For the first time in 28 years, Eric Clark’s name will not appear on any ballot in this year’s election. He has spent half his life in elected office and at age 56 has decided to follow a different route. His public service began at age 28 when he followed his father’s footsteps in being elected to represent Smith County in the House of Representatives.
Following four terms in that position, he was elected to the statewide office of secretary of state in 1995, then re-elected two more times. He lists his four primary goals in that office as protecting the integrity of the state’s elections; promoting sound land management; strengthening the state’s business climate; and safeguarding the investments and charitable donations of Mississippians.
Secretary Clark reformed the state’s campaign finance disclosure laws and secured passage of new measures to combat voter fraud. The voter education programs were recognized by CNN and TIME Magazine as the most successful student voter projects in the country. He also implemented “Vote in Honor of a Veteran” to recognize the service and sacrifice of those who make democracy possible.
He was recognized with the American Family Association’s God and Country Award for authoring the law that outlawed possession of child pornography in Mississippi and by the Mississippi Wildlife Federation as Conservation Legislator of the Year for his efforts to preserve natural lands on the Gulf Coast.
Clark received a bachelor’s degree from Millsaps College, a master’s degree from the University of Mississippi and a doctorate in history from Mississippi State University. A former public school and community college teacher, he also taught history and government at Mississippi College. Additionally, he manages his family’s tree farm in Smith County.
He and his wife, Karen, are the parents of a son, Charles, and a daughter, Catherine.
Last week, Clark took time to answer a few questions for Mississippi Business Journal readers.
Mississippi Business Journal: Why did you decide not to seek re-election?
Eric Clark: When I was first elected to the Legislature, I had just turned 28 years old. That was 28 years ago. I have spent half my life running for and serving in elective office. I have loved these years serving the people of Mississippi. I just feel that now is the time for me to redirect and do something different.
MBJ: Any future plans you can tell us about?
EC: Nothing definite at this time. My passions are education and economic development, and I hope I can work in one or both.
MBJ: How do you see the role of the Secretary of State’s Office in Mississippi business?
EC: The Secretary of State’s Office is a critical component of the economy of our state. First, we are the corporate records office for Mississippi and thus the initial business contact point for the state. Because of this, we help many businesses do business in our state, guiding them through the legal requirements and assisting them with other state agencies.
Second, because of this, the Secretary of State’s Office serves a role as the senior legal advisor to the Legislature on updating and reforming the state’s corporate laws. This is not done in a vacuum. I have been very blessed to have a group of the top corporate lawyers and business professionals of the state, the Secretary of State’s Business Law Advisory Group, who volunteer their time and energy to this effort. They bring forth suggested changes to our business laws to keep them current and cutting edge. These legal changes have an enormous impact on our economic environment and spur further growth in our economy.
MBJ: Please describe how the office is involved with corporate registration, securities regulation and general oversight.
EC: Again, the Secretary of State’s Office is the official incorporating entity of the state. Any business which incorporates in our state must file its registration documents with our office. This is basically a ministerial function of the agency, although we have the right to administratively dissolve a corporation which fails to file an annual report with the office.
I would note that as secretary of state, I instituted a policy whereby, in addition to the formal official notice, we give those corporations that failed to file two postcard notices before dissolution.
On the other front, any security offered or sold in the state must either be registered with our office or exempt from the registration requirements. This is also true with regard to any stock broker who is conducting business in the state. They must either register with us or be excluded from registration. We do have regulatory authority in this arena, which means that if a stock broker is defrauding his or her clients, we can go in and close them down. As you know, we have been very aggressive in this area, recovering investors’ money, imposing many millions of dollars in fines and triggering the prosecution of some individuals.
MBJ: Are there procedures in the operation of the office that you would change if you could?
EC: For the past 12 years, I have focused our efforts on increasing the responsiveness and efficiency of our office, and we have made outstanding gains in that time. We have achieved this success thanks to the dedication of my well trained staff and vast improvements in technology.
Years ago, it could take up to two weeks to turn around a corporate filing. Today, we have a standing 24-hour turn around policy. And in the case of some filings, it only takes a matter of minutes to do so through our Web site.
These procedures must not only be maintained but improved upon on a yearly basis. Currently, we are developing a process to file online incorporation documents, a process that I hope will continue after I’m out of office.
MBJ: What do you think the state’s business climate is at this time?
EC: I think the climate is very good despite the enormous devastation from Hurricane Katrina.
MBJ: Any advice for someone thinking of going into business?
EC: The main thing I would advise someone is to carefully look before you leap. Do your homework and make sure this is the right business to get into and the right business for you. There are a number of different entities that can assist someone in this effort, including my office, the great folks over at the Mississippi Development Authority and the local economic development groups.
MBJ: What do you consider the best achievements of your time in this office?
EC: I have two things I’m particularly proud of. The first is the way my office has handled Gulf Coast tidelands issues. When I entered office, we were facing major legal disputes over the boundaries between the state’s tidelands and private property. Compounding this situation was the explosion of growth from casino gambling on the Coast.
I have had a policy of working to balance economic development and preservation of our valuable natural resources. And since taking office in 1996, we amicably resolved nearly all private ownership issues without lawsuits, facilitated billions of dollars in economic development, and helped create thousands of jobs.
In this process, we swapped the state’s disputed claim to 27 acres of land in commercial areas on the Coast for more than 16,000 acres of endangered natural areas for permanent preservation, including acquiring Deer Island.
Second, we successfully implemented the mandates of the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. We worked very closely with our county election officials, who do an outstanding job under enormous pressure. In this process, we overhauled the state’s voter rolls (thereby reducing fraud), equipped our counties with new, more accurate voting machines, and made it easier for our disabled citizens and Mississippians serving in the military to vote.
Our effort in Mississippi has been cited by federal election officials as a model for the rest of the country.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.