'Thinking Out of the Box': The JFP Interview with Howard Sherman | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

'Thinking Out of the Box': The JFP Interview with Howard Sherman

Howard Sherman, an entrepreneur and businessman, says decisions the Mississippi Legislature and Congress made regarding funding for foster-care programs led him to enter the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate.

Howard Sherman, an entrepreneur and businessman, says decisions the Mississippi Legislature and Congress made regarding funding for foster-care programs led him to enter the Democratic race for the U.S. Senate. Photo by Delreco Harris

Howard Sherman won the most votes (about 31 percent) on June 5 in the Democratic primary for Sen. Roger Wicker's Senate seat. He even beat out longtime lawmaker Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis. Sherman, an entrepreneur and businessman, hired Alabama Sen. Doug Jones' campaign team and spent more than half a million dollars on his own campaign. Now Sherman faces Baria in a run-off election for the seat on June 26.

The California native moved to Meridian, Miss., permanently in 2016, with his wife and actress, Sela Ward, best known for her roles in TV shows like "CSI: New York" and "House" as well as films like "Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights." Ward, a Meridian native, and Sherman run Hope Village, a children's home in Meridian. Sherman and Ward have two kids but are now empty-nesters, and as Ward committed to filming "Westworld," Sherman met with Democratic leaders in Mississippi to figure out how he could get involved with politics in Mississippi. The Jackson Free Press sat down with Sherman in a back office of Lemuria in Jackson for a half hour interview on June 14.

Who or what convinced you to get into this race in the first place? ... What made you want to get into this Senate race to begin with?

Before I met my wife, Sela Ward, on a blind date 27 years ago, and just around that time, a little before that time, I was going to run for a congressional seat in Los Angeles where I lived. When I met Sela, I made a life choice. With her career being all over the place where she films and a career in Washington, (politics) wouldn't work, and it was very, very important for me to have a family and children and have some sense of balance, so I put that on hold—I thought (it) was (a) permanent hold, and then I spent a lifetime with Sela.

We've been married 26 plus years, and raising two fabulous kids and migrating from moving from Los Angeles to Mississippi. First, we spent four months a year (in Mississippi) because we wanted our children to understand authenticity, not superficiality. And now we've lived here two years full-time. I didn't plan two years ago when we moved here full-time to run for political office, and last December....

Let me segue for a second. Eighteen years ago, Sela and I came across these two young African American boys, Jimmy and Michael, in our (Meridian) community that were about to be separated. Their parents' rights had been terminated, and they didn't have any place to keep them together. There was no foster home for them, and we weren't in a position to take them because Sela was on a TV show 16 hours a day, and I was raising our kids while running my business, so we found a place for them. (We) swore to ourselves that that would be our project, giving to the community, and we started Hope Village for Children. We spent two years putting it together, and then 18 years ago we opened our doors, and since then, we're really proud of it.

We've taken care of over 3,000 kids—Mississippi's most challenged kids—and we're so proud of it. So I kiddingly say, you can mess with me, but don't mess with my kids—either my two kids or my Hope Village kids. And last December, I got a phone call from the executive director of Hope Village, and she said, "I need you in Jackson Thursday." And I was like, "What's up?" and she goes "I'll tell you in the car." So I jump in the car with her, and she explains to me that the Legislature in Jackson passed H.B. 2179, signed off by everybody, including the person I'm running against. He voted for it. And what the bill did was it moved the agency that funds kids, the kids at Hope Village and social workers, etcetera, and it moved that agency from being a DHS (Department of Human Services) agency to Child Protective Services.

By doing that, they lost all of their DHS funding, over $50 million. So suddenly, the crisis was that there was no money for more social workers. ... It was in a real crisis—and that's just horrible. I'm not going to stand here and accuse people who voted for that that they really wanted to do something horrible for the kids, but I will accuse them of just not understanding the implications of what they were doing. That in the private sector, a day doesn't go by that you're not thinking about revenue. If you have a business (like) Jackson Free Press, I'm sure they think about revenue all the time. And yet, a career legislator would think, "Oh let's move it, that sounds like a good idea. We'll move it to child protective services."

So I was so upset, because it would have been the end of Hope Village, so and then it triggers this waterfall effect. You know when you make a mistake, it's not just the immediate ramifications, there's the waterfall effect. (It) puts us in breach of the Olivia Y lawsuit, which is where Mississippi was sued for poor care of the kids, now the federal government could come in and take over—there's a cascade effect. So I went and met with the Democratic Party, and said, "What opportunities are there for me to get involved?" Because now that we're empty-nesters and our son is in the professional workforce and my daughter is going to be a junior in college... We talked about how there's only two races on the ballot: the congressional seat and the Senate seat, and we looked at my background, my message, my ability and what I could do with the state and the way that the district was gerrymandered, we decided the Senate would be better.

And I left there with the paper, took it home, filled it out. It's a very simple paper actually, it's like name, address, and are you a felon or something like that. So I filled it out, wrote the check, but didn't send it in because it's an enormous undertaking: not just the campaigning, but it is literally hijacking your life to go do something completely different. You know, Sela and I have worked hard for careers that are almost 40 years long and raised kids. We very much—I kiddingly say, but I'm not kidding, I probably haven't had a day off since third grade. I could probably justify taking a day off. I've created thousands of jobs and supported my wife in a career that's very demanding, so I thought about it, and I wasn't ready yet to do it.

And then February came, and the federal government (and) President Trump passed, with Roger Wicker's support, the "Family First Prevention Services Act" which took money from what was funding kids—the money that we had lost by virtue of Jackson that they've (since) scrambled to put (CPS) back under DHS—but they took that money and they put it in a good place, to help families keep kids before they lose them to foster care, but they didn't replace the money from someplace else. So in the long run, perhaps there will be less kids in the system, but not immediately, you're still getting kids everyday.

So (Congress) completely stripped our funding to very low levels, but worse, they layered conditions on children's homes in the state that not a single one in Mississippi that is a state-funded institution meet. So technically, as of today, Hope Village, Canopy, all the children's homes have to close, which leaves no place for these kids to go. (Editor's note: States do not have to submit new plans under the federal legislation until October, and the new plans will not go into effect until October 2019.) And it's not just where the kids go that don't have a home, we will get kids that they pull out of a home that need to just be stabilized. They've seen mom and dad go to jail, so we'll spend a month stabilizing them, letting them know... they are in a community of kids. There are tutors who work with them to get them on track.

Sen. Wicker supported President Trump with that bill, so all the executive directors flew to Washington—many of them from Hope Village and Canopy and several (others)—flew up to sit with him and say, "Sen. Wicker, this is bad policy, the conditions, because we otherwise have to close, and you've got to find the money somewhere." And the senator didn't show up for the meeting. They sat in his office and met with his staff, and then when he came, he said, "I'm sorry, y'all, I have another meeting," and they had to leave. So they never met with him. They met with some 20-something-year-old staffer. That's when I sent the paper in. It's just not OK; I mean this is just, when you have politicians that take big money from special interest groups, that's their real constituency.

That's what's wrong, and one of the first things I would love to do, and there's like 40 things at number one on my list, but one of them is campaign-finance reform. Because if there is a politician who is taking—if it requires big money to win and the people who give you the big money, then they become constituents of yours, and probably in line in front of Mr. and Mrs. Jones living in the suburbs. So when a bill comes up and Monsanto gave one of our senators money, does he vote for Monsanto or does he vote for the Delta so we don't have to use toxic things?

... We just need to bring, you know, creativity, and I'm a business guy. I published my 100-day plan on my website to just say, I'm not just going to tell you like my competitor in this race is, "I'm going to go fight for you, I'm going to go get us what we deserve." Well duh, anybody would do that.

It's thinking out of the box. This state is a remarkable, remarkable place. It's not a state with problems. It's just a very much under-performing state. I talk about it like a sports analogy—like the Cleveland Cavaliers before they got Tyrone Lew. Or the Warriors before Steve Curry became the coach. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were there. When you put the right leaders, you can re-shuffle the parts, so when you look at my 100-day plan, it's not just, "Well, I'll go get as much money," because you know everybody is fighting for that money. There's a limited amount; there's no appropriations tree that we grow in the Delta that we can water... So anyway, that's the concept, so when the second red line was crossed with the "family prevention" act, (I filed to run).

Talk to me a bit about your business background. Your website mentions that you, your company contracted with the Department of Defense in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and how that background would translate into your role as senator.

One of the things that my opponent loves to say about me is that I gave $500 to Jeff Sessions, so after 9/11, you're too young to remember this.

Oh, no. I'm not ...

But anthrax packages were showing up, laden with biochemical things, we were really afraid that the next shoe to drop after 9/11 would be a chemical attack, a biochemical attack. (Former President) George Bush announces this $6 billion Bioshield program, (saying), 'We will fund anything that can help us be safe from that.' So I was friends with a Nobel Prize winner, and he calls me up and says, "I was reading about this; I think I've got the answer. I think I can trick an immune response that we're all born with, the alpha gal-immune response, which causes us to reject foreign organs. We're all born with it, really robust. I can hijack it to go after whatever you want: anthrax, smallpox without inoculation." I said, 'Carey, that's huge,' and he said, "I need some money to do my research," so I called my lawyer and he said, "Here's a Washington lawyer who does these things." And he says, "You know what? Jeff Sessions knows Tony (Anthony) Fauci at NIH (National Institutes of Health). We've got to get to NIH, because if NIH recommends it, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) will fund it."

So he takes me. We fly to Washington. We go to a cocktail party—$500 and meet Senator Sessions. He's just the senator of Alabama. I don't know I'm running for the Senate 15 years later. I'm there trying to help a Nobel Prize winner get funded. He introduces us; we sit in a meeting with Tony Fauci. Tony Fauci takes us over to DARPA, and he gets funded. A Nobel Prize winner is working on something that can make us all safe. If I go back to that moment, do I not go to that cocktail party and get this guy funded to make us safe? Of course not. There's not a person on the planet that would argue with that, so that leads me to DARPA.

I'm at the closing dinner with DARPA, and I turn to one of the PhDs, and I said, "What is the coolest technology you've ever worked on that you could tell me about?" He told me about this technology that noninvasively can control your body's temperature through the palm of your hand. I say, "Is it top-secret?" He said, "No, I mean, we're using it, and we're experimenting with it." I call the CEO up; it's a Michigan company. He and I become friends; next thing you know, I become deeply involved with the company.

And then we introduce a product that's used to keep our soldiers—we were in Iraq and Afghanistan—these wonderful, amazing soldiers were driving around in Humvees where it's 120 degrees inside, they have 50 pounds of gear on, there's no air conditioning, it's not a Chrysler. And when you get overheated, your body's ability to operate breaks down—that's why at one point, you cramp up. So we introduced the product that's used to this day by soldiers in training, and they use them in the Middle East.

So we took that company and said, "Well, if you can cool a body, you can warm the body." So now we've introduced the product that's used in the operating room because the current product that's used in the operating room blows hot air on top of your body—literally just warms, you're in a warm cocoon. But there's over 6,000 lawsuits against that company because in that air could be a pathogen, and it's all over your body. So we took that same technology and used it actually in Meridian, to you put your hand in this thing, and it's recirculating warm water. There's no air, so that technology will lower infections in operating rooms.

So it was just chance, and when you're an entrepreneur like me, I get asked all the time what's the number-one trait of an entrepreneur, and it has to be great peripheral vision. I was trying to help my friend get funding to help us all (stay) safe. The next thing you know, I'm in the health care business ... then I meet the Michigan company, we develop a product for our soldiers, and now I'm in the perioperative warming business, and now I'm introducing that as a senator which doesn't require legislation, it just requires leadership.

You were registered as a Republican voter in California at one time. When did that (party affiliation) shift happen for you? Has it been a gradual shift, and now you're running as a Democrat. ... I'm curious if this has been over time or a light-switch thing.

I am the son of an immigrant. My mother and her mother came to this country from Eastern Europe, and when you grow up in a family like that, it's a solidly Democratic family. My first early memories of politics was going door-to-door for JFK in 1960. When he was elected, my parents thought he was the second coming. He was going to bring us, unite us all together—we were going to go to the moon with him. And I still have my little JFK pin locked away in a safe deposit box, and I was a Democrat because Democrats were empathetic.

Democrats were not, at that time, anti-business, they were not anti-success. But they were success (focused), but humanistic. So you know, my mother comes to this country not speaking a word of English, but it was all about education. So I spend my life in education. I wind up getting my master's degree, so in my 40s, now I'm a career entrepreneur. And in California, a very different place than Mississippi, a very different place, a place where they elected "The Terminator" Arnold (Schwarzenegger), twice to be the governor.

Now do you think the Democrats in Mississippi would support Arnold to be their governor? Probably not. So the Democrats got very "anti-business," that's a general term, but businesses were leaving the state because they were over-regulating and taxes were going up. And Elon Musk ... is building his cars in California, but he puts his battery plant out of state. Look at my wife's business, it was all in Los Angeles, it was all in Hollywood, and now it's in Atlanta, it's in New Orleans, it's in Canada—my wife's last TV show was filmed in Albuquerque. Because they got hostile, they got purist, and you know, a Republican in California is not a Republican in Mississippi.

On social issues they (California Republicans) are much more moderate, so my feeling is that if you don't have strong businesses, you don't have jobs. And if you don't have jobs, it creates a spiral effect, that now you, not just economically, but you have households where the daddy is not working or the mama is not working, it creates a whole self-esteem thing and the kids see dad ... So that was when around 2000, I switched (political parties) in my mid-40s from being a Democrat to Republican because I just didn't like what was happening with California Democrats. On a national level, I continued to vote Democratic, but just locally—in the state—I voted (Republican).

And then when we moved to Mississippi, and here I just very much disagree with the Republicans. Republicans have a supermajority in Jackson, so they literally have the ball and the referees, and the Democrats are on the sidelines—and they still can't get us off the bottom. And they are busy arguing about the 15 percent of stuff without saying, "I will argue with me about the flag or about whatever, but let's get (to) fixing health care." So it was just really me leaving California.

Ironically, in the beginning, when my campaign team—when I hired the Doug Jones' campaign team—they said, "You realize they're going to paint you as a California liberal, too liberal for Mississippi." It's so ironic. So everyone knows California and Massachusetts are very liberal, so it was really driven by what they were doing to the business community. So it wasn't a tipping-point moment, it was just when I saw people, friends in my wife's business, losing houses and having to move out, that's when I changed parties, and now that I'm in Mississippi, there's not a doubt (about running as a Democrat).

What is your position on the GOP tax bill that they just passed? Are there changes you want to see in it, or does it need to go away completely?

Here's my problem with the tax bill. I was an econ major in college. Tax policy is a part of fiscal policy. Fiscal policy is what the federal government uses to guide the economy to make corrections. I read today, everybody is excited about the low unemployment numbers, which is great, but now there's inflationary pressure starting. There's a whole balance, and they tweak it, just you know, so now we might have got, I'm not saying we've got overgrowth, but now interest rates have been up for the second time, and it will go up two more times this year.

So that's what fiscal policy is a part of, so my problem ... fiscal policy is designed to achieve an objective. I don't know what the objective was (of the tax bill). The objective was to corporations, "We're going to give you a boat-load of cash." So if they had said, "What do we need? Where do we want them to direct that money?" Because a lot of them just bought their stock back. A lot of them bonused out CEOs, and they bought yachts from Italy—well, that didn't help the economy at all. Had they said—see , I'm not privy to the information to justify or not justify the tax cut, but had they said, "Oh my gosh, in these parts of your state, pick a plighted part of the state, if you put a plant there in the Delta where unemployment is high, we will give you a tax cut." But if you just are simply going to rebuy your stock back, it didn't do anything for the economy. I'm not saying I'm anti the tax cut; I'm anti an unfocused tax cut.

Talk to me about your policy priorities on immigration. Do you think that something should happen in terms of a DACA-border wall compromise like they were talking about? And then most recently with the new asylum decree from Jeff Sessions saying that domestic violence and gang affiliation (fleeing or turning in gang members) don't count for asylum anymore.

Ultimately, we were all immigrants at some point going back far enough in our family tree. Directly, my mother was an immigrant, so I think it's a big part of what makes this country, not just this heritage, but literally on a current, it brings in fresh ideas, fresh blood, etcetera. However, there's nothing wrong with being focused on it again. .... Some of immigration definitely needs to be focused on. If we have a shortage of nurses, then let's say, "Hey, guess what? We'll bring in 10,000 nurses." But if we have an over-abundance of construction workers, and there are already people having a hard time finding (a job), then maybe we don't bring in a ton of construction workers. I want to bring in—I don't know what the right number is—if it's 100,000 or whatever, but maybe we can do it in a way where we don't create a problem by trying to solve a problem.

The DACA thing is really tricky because these people have been here for a long time; they are integrated. I do believe that people who come from elsewhere really got to play by the rules. We're not opening a door to have people come in here and wind up in jail, that's not the point of the thing. So but you know, people who are a part of the DACA generation that are law-abiding, I think we give them a path. And the border wall, you know, we're in such a deficit to begin with. I haven't seen the data that shows me that that's going to really keep us safe. We do need to be kept safe; all it takes is one person getting through, and we're in jeopardy.

What is your stance on abortion rights?

OK, abortion rights, obviously ... falls into that 15 percent that you know, obviously, that divides us. You know there are certain issues in life that are individual, moral compass issues that I think you know... I'm a religious person; I'm a spiritual person that I think you're accountable to yourself and to whatever you think the Lord is ... as your senator ... the only place you're going to impact that is voting on a Supreme Court justice, and I'd never be a single-issue person. I would never rule somebody out because of that, and I would never vote for somebody exclusively for that. So at the moment, it's not really a major part of this campaign, so that's all I have to say about that.

What national reforms, if any, do you support for criminal justice?

We need to definitely migrate from looking at prisons as warehouses to looking at prisons for rehabilitation, if we can. I'm actually involved in a company that is moving their production to a federal prison in Beaumont, Texas, because they are opening a factory within the prison. So anything we can do, especially with nonviolent offenders, if we can do things like that: employ them, give them a job so when they come out, they're not just... they've been in the library and then they have to go find a job.

So rehabilitation has got to be a huge thing, and we also have to look at alternative ways for nonviolent offenders (to re-enter society). It might be a game of chance to just, you know, with an electronic bracelet, and say, "You got a job; you got a home. We know where the club is. We know where your buddies who take you to no good is. We are going to give you this chance." People make mistakes. There's a mayor in Mississippi who's a good friend of mine, owns multiple businesses, is a preacher and oh by the way, did time for six years. So people can be rehabilitated.

Why should voters try you, a non-native Mississippian, versus your opponent who has lived here his whole life?

That is the most baffling thing that my opponent is running on, because if you have a choice between a person who's proven to know how to create jobs and offer creative solutions. ... You know, he and I were at the county supervisors' meeting down on the coast ... and he spoke and I spoke. And (my talk) was filled with, "Here's how we get infrastructure dollars beyond federal dollars. Here's how we can cut costs." We can group municipalities together to go for joint bids. There's a lot of things. We can look for corporate sponsors for bridges. You want good will in the community? We'll put a billboard up that says this bridge repaired by Goodyear or something. He got up there and said, "I'm the only one in this race who was born here." I don't know how him being born here, versus me not being born here, fixes that bridge or gets us health care. The voters voted a week and a half ago, and they said, "We're going to pick the guy who wasn't born here because his ideas are better, his view of the future is better." And if they vote for him because he was born here, then you're not going to wind up with these ideas. I don't know what to tell you.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. To read the JFP interview with Sherman's challenger, David Baria, visit jfp.ms/baria.

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