About four years ago, Velesha P. Williams' twin brother, Velester, began struggling with a host of symptoms caused by an unknown illness. Suddenly, the man his sister describes as "vibrant" and a lifelong "workaholic" who began working at age 14 was unable to work the way he once did. Luckily, he had insurance through the Affordable Care Act to help some, but the pain his illness caused did not go away, and all of his resources seemed to go to maintaining his house and his health.
Her brother's story is just one of several Williams shared about Mississippians navigating what she considers a "broken system." This year, she is a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, running in a primary against the likes of Attorney General Jim Hood. "We have a system that just keeps us down. Those are the stories that are real," she told the Jackson Free Press across a small table at the Mediterranean Fish & Grill restaurant in Ridgeland. A trail of tears glistened just under her eyes as the rays of an early May sun reach into the dimly lit restaurant.
"Those are the stories that are real," she said. "I know we can do better. Mississippi has the opportunity to be better. But because people are invested in keeping others down and benefitting from that, I'm going to fight with every ounce I have for Mississippians, because they deserve better."
For two hours, Williams shared her vision for moving Mississippi forward, and how she, a former U.S. Army officer who also spent years working at Jackson State University, plans to make it happen.
How did you get into politics? What's your story?
When I retired in 2016, I thought, "What better way to enjoy the fruits of my labor than by chilling out and just doing whatever I want to do?" So travel was my thing, swimming, just really enjoying life and visiting with family and playing cards in the middle of the day—just really enjoying the fruits of my labor. And then, quite honestly, the spirit (of God) came to me and said, "No, I've got work for you to do, and this is not it."
So for two years, I was enjoying myself, and then it was like, "No, you have talent and skills. And the problem is too big for you to be sitting around and doing nothing on behalf of fellow citizens." So I was like, "Use me." So in obedience to God's will for my life, I find myself running for governor of the state of Mississippi.
Have you done anything in politics before?
The only campaign that I worked on was when Obama was running for president in 2008. So I did some groundwork, got out and knocked on doors, stood on corners and those kinds of things. But that was the only time that I actually got really hands on, close up with politics. Of course, I've always stayed politically attuned to who is running and what their platforms are and who the right person was in my vision to vote for, but never politics. I thought my talents would be used in different places, but God has geared me in opposition to what I thought and toward the places that are best for my life.
What stood out about that experience in 2008?
I remember standing on the corners with a bullhorn urging people to vote for Obama because we needed a change in leadership and someone who would work for everyday people. But then just the opportunity to go door-to-door and asking folks to vote for him, seeing people in their conditions, listening to their stories. And I have, running now, opportunities as I hear people and sit and talk with them and see the diversity of people's conditions in Mississippi.
What drew you to Obama's campaign?
The hope. The vision. The realness. The idea that what people thought was impossible had in my mind real possibilities. And so that's what drew me in.
Is that how you see your campaign?
I tell people all the time, God chooses ordinary people to do extraordinary things. And I believe we have an opportunity on behalf of Mississippians to do something really extraordinary.
What do you hear people talk about?
When you look at Mississippi, we are at the bottom or near the bottom on every social indicator. Everybody knows the issues. We're at the bottom on health care. We've got people suffering. I see people. I know people personally who don't have health insurance who are suffering today and can't get the treatment that they need because they just don't have the resources. And so they suffer a lot of times in silence. And we know people try to self-medicate if they can't get the treatment that they need with illicit drugs. So we create unnecessary problems. The unwritten story is looking into the eyes of Mississippians who are suffering day-after-day because they can't get what I believe is the right of all citizens, and that is health-care coverage.
What are the solutions?
Well, the immediate solution certainly could be Medicaid expansion. We can't turn down help that will help Mississippians. We need to look at how do we ensure that everyone is covered? What resources does the state have to move us into that direction? We can look at best practices of, not only other countries, both other states and other places that have been successful at covering their citizens.
People say, "Where does the money come from? That's costly." But I'll tell you, it is more costly not covering people and having them get their health care through emergency rooms. And it drains and wreaks havoc on those who are covered and makes them pay for those who are not covered through increased premiums. The real barrier is greed, and if we can eliminate that and take care of people, we'll be in a better position.
Have you talked to others who have stories like your brother's?
Everywhere I turn, black, white, red, yellow, I see the same thing with people. I just get so broken up about the stories I hear. I was in McComb at the Golden Corral doing an event there, and a teacher was working as a waitress, but she was a schoolteacher. It was a weekend. ... And I asked, "Why are you doing that?" And she said, "I'm doing this because I want to get some school supplies for my students, and I need to try to supplement my income." And I'm like, "What?"
I hear people tell stories about losing jobs. When we think about here in Mississippi, you think about the store closures. Toys"R"Us is gone, Payless Shoes is getting ready to go out. We look at businesses, but behind those businesses are lives. And we're talking about how this is supposed to be a vibrant economy in the sense that there are more jobs than people can fill. Well, the jobs that are available don't pay a livable wage.
And this is the thing that gets me when they talk about welfare and people on welfare abusing the system. I tell people: "You know what? What would you do to survive? If you didn't have anything, what would you do to survive?" If you create a system that pays you a minimum wage of $7.25, the place that you can be employed maybe will give you 40 hours, but more than likely won't.
And in that environment, maybe you're the head of the household. And maybe you have three kids. You might have one in elementary, one in middle and one in high school. You've got to create a place for them to go while you are not at home and working, but now if your daycare costs more than you make, and you still have to feed four people, house four people and clothe four people. And that's what you want to do because you want to show your kids and your family that you want to be a productive, contributing citizen, but now you have a system that says, "We can give you a check, and we can provide some resources for your kids," which would you choose? What makes practical sense in survival mode for your family?
Tell me more about that.
We create a system that allows people to stay with a foot on their neck, and then we want to punish them because they don't do what the rest of society does. It doesn't make sense in my mind. I don't know anybody who wouldn't rather have a good paying job and be able to take care of their own family and not have to follow the rules and the reporting and be under government control. We create a system like that.
But if we can make sure people have a livable wage and give them the resources they need to help them get to a place where they are contributing and thriving, who wouldn't want that? I'll tell you who wouldn't want it: Folks who want to control the way people live and think. And that's what kind of leadership we have been under. And that's why Mississippi is at the bottom. People benefit from folks staying poor and unhealthy and we can stop it.
How would you bring more good-paying jobs to Mississippi?
When it comes to jobs and it comes to attracting industries to Mississippi, unfortunately we have a situation where Mississippi gets sold as cheap labor. So we have companies and industries that come in and try to figure out how they can move their product in the cheapest way. And we can't continue to sell our people out like that. We can demand a living wage because they wouldn't pull that stunt in other states. They would give the kind of wages that they advertise. And not only that, but when they come, I want to make sure that not only are they paying livable wages, and not only are they good for Mississippi and Mississippi's environment, I would not give them all of the benefits and packages and tax relief and all of that up front. You get corporations that come into Mississippi, they get the full monty up front, they've got cheap labor, and so they're thinking about a 10-year exit plan. That would not happen under my administration. Yes, they would get some benefits, yes, they would get some breaks, but the longer they stay, the better those benefits would look.
What do you think the minimum wage should be in Mississippi?
What's uniquely different about Mississippi is our cost of living is low, so it has to be measured with the cost of living. But when we think about the expectation, we think about what it costs to live in a livable house—what would we want? To me, it's not about being a rocket scientist. It's about thinking, "What would you want?" Isn't it OK for folks to want what you want? It's fundamental. People want to be in a clean, safe environment where their kids can thrive and do well in this society. So what would the minimum wage be? I'm not sure, but I know $7.25 doesn't hit it, and I know that $10 doesn't bring us to where we need to be. So we would look at what's appropriate for Mississippi and what businesses can afford. I'm not concerned about big businesses and corporations because they have the money, but when it comes to small businesses, mom-and-pop shops, we've got to make sure it's appropriate. I think it's worth bringing people to the table.
What would it mean for Mississippi if you won?
I tell people to visualize with me. Think about a Velesha P. Williams as governor. Not only what that says to Mississippians, but that was to the United States, what that says to the world. Mississippi is changing. Mississippi is now willing to be open to changes, and to work for something better and greater.
That alone would start attracting folks because the deadness and heartlessness of our policies that have driven people and industries away because of how divisive and evil some of those policies are. We can't continue to operate like that and say we love people. We say we are the hospitality state, but for so many, it's the hostile state. We can't continue to operate like that, and we wouldn't under a Williams administration. That is the difference between me and any other candidate—not only the passion and sincerity, but wanting to move words to action.
I have 30 years experience of leadership and service experience. Nobody else has the kind of leadership and experience that I have had. I would bring that to the governor's mansion and bear that experience, that true compassion, that true commitment. I used to say that I am a viable candidate for governor. But I am much more than that. I am the best candidate for governor.
If you won, you would be the first African American elected statewide in Mississippi since the late 1800s. What's your strategy for breaking that barrier?
I think when people see my sincerity, and know my desires and vision for Mississippi, I think people will be ready to quit playing the color game. We don't have to continue to do the same thing over and over. That's the definition of madness. We can move in a better direction by putting the best person and the right person in the job. And so my strategy is, when there's an opportunity for me to tell the story of how Mississippi can be better and how we together can create a better Mississippi, I share that.
How do you overcome the millions of dollars that candidates like Jim Hood and Tate Reeves have to spend?
Well, the strategy is not only through social media, obviously, but getting in front of people. We have to make that actual face-to-face connection. There's still a disconnect. Folks can say and do things on social media and hide behind the unknown. But I want to be in front of people and let them hear my message. I think that people, if they can let their guard down and see who is committed to making a change, I feel good about my chances.
What is your position on the state flag?
The state flag has its place. For me, personally, I think that's in a museum. I think that we can't continue to do things where we ignore half of the population. And that's not a racial thing. It's a people thing. Half of the population, over half of it, do not believe that the flag is representative of who Mississippians are today and who we want to be representing when people look at the symbol for this state. I'm not opposed to asking the people, "What do you want to do?" Most people are ready for the flag to change. I think the people who want to hold onto it, some genuinely are historians, and that's part of history.
And for them I say, "You're right; it is part of history." And let's put it in an appropriate historical place. And for some, they do it because they want the world to see that Mississippi is still the Mississippi of old. And for them, I say, "It's not. Mississippi is changing."
How do you keep the focus on those issues when so many politicians in Mississippi try to keep the attention on debates over religious questions?
I'm a Christian, and I tell people I'm proud of my relationship with God, and I have tasted the Lord, and I know for myself that he is good. So when it comes to people of faith, what I tell them is that you have to listen. God gave us two commandments, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. And because folks were confused about who is my neighbor, he gave a parable in the Bible—the Parable of the Good Samaritan. But in short, our neighbor is a stranger, is anybody other than ourselves who is in need. And you can't say that you have the same kind of relationship and serve the same kind of God, and not want to help your fellow man.
And so even though people cherry-pick what seems to be a benefit to them from the Bible, I know very clearly those two commandments is what all others rest upon: We have got to love God, but we have got to take care of our fellow man. And the way that we do that is ensure that their health is covered, that they are educated, that they live in an environment that is safe. We can't just lift a portion of Mississippi and think that we've accomplished anything. We've done that for decades, and you can see where we are.
What is your position on the six-week abortion ban Gov. Bryant signed in March?
I told you that I'm a proud officer in the military. I have commanded, when I was in the military, hundreds of soldiers as they were doing their military occupational specialty. I have served as acting inspector general, which monitors various policies to make sure they're not being violated, and I have served as the principal investigator at JSU for several federal and state grants. I've supervised several individuals, and I've handled millions of dollars. And I would say that it is impractical for somebody to tell me that I don't have the capacity or the ability to then determine what's best for my body and my family and our situation.
So for a woman who has accomplished that in their life, and for the women who accomplish that and much more in their lives, why would we presume that a woman doesn't have the capacity or the ability to determine what's right for their body? We control and make decisions about things every day. A woman knows and can decide what's best, and for anybody to take that away from a woman is wrong.
What do you think of the "religious liberty" or "religious freedom" laws that legalize discrimination against LGBT people?
I would say that we have some people who have come up with really good terms that have no meaning, or have hidden meanings. If you say, "Are you pro-life?" Well, who doesn't like pro-life? But you're not talking about pro-life, because you wouldn't have the mortality rate that you have in Mississippi with our infants or our people, period. When you say pro-life, you would want to cover people's health care. But when we attach "pro-life" to a decision a woman makes about her own body, we're talking about two different things.
I couldn't even imagine a person telling me, someone who has commanded soldiers, willing to put my life on the line in the military and brought millions of dollars to the university, that I don't have the ability to decide what's right for my body or my family. So when it comes to questions about religious liberty and so forth, the name sounds good. But the reality behind it is a fraud. It is a way to discriminate.
So no, I don't support that law. The name is good, but the reality of the law isn't.
Do you support updating Mississippi's hate crimes law to include LGBT and disabled people?
I think that the circumstance of the LGBTQ community, what they're experiencing, is not too far different from what the African American community has experienced in the past. And what was wrong then is wrong now. Whatever we can do to protect people and their life and their ability to live freely in our community, to be productive citizens, to excel and make us all better, we should do. Whatever we can do to protect citizens from being victims just because of who they are, the color of their skin, or who they love, that's what we'll do.
Some legislators want to allow religious exemptions so parents can opt their children out of vaccines. What is your position?
We are fortunate that we have not had a measles outbreak, but people got scared. Imagine if a child went to a school who did have an illness that spread. I think parents are uniquely in a place to decide what's good for them and their families, but at the same time, they have to be considerate of their neighbors and the well-being and safety of others. I would lean toward ensuring that we continue to protect our citizens, and vaccination does that.
I know about the concerns of some parents about vaccinations, and parents need to have a voice, and that's something we can talk about. But when it comes to changing the law in regards to vaccinations, I don't think that's something we need to change, because in that regard, we do a good job of protecting our children and our citizens.
What do you think of the state lottery, funds from which the Legislature dedicated to improving infrastructure?
We need to make sure we take care of our infrastructure. It is crumbling. I'm sure that you, like most Mississippians, can see that for yourself. So the need is great, and I certainly think the lottery and its connection to infrastructure is needed. But this is what I'll say: For so long, we've got people invested in having a sick Mississippi, an uneducated Mississippi and a poor Mississippi. So when our people are sick, poor and uneducated, that makes for a bad recipe.
Look at the promise that was made way back when they brought gambling and casinos here. That money was supposed to go to education, but those were false promises. They took the money and put it in a general fund and spread it out, diluting the value of what should have gone to the schools.
The lottery is not the answer for everything. It can answer some things, but we can always go back to the casinos and take some of the revenue that we continue to get, and we don't have to put it all in the general fund. We can make sure that we cover and fully fund education. It's just a choice that has been made not to do this right, and that's going to be the difference in my administration: We're going to do what's right for Mississippians.
What do you think of the $1,500 pay raise the Legislature gave teachers this year, after cutting it down from $4,000?
We continue to play games with people's lives. And that's what I'm hoping people will realize when they go to the polls: You've been jerked around, lied to and taken advantage of for far too long. When we think about fully funding education, it not only addresses the idea of what's needed to bring our kids to where they need to be and our schools where they need to be, but we have to take care of our teachers as well.
So how do we do that? I'll tell you. One is, when we think about our young people, the facilities in which they learn have to be conducive to learning. When I left the military and before I joined Jackson State, I taught second and fourth grade as a limited service teacher. The school I taught at should have been condemned back then, but it still operates.
What do we say when we tell kids that the facility they learn in is inadequate? The range in which the disparity exists from school district to schools within the district is alarming. You have some schools that don't have appropriate books, don't have books or have missing pages with books. My kids were fortunate enough to have two sets of books, one set for the classroom and one to keep at home. We need to put all our kids on a level learning field. We do that by making sure they have not only the facilities and resources, and that the instruction they receive is preparing them for a global and technologically advanced society.
What do you think about the state-funded Educational Scholarship Accounts program, which pays for special-needs children to go to private schools?
You don't create a better public school system by taking money out of it.
Could you work with a potential Republican lieutenant governor and a Republican Legislature to get legislation passed?
I see myself working with anybody, and hopefully working with everybody. Most of my adult life, I have spent working with people of diverse backgrounds. I'm an African American woman living in Mississippi, so to have gotten the places I've gotten and do the things I've done, I've had to work with different people. So I'm not afraid to work with anyone. What I will say is that the work we do is going to be on behalf of fellow Mississippians, not a personal agenda, not a good ole boy or good ole girl agenda, and not something for a few folks over here and a few folks over there. The work we do together is going to be for Mississippians to create a better Mississippi.
What are your proposals for mental health?
We have to think about our physical, mental and spiritual health, I believe. That's the wholeness of the person. I used to receive, when I worked at Jackson State, grant funding from the Department of Mental Health. I understand that we have citizens with real serious mental health issues. And like anything, it's a scale. You have some people who have health care, but it doesn't cover mental-health treatment.
So when we think about our health-care system and making sure that we have funds for coverage, mental health is certainly a part of that coverage. We've got to make sure that when we talk about the well-being of Mississippians, that we talk, not only about their physical health, but their mental health. Preventive care is important. We need to be checking in. Just like when you go to a doctor, and they check their weight and temperature, we need to be making sure we're checking in on people's mental health. When I go to the VA, where I get my health care, and they're asking me questions, always on this list is, "Are you depressed?" And that's not just because they're asking Velesha. But there is a mental-health aspect to that general check in, and we have to make sure we're doing that. And once there's cause for a next step, we have to make sure we are offering that next step, whether that's counseling or medication.
But we can't afford not to do it. People always ask, "How are we going to pay for that?" Well, we're paying for not doing it now. Not treating mental health is how people get hurt, lose their lives, lose resources and lose families because we haven't given them the proper care. And that's where preventive care comes in. We've had circumstances and situations where we have encounters where people are undergoing a mental-health episode and not receiving the right treatment. And when you call law-enforcement officers who are not trained to deal with mental-health episodes, you sometimes see loss of life. We can't continue to operate like that.
What do you think we should do to change law-enforcement culture?
My bachelor's is in criminal justice and my master's is in criminology and justice service. Not only do we have to deal with the disparities that exist in our criminal justice system, but when it comes to law enforcement, fundamentally, these are individuals who put their lives on the line and hopefully come in with the intent to protect and serve the community. But too often we find folks trying to be judge, jury and executioner. So, how do we correct that? Through proper training. And we have to change the culture, and the culture has to go back to serving and protecting.
In doing that, we can't make mental health just an hour in a course, or 30 minutes. We need to spend some quality time ensuring we know how to deal with people who have a mental-health episode, and how to engage with people in general. So the way we change the culture is to change the training so that the priority is dealing with people in general. Because if your job is dealing with people, then you need to understand people and understand how to interact with them without escalating or creating an issue.
How would you tackle the inequalities in the criminal-justice system?
We have to work to correct the disparities in sentencing, but also the disparities that exist with parole and probation. When it comes to releasing individuals back into society, if our expectation is for them to become productive citizens, then we need to restore their rights. So fundamentally, I think, when people come out of jail, our goal is to make sure they are integrated back into society. We want them to make sure they are able to have a job, that they have a place to stay. We can't restrict the fundamental rights that they have. I tell people, that battle has already been fought. Taxation without representation is not acceptable.
So when people come out, we need to restore their rights to include voting. When it comes to drug-related crimes, I support drug courts. Some of my opponents are pushing legalizing marijuana. I think we should decriminalize marijuana. There are certain things that we can do to ensure that we are not destroying whole families because of certain crimes that are committed. We can do different things. But those who do wind up in the criminal-justice system, we can't afford to just let them sit there.
I want to create a culture of rehabilitation. The idea that they are separated from their families is punishment. Imagine if we were training them for infrastructure jobs. We see little work groups on the side of the roads picking up trash, well, we can get our kids to pick up trash. We need folks with skills and knowledge to do things to help build our communities back up.
The Legislature passed a bill this year that protects the identities of donors to some tax-exempt organizations, which they call a "donor privacy" law. What do you think of that law?
It makes you wonder, "Who are they really down there representing?" And that's what I tell people: You need to look at that. As long as we have a democracy, votes win elections and not money. So we have to make sure that people understand the importance of voting, and getting out and making sure they have an informed vote. I don't think those kinds of policies are intended to help Mississippians. I think it's intended to help the people who are in office stay in office. I think their policies and what they stand for, and what they spend their time in session doing, speaks loud and clear about who they are and what they represent. And if they don't represent your values, I say throw them out.
Since we've been talking, news has broken on a TV behind us about a school shooting in Denver. What are your ideas on gun violence?
As an officer in the U.S. Army, working with weapons and dealing with weapons and handling weapons is something that I did. I believe that people who desire to have weapons should be able to own weapons for protection of self and family. I happen to like weapons, and I probably have more than any of my opponents. But I believe that some people shouldn't have weapons, and we have to do a sincere job of ensuring that individuals who have certain mental challenges or criminal tendencies based upon previous use of weapons do not have access to them.
But I also believe that there are some weapons that we should not allow the average citizens to have. What average citizen needs armor-piercing ammunition? You only need something like that if you're trying to prepare for a revolt. You don't need that to protect yourself. You can't kill a deer with it. I just don't think civilians need to have military-grade weapons that are only intended to take life. We don't stop violence by creating more weapons.
The idea of putting guns in schools and giving teachers guns and putting guns in churches? That's the only thing where we think we solve violence by creating more people with the potential to commit violence. You don't get a sexually transmitted disease and then tell people that the way to stop it is for everybody to just get one so we don't have to worry about it spreading. Our children are not dumb.
One solution I support is a buyback. I think there ought to be a law put in place that certain weapons should not be allowed, so you create a year or two buyback program where you can buy these weapons back. But when you have individuals who have those weapons and can outgun law enforcement, then you have a problem.
How does your military service inform you as a person?
I was probably one of the first individuals in my class at Callaway (High School) when ROTC came there, and I joined it, because I liked the discipline and the structure. And after I graduated from Callaway, I went to ROTC at Jackson State University. And I was commissioned as an officer through the ROTC program at JSU. My first duty station was in Germany, where I was a platoon leader, but I spoke little German. It gave me an opportunity to not only learn from a foreign environment in my interactions, because I chose to live off the installation, but it allowed me to create relationships. But I grew up fast, because I was a young lieutenant who was in a foreign country who all of a sudden had leadership responsibilities.
Do you have any stories from your time in the military that you would like to share?
One of my soldiers went to a military hospital in Germany to have exploratory surgery done. She was a young, vibrant lady who had a daughter and a husband, and she went into the hospital. We went to visit with her and laughed and joked. I came home, got a call, and they told me my soldier was dead.
In the process of exploratory surgery, they were using gas, and they thought she was waking up out of surgery because her vital signs were going crazy, so they gave more gas. What they realized later was that she was having an allergic reaction to the gas. So for all those who were left behind, it was, how do we deal with that? How do we deal with the husband and the young daughter? I thought, if this is her daughter, surely she's had surgery before. But it was not until after she died that I realized that was not her biological daughter—she was raising her sister's daughter. And this was the first time she had gone to a hospital and the first time she had had any kind of medical treatment. And she was dead. And how did I deal with a circumstance like that?
In my military career, I've experienced a lot of pain. I had a soldier who ended his life, (and) we found him hanging. I've had a lot of tragedy, but I've had a lot of joy, being able to lift people to a better place and talk to them. I grew up fast, and I understand that life is too short to try to hold people down. You have a responsibility to do what you can to bring as much joy and as much peace and happiness to folks as possible. And people can't be peaceful or happy if they are suffering. So I've learned in my military life that you have a real duty to try to bring as much to people as you can in the short time that we journey this life.
Mississippians will choose party nominees in each statewide race on Aug. 6. Voters must register 30 days before an election to be eligible to vote and must present an accepted form of photo ID at the polls. For a list of accepted IDs, go to sos.ms.gov.
This interview has been edited for clarity; a longer version is at jfp.ms. Follow reporter Ashton Pittman on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].
Velesha P. Williams
Married for 35 years to
Bennett J. Williams
2 Adult Children, 1 Grandson
Former Officer in the U.S. Army
Former Director of Metro Jackson Community Prevention
Coalition at JSU
Graduated from Callaway High School in Jackson
Masteris in Criminology and Justice Services from JSU