he should have been caught and put away, but I don't think that was handled appropriately.
So you're saying your focus would be less on the small guys and more on the bigger picture and bigger departments?
I'd like to focus on all of them. My criticism of the current administration is that they are going after the little ones and making a big deal out of it and missing the great big ones, and maybe they are missing them on purpose. I don't know, but there's a lot of money that's not been put toward what the taxpayers of Mississippi intended it for, and that needs to stop. Because we don't have enough money to waste here, we don't have money to go throw away, not that anybody does, but we certainly don't.
The current state auditor has focused a lot on education spending, particularly in the school districts. What do you think the auditor's role in education funding for the state?
I know that the auditor helped set the formulas for the funding for the different school boards, and I know that they audit the school boards to make sure that money is being spent appropriately. I think that's the auditor's role. Other than that, they need to stay out of it and let the school boards run the schools appropriately with the funding that the taxpayers set them up for.
Based on your social-media presence, it seems that you support Initiative 42.
I do. ... I think that anybody who would steal from schoolchildren is, it's hard to put the right word, I can't imagine any state government or state government official who would purposefully take money away from public schools, especially public schools that are floundering. And that's what's happening, and I think that's morally bankrupt in my opinion.
What would you focus on within MAEP (Mississippi Adequate Education Program), especially if it gets full funding with Initiative 42?
If it gets full funding, then I will just make sure that the money that they get is spent appropriately, and I would like to reach out and help the school boards with budgeting and anything else that they need. But that might be all that the auditor can do—and not change the funding formulas, I would leave the formulas where they are.
Do you think the formula needs adjusting or would you leave it as it is?
My understanding is that (Pickering) has either been dickering with the formula or trying to change the formula based on the average daily attendance. I think that seems to be what's in question is the average daily attendance and how that's calculated. Quite frankly, I would like to see the schools be able to get more money, but I don't know that I will be able to manage that from the auditor's office. I think my responsibility as the auditor is to make sure that the formula is followed. (The) Legislature sets the formula, so you can bet that I won't be fighting to change the formula or to drop the average daily attendance so that the schools don't get the money they deserve.
What legislative changes would you like to see happen if you were in the role of the auditor?
My approach so far has been that I don't think there are any changes that need to be made. I think that the rules we have need to be followed, and they're not being followed and, again, I think adding more legislation is smoke and mirrors—away from doing the job he was hired to do.
Can you point to a couple of the areas where rules need to followed?
Auditing ahead of time and making sure that everything is being done like it's supposed to be done, that's important. One of the things that I've been disturbed about is the procurement processes that aren't being followed. If a state agency is allowed to make a decision about a multi-million dollar contract without putting it out for bid or proposals or any kind of transparent process, then you can be assured that that money is going to someone that it shouldn't be going to. That's not OK. I think that's a part of what happened with the Department of Corrections.
Another thing that disturbed me to watch was that Kemper County coal plant. I think the engineer's estimate was originally $2.4 billion, and now it's up to $6.2 (billion). That's $4 billion over budget that the ratepayers and the taxpayers of Mississippi have been funding, and nobody's talking about that. Pickering said that he's recovered $22 million in the last seven years, but that one plant is $4 billion over budget and it's not done yet. It's not scheduled to be done until mid-2016. So, who's looking at that, and where's that money going because we really need it.
In the most recent legislative session a bill that died in committee proposed that state and local employees who are convicted of or plead guilty to any type of corruption would have to forfeit their public retirement benefits. Is this the type of legislative change that you would like to see?
I think that's valid. If someone is convicted of corruption, stealing from our taxpayers, then we should not fund their retirement. I cannot argue with that in the least. I don't have any plans for any new legislation, again I just think that the rules that aren't being followed right now ... we have a lot of money that's slipping through the cracks, and that's been my focus to get in there and clean that up and make sure it goes where it's supposed to.
An AP report that came out last week said that Mississippi was one of two states whose economies shrank in 2014. ... How would you support the economy as the auditor?
I keep telling people, I think we have enough resources in Mississippi to do what we need to do. I think there's so much corruption—Forbes magazine rated us first (among states) in corruption last year. That was one of the pieces that inspired me to run. When you beat New Jersey and Louisiana in corruption, that's bad. So I think we have enough resources in Mississippi to do what we need to do—we just need to get in there and clean house and make sure that the money is going for what it's supposed to be going for and not into the pockets of greedy politicians.
You are the plaintiff in a high-profile case (Campaign for Southern Equality v. Bryant). Talk about that and what inspired you to run.
I got involved with the Legislature last year when they tried to introduce Senate Bill 2681, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which on the surface sounded like a very good thing. Once we got into the details of it, it basically promoted discrimination, which seemed to me is not the job of our state Legislature. So I stood up with a group of friends and helped fight that bill.
Then this last year, I got really involved with following the bill and the Legislature, and I started feeling like I was playing whack-a-mole with the bad bills, and I felt like I could fight the corruption and fight the problems better and solve the problems better from the inside.
So I took a look at everything, and this is the office that I am qualified and most suited to run for—state auditor.
I've got more education than anybody who has held the office before. I used to think that the auditor had to be an accountant, but we have never had an accountant who ran that office. The current auditor has a master's degree in marriage and family from the New Orleans Theological Seminary, and that might make him a good guy, but I don't think it makes him a good state auditor.
I want to make Mississippi better for everybody, and I think I can do that if I can make sure that the money goes where it's supposed to go, and I have seen enough from my industry watching the different agency scandals, I've seen enough lack of oversight to really frustrate me. And I felt like I could get into this office and clean up the money and make sure schoolchildren have schoolbooks. I could clean up the money and make sure that our water is clean and air is clean. By cleaning up that money, I could make sure that all those agencies are more efficient with their missions and our cities and counties. I mean, our infrastructure is crumbling all over the state partly because we don't have a federal transportation bill but partly because our cities and counties aren't managing their money well. I felt like in this office, I could make the most difference and help the most people.
How's the campaign trail?
I am a first-time candidate, and that shocked a lot of people at first. I tell them the transportation industry is very political so even civil engineering as a whole is very political because you are always working with state, local, federal funds. So there's a lot of oversight that goes into it and a lot of rules to follow, so in a way this feels like I've always done it, and in a way it's a little bit new.
The fundraising is incredibly not what I anticipated. That's been a bizarre turn of events. I knew I would be calling all my friends and family and asking them for money but to call them multiple times and everybody else, and I think people don't realize how much that money matters. I didn't realize before how much that money matters. It makes a big difference in whether you win or lose.
How do you feel like the response has been to you as a first-time candidate and as a woman running for this position?
I think it's been fantastic. I don't have a metric because I haven't run before, but I have had so much encouragement from the party, from people all around the state—progressive people who are coming out of the closet, so to speak, as progressives and saying go for it, we're behind you 100 percent. Most of our social-media campaigns have raised a lot more money than we anticipated or thought they would, so that's been encouraging.
What are going to be your challenges in this race? What are some things you are anticipating?
I think a lot of it comes down to financing. I am running against the incumbent, but he also has an opponent, and we haven't really talked about her much. So I don't really know yet who I am running against. That's been a little bit tricky as far as strategy, so we have to kind of wait until August to see who we're running against.
The rest of it is me feeling my way through and making decisions as I go. ... We are having to create new fundraisers and generate new donors who have never donated before, so that's a little bit tricky, but like I said, we've been really excited about the response so we've been very encouraged and the fact that I don't have a primary opponent, I think will help a lot.
Are there other things that you are planning on working on?
I would like to get in there (to the state auditor's office) and assess whether or not the budget the state has given them is enough for them to do their job—I am not sure that it is. I know the budget in that office has gone from $3 million to $6 million a year which again is a little frustrating if they are only recovering $22 million in seven years and their budget is $6 million and he's been there two terms, then he's basically not even paying for his agency. I would like to get in there and assess what resources they need and maybe restructure. ...
Let's get that office to be more efficient and see what their resources are and what they need. I would like to assess who they are auditing and on what schedule and see what has been done well and what' s not being done well and see what changes are there. I am an engineer and planner, and that's my approach to everything.
How does your engineering background inform your leadership style?
I am very logical and very structured—that seems to work well running state agencies. The one year I was at (the Mississippi Department of Transportation) it worked really well.
What position did you have at MDOT?
I was the assistant environmental engineer. I worked in the environment and location division. It was a year right when I came home from Georgia Tech.
How are you handling managing Pritchett Engineering while you are running for office?
That has worked shockingly well. Evidently, they didn't need me as much as I thought they did. I had an operations manager who was coming up through the company anyway, so I handed a lot of the day-to-day project management over to him, and he's been fantastic. He in coordination with my business administrator who has stepped up and does more of the day-to-day business side of things. The two of them together turned into a fantastic team, and they've got this place humming. I'm nearby. I still sign all of the contracts and the timesheets and manage all of the financial stuff and the business side, but they're managing most of the contracts and it's turning out to be something I should have done years ago.
You've mentioned that you want to see Mississippi come back from being that 50th state.
Right. There's no reason, why one state—the same state—should be 50th in everything over and over and over and over. That doesn't make sense. It has to be by design or because the leadership is looking the other way on a lot of things over and over. I feel like in this office I can change that because I can make sure the money goes where it's supposed to go. In any business, they always say follow the money; if you want to see who's in charge, follow the money. ...
I feel like I can get in this office and make sure that money is being handled like it should be. I think I can make a huge difference in the economy, in the lives of schoolchildren, in health care systems, hospitals that are underfunded and with a democratic-led legislature, it would be a lot easier for them to change the laws and make sure that agencies have the appropriate funding. But I think that if I can just get in there and make sure that they are using their money the way they are supposed to, I can still recover a lot of money for Mississippi that's falling through the cracks.
What do you want to see change holistically about Mississippi?
Honestly, I think having children changed a lot for me. Grace is 7, and Ethan is (almost) 3, and I know people talk about making a better future for our children, and I know that's almost a rote thing to say, but once I had children it was not rote anymore. I want my kids to grow up in a place that has an abundance of everything: diversity, health care, jobs for people. I want them to have access to a decent life because we thought for a long time several years ago when Grace was first born about whether or not we should raise children here, or if they would have a better life in another state, but it always came down to this is home. I don't want to have to leave my home for them to have a better life; that's not OK. So I just got mad and thought, well, I am just going to make Mississippi a place where I am happy to raise my kids at and not have to leave.
I think we have a lot of brain drain in Mississippi because when they have children or graduate college or when they can't find a job or a good job, they look around and think I can move to New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, New York or Houston. I can move somewhere else and have a better life and they leave.
Mississippi has so many wonderful resources and so much to offer people, and I think we need them to stay and we need them to come back home. There are ex-pat groups in every major city who get together and eat grits once a year. It's almost a joke. They shouldn't be in New York having a party in Central Park; they should be here in Smith Park eating grits and enjoying each other, going to work every day and contributing to our economy.
When the Supreme Court hands down their decision in a couple weeks, as you and Carla are lead plaintiffs in that case, what would that mean for Mississippi and for your family going forward?
We have wanted to be married since the day we met. We've been together 12 or 13 years now. Carla keeps up with that. But what really encouraged us to go ahead and get married was when several of the states came together in 2013 and all passed marriage laws saying that we could get married. And Grace came home from school one day, and she realized that we weren't married, and she said, "Oh no, Mommy, you're supposed to get married before you have children."
And we realized that we needed to go ahead and get married because we could, so ... we went to Maine and got married and came home and had a huge 200-person celebration at our house. It was great fun. But we need to see the state of Mississippi change for the better, and that's the same reason why I decided to run for auditor because I felt like I could make a difference and I felt like I could make a difference in everybody's lives by doing this—not just my kids, or my family.
People don't seem to care that I'm gay. It's not a big issue. They want to know what my background or education is or why I want to run.
We just want to clean the place up, and I think I can do it. Maybe I am naive as a first-time candidate, but I refuse to believe that I can't make a difference.
Comment at jfp.ms/2015elections.
Jocelyn "Joce" Pepper Pritchett
Experience: Michael Baker International, Parsons Brinckerhoff, MDOT, ABMB Engineers, Pritchett Engineering
Education: Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering, Mississippi State 1990; Masters in Civil Engineering and Masters in City Planning, Georgia Institute of Technology, 1999
Family: Married to Carla Webb; two children Grace (7) and Ethan (3 in August)