Trying to make a difference
Clarksdale lawyer has already done it in his hometown
Bill Luckett is an attorney who splits his time between Clarksdale and Jackson. With business partner, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman, Luckett owns Ground Zero Blues Club and Madidi restaurant. He attended the University of Virginia before earning a law degree from Ole Miss in 1973. Luckett has been married to Francine Gardner of Greenville for more than 25 years. They attend St. George’s Episcopal Church in Clarksdale.
Q — Why are you running for governor?
A — I’m running for governor because I know I can make a big difference in this state. I’m not a career politician. In fact this is the first race of a purely political nature… I’ve never run for public office…
I can make a difference in this state… My life has been mostly involved in practicing law and in business development as an entrepreneur and creating jobs. I guess I qualify as a small business man with the number of business ventures I’ve been involved with, and in trying to revitalize a Delta town… I want to get this state off the bottom…but I know to do it we’ve all got to pull together – young, old, black, white.
Q — What do you think about improving education in Mississippi?
A — I’m passionate about education. I have just finished my probably fifth or sixth book on the subject. It’s called “Whatever It Takes” about the Harlem Children’s Zone by Geoffrey Canada… Right before that I read “Work Hard, Be Nice” about these two guys from Teach for America who turned around some Texas schools. I read the Kids Count data that comes out every year. I read the No Time to Lose data. I read the Portrait of Mississippi information. I talk with people at organizations like Mississippi Building blocks, Mississippi First. I’ve met with the Excel By 5 people…
Every politician gets up and says, “We need better schools.” Well you’ve got to go a lot deeper into it than that and that’s what I’ve been studying. I’ve been making an intense study of the problems are in order to come up with some solutions. We must — I repeat, must — implement early childhood education. And we must get the state behind it. We’re the only state in the South that doesn’t have state-supported pre-K or early childhood education… We have to do that. We’re losing ground to everybody… Almost 90 percent of children in Mississippi go to public schools are in many areas of the state behind two or three years by the time they start the first grade.
We do have pockets with excellent school systems. DeSoto County, Madison, one on the Coast, Tupelo Municipal. There are some around the state doing a good job. But the great majority of the school districts need to really improve what they’re offering.
It’s got to start at pre-K in my view. Then we can’t let it fall off when we get that big, early boost. Studies are showing that people who are right up to norm with their vocabulary when they get to the first grade, when they get in the poorly performing districts, they fall right back down with the rest of the class. So we’ve got to continue that effort and make sure that momentum does not lose its drive or strength.”
Q — What do you think about consolidating school districts?
A — On consolidating districts and schools… Consolidating the school districts — elementary, junior high and high schools. It is a much more difficult task that meets the eye. It looks like it makes good sense and a quick review would indicate that well, here we have DeSoto County with five high schools all in one district and it’s doing real well. Then we have Bolivar County, Miss., with five or six districts and many of them are under-performing, or at risk of failing or failing. But some districts have debt that the other district doesn’t want to assume. The politics are going to play into it in a big way.
There are a myriad of problems… I’m certainly not averse to looking at it and studying it… But until there’s some good concrete evidence to do it, I hate to just waste the energy and it doesn’t do any good. And by doing any good, I mean the educational levels have to be increased.
On the college level — I’m opposed to consolidating colleges. I think that effort mostly involves the HBCUs and perhaps to a lesser extent MUW. I think that colleges like Mississippi Valley and Jackson State and Alcorn and other state-support HBCUs need to be state-supported and left free-standing and like they are. I think we need to bolster college opportunities across the state. But it just doesn’t seem to me to make sense to want to close a school like Valley with its 2,500 or so students and displace them. Because then where are they going to go and how are they — where’s the other school going to be able to make up the slack? I don’t see it working. I don’t see it working well. And right now I’m opposed to doing it.
We have a wonderful community college system, and I would like seeing an enhancement of the trade and the vocation areas of those schools. I visited with several of those presidents, and so far as I move around the state I’ve been very impressed with what they’re doing. Their enrollment’s way up. That’s a good sign. Of course it usually occurs in times that there’ s a recession or slow economy but it’s good that people are getting an education, because that is the answer to just about everything that ails this state.
Q — What can be done to help the economy and make a more market-friendly environment?
A — “We need to make some job creators. We’ve got the job seekers. Job creators are people who – like me – have an entrepreneurial spirit, who see and have a vision for what can be kind and who set out to do it. I know of some job opportunity right now in my hometown of Clarksdale. And I’ve spread the word. We need some it people we need some small engine repair people. We’ve got some jobs waiting there if people will just get out – I want to invigorate people to get that spirit and go out and try things.
I certainly want to work in conjunction with our high schools our trade schools and community colleges and our institutions of higher learning and make the state as friendly as we can for business… I’ve been out there and have done that. I know what it takes. I know how to gather resources, put the right people and in place and make things happen.”
Q — Do you think Mississippi’s business climate is friendly to small businesses as far as taxes and regulations go?
A — I do. I compliment the Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, and I have had several talks about this. He is doing a good job I think with accountability issues for LLCs that weren’t in existence and streamlining some approaches… to entice, invite and make us a more friendly environment… We need an educated workforce. It’s that whole chicken-and-egg thing. Companies aren’t going to come unless they’ve got assistance that you can give them, the people and workforce with the proper training they need to open. And I know some of the bigger incentive packages have included workforce training. But for that small business, I just don’t know if it exists in a wide-spread consistent manner around the state.
Q — Is there a risk in doling out large incentive packages to lure companies to Mississippi?
A — I hope and trust — and I don’t have any reason right now to doubt this — that the necessary business-man approach of due diligence was adequately performed before we brought in some of the biggies — like the Nissans and Toyotas and some of them. I trust it was done.
But I think we’re not putting enough emphasis on the small businesses right now. I have met company owner after company owner who tell me, “Bill please address small business concerns.” I won’t give a name because I don’t have permission – but a printer in this general area said, “I want to expand my business by 60 percent. I want to take that back wall, push it back out, add some more presses. We could put about 10 to 15 more people to work. I’ve got about 16 right now. But bank credit’s tough. I need help. And I’ve been in business for decades. I’m not going anywhere…” That’s the type of small business I think we need to give attention to. To enhance some programs. To maybe offer some incentives. To let somebody like that grow that company. Yeah, it’s just 10 jobs. But when 80 to 90 percent of all employees in Mississippi work for what’s defined as small business, then that’s where I think we need to be putting some emphasis. I’m not being critical of the big, expensive projects that have come in.
Q — What do you think about the beer bill in the Legislature that would raise the alcohol content limit for beer brewed and sold in Mississippi from 5 percent to 8 percent?
A — I would certainly be willing to look at that.
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