Kitchen-Table Politics: The JFP Interview with Vicki Slater | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Kitchen-Table Politics: The JFP Interview with Vicki Slater

Vicki Slater and her husband, Scott Slater, live in Madison. They have a blended family of six kids and six grandkids. Photo courtesy Vicki Slater Campaign

Vicki Slater and her husband, Scott Slater, live in Madison. They have a blended family of six kids and six grandkids. Photo courtesy Vicki Slater Campaign

Four years ago, a common refrain about the gubernatorial contest between Democrat Johnny DuPree and Republican Phil Bryant, who was lieutenant governor at the time, was the congeniality and respectful tenor of the race. Some people feared—perhaps some hoped—that the campaign between Bryant, billed then as one of the first tea-party governors, and the first African American major-party nominee, would get nasty and were pleasantly surprised when it didn't come to that.

Vicki Slater doesn't seem interested in playing nice with Bryant.


Slater, an attorney who lives in Madison and attended the University of Southern Mississippi and Tulane Law School, has also hit Bryant on all the hot-button wedge issues, such as education funding, Medicaid and the Mississippi flag.


In her quest to become the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Vicki Slater, a 58-year-old Jackson native and attorney, is slamming Gov. Phil Bryant every chance she gets. Before she can lock horns with Bryant, she will meet a challenge from physician Dr. Valerie Short for the party’s nomination.

This is Slater's first real foray into politics. In 2012, she flirted with a challenge against Republican U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper, but decided against it before making it official.

Between the two Democrats seeking the office, Slater has a fundraising advantage over Dr. Valerie Short, a physician, but history has shown that the biggest bankroll doesn't necessarily determine the path to the Democratic nomination for governor. Still, Slater believes she's speaking to kitchen-table issues with populist appeal to Mississippians.

Slater spoke with the Jackson Free Press in early July about why she believes she would make a better governor than the incumbent Phil Bryant.

A few years ago, you were going to run for Congress but decided not to. What changed between declining to run for Congress then and deciding to run for governor this year?

I was contemplating a run for Congress, and while I was in the middle of exploring that, word got out that I was contemplating a run. It never reached the point where I had made the decision to run, so that was a little different from this time.

This time ... I have known the governor for a long time, and I have been watching what's going on with this administration for the past four years. I've become very dismayed over several things that have happened. I began to contemplate a run for the office of governor, talked to a lot of friends and folks whose advice I value, and made the decision that now was the time to run.

Your campaign is casting a wide net of issues that you've been hitting on as the primary nears. If you are the nominee, what are a few that you plan to focus on?

If the education system was fully funded, we could hire thousands of assistant teachers that could help students that have problems reading—or in whatever area—ahead of time of them being tested rather than to hire (teaching assistants) after the failure by the students. Thousands of textbooks could be bought with that money. There are schools systems in Mississippi where there aren't enough textbooks for the room. One teacher that I spoke with had 32 students and only 15 textbooks. That's just not by any means adequate, and it's total failure in leadership.

Democrats have been very critical of the governor and Republican leadership on the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, but should the Legislature be boxed in, and shouldn't there be some flexibility for, say, times of economic downturn?

No, and the reason is they have had that flexibility since 1997, and they've only fully funded twice. There wasn't an economic downturn in every one of those years. They're not going to do it unless there is a constitutional provision that requires them to do it.

When Phil Bryant ran for lieutenant governor, he promised that he would always fully fund under MAEP. He has almost never done it. So, no, I don't think it should be left to them. Public education is a trust. They say they can't afford to do it, yet they take the money that would fully fund the schools and stick it in the Rainy Day Fund. The money's there; they just don't choose to do it. They're saying to the taxpayers, "Thanks for the tax money. We've stuck it in our bank account." Well, you took it out of the taxpayers' bank account and put it in your bank, account and you're not doing enough to educate our students. That's a sacred trust that the state has towards our children.

And you think the situation with education in Mississippi is the rainy day we've been saving for?



Gubernatorial hopeful Vicki Slater meets and greets with fellow Democrats during a recent campaign stop in Pike County. Photo courtesy Vicki Slater Campaign

What do you think about House Appropriations Chairman Herb Frierson sending a letter to state agencies saying prepare for cuts and layoffs if Initiative 42 passes? How do you get that point across to voters, many of whom might work for or depend on the state?

You point to the words of the Republican leadership where they've said that money has been put into the rainy-day fund, and you say we don't need to cut all this from the agencies; the money is there. They just chose to do something other than what the law requires for it. In their judgment, that's what the leadership has chosen to do.

What specifically might you say to a state employee who is hearing about agency cuts possibly shutting down whole divisions to not only calm them down, but also get them on your side?

Elect new leadership, and you won't have to worry about being shut down.

Some have suggested that the BP Settlement money should go, at least in part, toward public education.

The purpose of the settlement was not for schools—it was for the environment, for rehabilitation of oyster beds, for the fishing industry on the Coast that has suffered so much. That seems like a reallocation of the purpose of the whole settlement. So at first glance, it seems like not such a good idea.

Now, the governor was out beating his chest about what a great settlement this was, and this is the same guy when he visited the Coast during the oil spill said, 'I don't smell anything but lawnmowers running.' This is the same governor who took other BP money and instead of giving it to fishermen to make up for lost income like they did in Louisiana, built a softball field. That's ridiculous.

So it doesn't surprise me that there may be some talk about doing something other than for the seafood industry because that goes along with the history of what's been done with these settlement monies before.

I think the settlement money should be used for what the settlement was for—rehabilitating marine life and making up for loss income to the seafood industry.

The Jackson City Council suggested they might be able to get a piece of the BP settlement because the Pearl River flows into the Gulf. As governor, you'd often be a referee in the middle of competing interests and expectations all across the state.

That's the purpose of government—to negotiate to mediate and try to reach the best solution among the competing interest of the people. When we filed the lawsuit, we didn't say we deserve money from BP because we have failed to fully fund education in this state. We said we deserve money because they've hurt our environment, they've hurt our fishing industries. Our marine beds need rehabilitation.

There's been a lot of talk of energy—offshore exploration, natural gas and even the mining of lignite for Kemper, which you've spoken out against. What do you think about energy development as part of the state's overall economic growth picture, and, broadly, what's on your economic agenda?

I do support the development of energy as part of Mississippi's economic picture...There are other factors playing on the production of oil such as the low cost of oil right now. Some companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude or can't afford, at the rate oil is selling, to produce. Energy is definitely part of the economic picture in Mississippi, and I think that has to be explored. At the same time, you've got to balance it with environmental concerns when it comes to fracking and things like that.

How much of your criticism of Kemper is related to rising costs and lack of oversight, and how much of your criticism is related the environmental impacts of mining and burning lignite coal?

My main problem with Kemper goes to the very beginning. Before the Kemper deal, the law in the state was you cannot charge customers for the production of energy in advance. You can only charge them for what they are consuming. Under (Gov.) Haley Barbour and when Phil Bryant was lieutenant governor, they passed a statute that says when it comes to utilities, preconstruction and other costs can be passed on to the consumers whether or not construction ever begins and whether or not construction is ever completed.

Southern Co. could pull out of Kemper right now, and those utility customers would still, under that law, have to pay the costs on that plant. That's a bad law. It's not only a bad law, but it tends to invite corruption. From that point on, I've been against the Kemper plant. When they first started construction on it, they did not use qualified organized labor for construction. That caused a lot of problems. When they got in trouble, because things were not properly constructed, they had to get organized labor to correct a lot of problems. That cost a lot of cost overruns.

What should the governor being saying to Mississippi Power about Kemper at this point?

The governor should be pushing them to complete the project, and he should be getting the customers off the hook for those costs. He should be making Southern Co. pay for its own cost overruns.


Vicki Slater talks to a Gulf Coast-area TV news crew near Singing River Hospital in Ocean Springs where hospital workers protested the loss of pension funds. Photo courtesy Vicki Slater Campaign

So you agree with the PSC's decision to refund customers?

I agree with the concept, but I haven't read to see if I agree with everything in it.

You talked about the enticement for corruption. What work needs to be done in Mississippi to fight corruption?

We don't a need a law that says utility customers have to pay for the building of a plant whether or not it's ever built or ever finished. That law needs to be changed, and the governor needs to push for that law to be changed, and he needs to push for that company to eat those costs.

What do you think about the use of tax credits and incentives as an economic-development tool?

I'm not against tax credits. I'm against the abuse of tax credits. I am also in favor of some tax credits for small businesses. When there was a bail-out after the Great Recession, small businesses weren't bailed out. Tens of thousands of small businesses in Mississippi weathered through and made it without being bailed out like the big insurance companies, and the big banks, and the banks in Mississippi, were bailed out. Some banks refused the bailout money, but a lot of banks took it. So I think there should be a program for small businesses on the tax credits, and I think tax credits should be wisely used. I think they should be revoked if there's any abuse of the money.

What about the use of special sessions for large economic-development projects.

It's certainly a tool that's at the governor's disposal, but I think a special session should be something that's rare because it's extra money for the taxpayers, and it's extra time that the lawmakers have to be away from their families and businesses, but I'm not averse to that.

Some people are calling for a special session on the changing the state flag. You put out a statement in support of changing the flag. What process do you think that should go through?

One of the main problems with the flag is that it's the vision that businesses and other states have of Mississippi because of that flag, and that was brought home to me when my son graduated from boot camp. At the parade grounds, there were flags from all 50 states and people in the stands were outraged, saying, 'Why is there a Confederate flag on these parade grounds?" They didn't recognize that as the Mississippi state flag. They just recognized it as a Confederate flag.

There are several ways that it could be done. The flag that we have now was never made the official flag until a few years ago. It was always flown as if it was the state flag, even though it was not. So if you look at it in that way, the governor could just say I'm going to fly a flag that isn't official.

Would you use your authority as governor to do that?

I would certainly contemplate it.

For a lot of people, it's a state's rights issue, the idea of state sovereignty and that people who oppose the flag just don't understand Mississippi. What's your response to that kind of rhetoric?

States' rights is not a constitutional concept. The Constitution divides certain powers to the federal government and rights to individuals. The remaining governmental powers are designated to the states. So the state doesn't have rights; it has powers. I don't really buy into the state's rights argument at all.

You don't believe it's the will of the people to keep the Mississippi flag as it is now?

There was a referendum 14 years ago. We have a whole generation of new voters now, and this country has been through a lot in 14 years, including the massacre of nine people in a church at a prayer meeting. At the least, I think it's time for the people to revisit that question. There are several ways that the flag could be changed by the Legislature. It could be changed by a referendum. It could be changed by the governor just not flying it. I do think it would be better if the Legislature voted or a referendum was held than for the governor to unilaterally take it down.

Initiative 42 — you support it and plan to vote for it.

Mmhmm (Yes).

Medicaid expansion?

Yes, I'm in favor of that.

If the Legislature doesn't expand Medicaid, would you use your power as governor to expand the program?

As governor, I would do everything that I could as executive officer to effect Medicaid expansion. I believe some actions would be necessary by the Legislature. I'm not convinced that the Legislature would reject it; I think it could be worked out.

Do you see yourself being able to work with the legislative leaders—even if the Democrats don't take back the house?

Yes, I do see myself being able to get along with them (Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves).

Two things from the U.S. Supreme Court—the same-sex marriage ruling and then the non-ruling on the abortion clinic admitting-privileges lawsuit. I'd like to get your reactions to both.

The same year that Phil Bryant, the people of Mississippi rejected Proposition 26 by 60 percent of the vote. Then the governor, despite that referendum, made it his legislative program to try to put Proposition 26 into effect through the Legislature or as much of it as he could—and that Proposition 26 vote was not 14 years ago. It was the same night he was elected. I'd think the will of the people was spoken when they voted down Proposition 26.

On marriage equality, there's a feeling that the Legislature might try to throw up another roadblock next year.

I've heard a lot of rhetoric from the Republicans that the gay-marriage ruling was federal overreach. It's not federal overreach for the U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the U.S. Constitution, and it's not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the issue of marriage. Basically, what they've said is what is private to an individual is up to that individual, so I don't really see it as federal overreach at all. I don't see it as unprecedented as far as the court speaking to marriage.

What the Supreme Court said in this decision was that the state should allow gay marriage, but that the religious leaders have a right not to perform the ceremony if it violates their religion. If the Mississippi Legislature passed a law that said religious leaders don't have to do this, it would be an unnecessary law, but it would be in line with the Constitution.

What would you do for Jackson? There's been a lot of talk about a fee-in-lieu of taxes arrangement, an appropriation, a commuter fee.

The state has been shortchanging Jackson for a long time. For instance, they haven't paid their water bill to Jackson. There are things that the state could do, like pay its bills. That's a no-brainer. I wouldn't say everyone who commutes into Jackson should pay a fee or do anything blanket, but I think there should be some help for Jackson because it is the capital city. Most of the state and federal government rest here, and I don't think it should wholly be on the citizens of Jackson to support all of that.

What haven't we talked about?

I just want to point out that if we had accepted the Medicaid expansion money, that would have created 139,000 jobs. Rural hospitals are economic drivers in their communities. It's really hurt Mississippi jobs and economy to reject that money. That should be first priority. Other states that have Republican governors have accepted those monies.

The governor remains steadfast in his refusal. The Mississippi Business Journal had an article that said manufacturing is up in every state in the southeast except in Mississippi where it's down. Mississippi is one of two states that have a shrinking economy. We cannot afford four more years of this governor.

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