Mississippi governor candidate Velesha P. Williams: ‘Isn’t it time Democratic Party starts supporting black folks?’

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Report For America

Velesha Williams attends the Jackson Police Department Precinct 2 meeting at the Metro Center Thursday, February 14, 2019.

Velesha P. Williams’ gubernatorial campaign unofficially began in late November of 2018 during a family meeting.

At her home in Flora with her husband by her side, Williams shared with her two children the decision she had thought and prayed about for weeks.

“They were like, ‘If God laid it on your heart, who are we to dispute it?'” Williams told Mississippi Today.

Williams, 57, is one of nine candidates running in the Democratic primary for governor this year but is the only woman. She has little name ID and reported about $6,500 in contributions in the January filing report, but she hopes she can follow in the 2015 footsteps of Robert Gray, who knocked off the front-runner in the 2015 Democratic primary for governor.

Williams sat down with Mississippi Today to discuss her campaign and the politics of 2019. Her comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Mississippi Today: Tell us about yourself.

Velesha P. Williams: I’m a former officer in the United States Army. I’m a 2016 retiree of Jackson State University, where I served as an administrator at the Metro Jackson Community Prevention Coalition. I directed several programs. We feel like our work in drug prevention was significant in helping communities develop and get stronger. Most of our time was spent in the community. I like to consider myself an expert on prevention — prevention of drug use and abuse.

You grew up in Mississippi?

I was born in St. Louis, Missouri. My parents moved here in 1974, so I’ve been here since I was 12 years old, going on 13. I lived in Jackson. I am from Jackson, I’m a product of Jackson Public Schools. I’m a 1979 graduate of Callaway High School. My parents lived in Jackson until my mother passed away, and then my father shortly after.

Governor. It’s the big one. What inspired you to run?

The issues are so great and the neglect has been so long that as I sat home enjoying my retirement and enjoying the fruits of my labor, the spirit came to me and said, “You know, you have work to do. Mississippi can use the talents and the skills that you have.” And so I feel that this is actually a calling. I want to be obedient to God’s purpose in my life. My 30 years of success is based upon being obedient to what God has called me to do. It hasn’t always been what I thought as the right place or how my life would’ve been structured if I had gone on my desires. But my desires are beyond personal, and so is the need to make difference. I think that we have to be willing to work for the change we’re seeking. And so I’m called to do that.

Have you run for office or served in politics before?

I have not. People always ask, “Have you desired to serve in any other capacity?” And I tell them, “God didn’t call me to be an alderman, councilman or a legislator. He called me to be governor.” And that’s the task that I intend to do. I’m going to run this race to the end, and there’s nothing — absolutely nothing — that can diminish from that because I am confident and persuaded that I am doing God’s will for my life.

Looking at political trends on the national level, it’s clear that the Trump era has inspired a lot of people who didn’t previously have experience in politics to run. Do you see yourself in that light?

I think that people realize that if we’re serious about making an effective change, we have to be willing to do that. As a Christian we say that without faith, you really can’t do anything. Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. Faith without works is dead, and we have got to get beyond our desire and actually do. I’m telling Christians that we’ve got get off our knees and stand on our feet to do the work that God has called us to do.

I want to ask you about one of your opponents in the Democratic primary, Jim Hood. As you are in your first round of your political career, he’s several rounds into his. He’s got statewide name ID, he’ll have plenty of money. As you look ahead to the primary, what’s your strategy and challenge in convincing voters to vote for you and not him?

First of all, I want people to listen to my message. I think my message will resonate with voters if they but listen. If we could set aside superficial divisions and look at where Mississippi is, where Mississippi has been, and how long we’ve been in this position, I think if they want different — now I realize some people don’t want a change — but if you want a better Mississippi, I say that you’d be sold on Velesha P. Williams. When it comes to money, I don’t have a lot of it. God didn’t promise me a lot of it. God promised me to get to the finish line, and we’ll be there embracing the victory. But what I’ll say is money doesn’t win elections; votes do.

You speak of my opponent’s experience. He’s been a politician. For me, I think his greatest weakness is that he’s been a politician. He’s been a part of the system. He’s been in office for 13 years, and I don’t see the fruits of the votes that were given to him.

Has there been anything that Hood has done that you’ve fundamentally disagreed with — not necessarily just not seeing the fruits, but anything specifically that you think should’ve been done differently?

I think there’s a few things that could’ve been done differently. But to speak in regards to those things brings no value to this election and the purpose that I have in running. My opponent knows his failures. He knows his successes. He’s got to live with those. He’s got to try to put those in perspective. That’s not my job.

I’ve spent more than two years talking to everyday Mississippians about several candidates, including Jim Hood. I ask questions like, “What about him do you like and dislike?” One of the consistent complaints I’ve heard from Mississippians, particularly around Jackson, is how he handled the case of Robert Shuler Smith (the Hinds County district attorney who is also running for governor as a Democrat). Is that something you’ve thought about and something you’ll talk about on the campaign trail?

Well, this is what I’ll talk about. When people show you who they are, believe them. The media has been on the frenzy in regards to Ralph Northam, the Virginia governor. People rallied around him and voted for him because they felt like he was a Democrat and that somehow because he was a Democrat, that made him a champion for the people. People have a way of wearing a mask — no pun intended on which mask he wore in that particular instance — but the inward person, who we are, who we have to come face to face with when no one else is around. I think when it comes to Mr. Hood and the Robert Shuler Smith situation, it’s another example of revealing who you really are. And so whatever distaste people have in regards to that situation, what he was showing was who he is. People will argue one way or the other whether he was doing his job or over-doing his job or doing something totally different from his job. People can assess that.

But I’ll say this: I think Mr. Hood enjoys the support of what people call “Blue Dog Democrats.” I don’t know if everybody’s familiar with that term, but I’ve heard people reference him — and I don’t know if he enjoys the reference — as the “Last Democrat in Dixie.” Well for me, all of those are kind of dog whistles. If I defined it, I’d call it a “Dixiecrat.” I don’t think Mississippi needs a Dixiecrat. I don’t think a Dixiecrat is right for Mississippi, not now. We’ve had enough Dixiecrats. It’s time to get serious about helping all Mississippians and not be pretentious about who you want to assist, when you’re going to assist and why you’re going to assist. I’m going to be fighting for all Mississippians.

To clarify, you just brought up the Virginia governor blackface incident, which was an overtly racist thing. The Robert Shuler Smith stuff, would you consider Hood’s approach on that case as racist?

I would consider his approach on that case wrong, period. You can layer it with anything else you want to layer it with, but it was wrong. The approach was wrong, and until he’s able to admit that, he remains wrong.

If you won the governor’s seat, you’d almost certainly have to work with a majority Republican Legislature, and probably even a supermajority Republican Legislature. How would you work with Republican leaders? Because here, you’d have to.

I would assess who is serious about helping Mississippians. We elect folks to work on our behalf, not to get in a corner and say, “I won, this is my piece of the pie I’m gonna take care of.” When we elect officials, we elect them to serve all of us. Not just a few people in the district, but all the people in the district. So if they’re working on behalf of all the people in their jurisdiction, then we can get things done. See, everybody needs healthcare. Everybody needs a quality education. We’re going to breathe the same air and drink the same water and cross the same bridges. So once we realize that we are in the same boat, we’ve got to get people to realize that we’re gonna have to paddle together or we’re gonna sink together.

And for anybody, Republican or Democrat, black or white, who are not willing to help Mississippians, I would expose them to the public for who they are and what they’re about. We’re gonna work together. As an officer in the military, I worked with different people from different environments and different cultures and different belief systems and different genders and races. When a person is leading, you need to follow or get out the way.

One of the races I watched last year was Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who was trying to become the first black governor of Georgia. You would not only be the first black governor of Mississippi, you’d be the first woman elected governor. And we’ve never elected a black statewide official, post-Reconstruction.

It is 2019, don’t you think it’s about time? I’ll say this: There is not a Democrat who has held office in this state who hasn’t been there because of the black vote. Period. They could not hold a position without the black vote. We, African Americans, have been lifting up Democrats for decades. They cannot win without the black vote. They have not won without the black vote. It’s 2019. Isn’t it about time the Democratic Party starts supporting black folks?

Last year, Mike Espy got closer than just about any black candidate for statewide office. Do you take anything away from Espy’s campaign last fall?

What I take away from it is what I just mentioned. And see, black folks haven’t hesitated to lift up candidates that they thought were going to speak on their behalf. The majority of those have been white candidates. When Mike Espy ran, I don’t know if he was afforded that same support from white Democrats. I think that was the difference. In Mississippi, we can’t continue to be a one-sided support system. We’ve got to support all the way. And so the difference is going to be that we have to respect each other enough to know that we want the same things and respect each other enough to give each other the same support.