JACKSON Native Jacksonian Whit Hughes was born in the old Baptist Hospital, was a basketball player at Mississippi State, and cut his political teeth working with the Republican National Committee and helping Republican stalwart Haley Barbour become governor of the state on a small-government, anti-regulation platform. Now, he's borrowing from that tried-and-true strategy in his race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper's seat in Congress.
In a recent interview with the Jackson Free Press, Hughes did not veer far from the established Republican line his mentor Barbour made popular—low taxes, scant regulations (including on guns), no abortion rights, and less reliance on federal educational standards.
Hughes, formerly the deputy director of the Mississippi Development Authority, is in the June 26 run-off against Michael Guest, the Rankin County district attorney and the frontrunner after the primary. Guest spent $441,049 on his campaign from Jan. 1 to June 6, according to data from the Federal Election Commission. In the same period, Hughes spent $470,126. Guest declined to do an interview because he did not have time, Communications Director Rob Pillow said.
How does your past work experience prepare you to be in Congress? You say that you've spent your career fighting for better quality jobs. Can you elaborate?
My background is in private-sector business and economic development. I've done economic development for the state and helped support existing industries in our state and also worked with communities around our state to recruit new jobs to Mississippi. I've also spent years of my career looking to expand healthcare to Mississippians—to expand access to quality health care to Mississippians. ... I'm a business person who's never run for office before, and my opponent is a lawyer who's built a career out of politics. ... I believe what voters want right now is somebody who understands economic development and who can go to Washington, D.C., and take the strong, conservative positions. We need to have more jobs and a stronger economy.
How did working on former Gov. Haley Barbour's campaign prepare you to run?
I've been involved in conservative politics in national, state and local levels. But, I've never run for office before. I believe that is part of the appeal for voters. Folks around the Third District of Mississippi are fed up with the establishment way of doing politics. They know that I'm somebody that has entered this race because I care. I'm ready to fight for our families and our communities and conservative issues that matter to us. I'm certainly not doing this as an extension of having built a career in politics where I feel like I need to climb the ladder, win this race and go to Washington, D.C., and be somebody.
Would you say that is why you decided to run for office as well then?
Absolutely part of my motivation in entering this race. I feel the same way voters do in Mississippi. I'm fed up with the establishment way of doing politics, and I'm convinced nothing's going to change in Washington, D.C., unless we get different, better leaders involved in Capitol Hill. Not only somebody with character and integrity, but somebody with some background that knows how to be what they're for and will engage in the process and drive the kind of legislation that matters to Mississippians.
Your website says you want to "Get rid of all the Obama-era regulations." What does that encompass?
I think President Trump has us on a very positive track right now in terms of deregulation. Throughout my entire campaign, I've made it clear that one of my priorities will be fighting to get to the government out of our way so we can be successful. In relation to that, we have way too many federal regulations that are making things more difficult than they need to be on our small business owners and our farmers.
What direct benefits do you believe the GOP tax cuts will bring to Mississippians?
I believe [in] economic savings because of the impact of tax reforms. You cut taxes for businesses of all sizes and it has touched over 80 percent of Americans in a positive way. As a result, you see bonuses and increased wages and benefits and increased optimism with employers. That's the key. We have to stay on that track. I would not be able to go to Congress and create the first single job. That's not what government does. But as a member of Congress I can help create the kind of environment that employers appreciate. In that context that means you have to stay focused on lower taxes and deregulations.
You've always spoken about supporting Mississippi extensively. But, you've regularly used Mentzer Media and other companies not from Mississippi.
Listen, I've built the team that I feel like was appropriate for my campaign, that would serve me well and would help me communicate with voters as best as possible. I'm very proud of the way I've done this campaign.
My wife, Shelly, and I have said from the beginning that we're going to do this the right way. We're going to campaign in all 24 counties. I'm very proud of the fact that I have grassroots-level organization in each county in this district. I've received contributions from each county in this district. Even now in this run-off, I'm still the only candidate that's released a snapshot of my policy priorities. This is about respecting the voters and respecting the process.
Where do you stand on the Second Amendment, including background checks and mental health regulations?
My position on the Second Amendment is that language says that those rights should not be infringed, and I take that very seriously. If elected to Congress, Mississippians can expect me to have very strong, conservative opinions. Not only in relation to the Second Amendment but also in relation to protection of life.
You are anti-abortion then?
That is correct.
Should schoolteachers have the option of being armed?
Yes. I do believe that school safety has to be one of our priorities. My wife, Shelly, and I have three children, and we're just like any other parent in terms of our interests in kids, knowing that their school is a safe environment. I've been clear throughout this campaign that I believe, number one, we need to give the minimum of law enforcement all the resources they need to respond to threats against our schools and our teachers and our students.
In addition to that, if a teacher or certain personnel within the school, that are licensed and trained at the appropriate levels, if they want to arm themselves for the protection of themselves or the schoolchildren, I don't think the federal government should get in the way of that.
How do you plan to support farmers and growers from Congress?
From an economic-development perspective, agriculture and natural resource industries are the backbone of our state's economy. That would be for every county in the third district. Whoever is serving in Congress needs to make that a priority. Again, I believe that's why voters want somebody serving in this position who understands economic development. Who understands, not only how to support those industries and maintain the levels of business that they're doing now, but help them understand how to position for additional business.
That's why the issue of trade is so important to our farmers and our growers and our producers. Mississippians make premium products that people all over the world want, and we have to be very mindful in Congress that our policy decisions do matter. We need more trade opportunities, and we need to make sure that trade is free and it's fair. In Congress, I'm going to work hard every day for our farmers and our growers and our producers and our small business owners.
What specifically should Congress do about immigration?
If elected to Congress, any immigration reform that I would support would have to include elements of securing our southern border. My view on border security is that it is national security. To me that is not a partisan issue. In the areas where it makes sense, I believe we need a wall. In the areas where a wall may not make logistical sense, we can use technology to monitor the border. We need more boots on the ground, more boats in the water, more resources at checkpoints.
From an immigration reform standpoint, I would not support amnesty or chain migration or a visa lottery program. Now let me also add some clarity that I absolutely feel like we need a rules- and laws-driven process so folks that want to come to our country and contribute to society have a way to do that. But they have to do it the right way. That's why we need a wall. We have to keep the bad guys out, so to speak, and make sure that whoever's coming into our country are doing it legally.
Do you support the separation of families at the border?
Listen, I support enforcing the laws that we have. I understand this is a highly charged issue that's top of mind for folks right now, and it's an emotional issue. It's an emotional issue for me. It's very hard for me to see families being split up at the border. But this is not because we have new laws; it's because we have new leadership that is actually enforcing the laws. That's what I believe. It's the only way we're going to get control of immigration and do what we need to do as a country to put ourselves on a better track.
Did you support the governor's decision to sign and appeal House Bill 1523?
Remind me about HB 1523.
It affects the LGBT community, allowing a religious objection.
Listen, I'm 100 percent in support of religious freedoms, and I do not believe business owners should have to compromise their values or principles in any way what so ever.
Mississippi has more than 500 bridges closed because of faulty infrastructure. What can be done at the federal level to fix infrastructure problems throughout the state?
The first thing we can do is make sure we're looking for opportunities with efficiency and savings. What comes to mind is how much time and expense is involved in the permitting process associated with transportation projects. I believe with the right kind of leadership we can shorten those time frames and get rid of a lot of the unnecessary bureaucracy that causes the time and expense. We'll capture those savings and divert the resources to the actual projects at hand.
One thing I believe, whether you're talking about transportation or any other areas of federal government, is that we need to a better job of blocking the resources and sending them to the states. I want a lot of the decision making to be driven to the states and local levels. To me, that only makes sense.
I will never believe that a bureaucrat in Washington D.C. is in a better position to tell us what we need to be doing with our resources here in our local communities. Let's have as much of that decision-making happen on a local level. Then let's encourage a process that involves as much collaboration and communication as possible.
The transportation infrastructure plan that President Trump has announced—the $1.5 trillion transportation infrastructure plan—is a nice step in terms of having dialogue about the importance of transportation and infrastructure. But, an 80-20 approach as is being proposed now is a big challenge for a state like Mississippi.
You are against Common Core standards, correct?
That's correct. Listen, we have 80 percent or more of education resources are state level resources. As I said earlier, I will never believe that a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., should be in position to tell us what our standards are going to be in our local school districts. I believe that decision-making needs to take place at the most localized levels possible.
You're promoting STEM fields in education. Do you think arts and music also need a part in K-12 education?
I believe we need to be a lot more innovative than we are now and make sure our school systems aren't teaching to random federal government standards and make sure we're not valuing the type of education that won't be applicable in a global economy. The reality is, the job that my 10-year-old daughter might have when she's my age, may not even exist now. We have to be a lot more innovative in all levels of our school system. Education needs to recognize that we're in a global economy and we need to be giving our children the problem solving skills and the knowhow to enter the work force and compete in a global economy.
Part of that is the cultural challenge of helping people understand that you can have a perfectly good career, in fact a great career, by going and getting the right kind of vocational skills training. There's nothing wrong with you if you don't go somewhere and get a four-year degree. I believe we have some room for improvement from a policy standpoint but I also believe we need to continue to improve our mindset culturally.
Your website says the environment can be protected in a more "common sense way." What does that mean?
I think that goes back to the points I made about deregulation. You can develop your economy in an environmentally sensitive way, in an environmentally responsible way and right now the bureaucracy and the red tape and the regulations that you have to deal with from the federal government hinder our abilities to make good things happen in our communities. It results in additional time, it results in additional expense, and it's keeping us from making progress in many ways. In Congress, I would do everything I could in relation to rid ourselves of these federal regulations.
If you are elected to Congress, do you have any qualms about the possible learning curve as you enter the process of lawmaking?
No. Look, I'm not concerned about that at all. I'm concerned about how frustrated I might get as a freshman member of Congress because I know that things would not move on the timeline I would want them to move. But, I'm sure there's plenty of things to learn on Capitol Hill and I would certainly do that as quickly as possible. Look, there's some fundamental things that need attention that it really doesn't matter how long you've been serving in Congress.
We need to improve our process so we're not passing out 2,200-page spending bills and asking members of Congress to vote on that 36 hours later. We need to stop the spending and borrowing and start balancing our federal government budget the same way you would a family or a business. We need to look for waste and fraud and abuse and capture those savings and use the resources on things like education and transportation infrastructure. So that would be my mentality as I enter Washington, D.C., as a freshman member of Congress.