Former Natchez mayor entered governor’s race to highlight state’s woes, drops out to avoid hurting other Democrats

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Phillip “Bucket” West said he did not enter the Democratic primary for governor on March 1, the qualifying deadline, with the intent of winning, but with the desire to call attention to “the shortcomings” that he said were holding back his native Mississippi.

West, at 72, the first African American chair of the Adams County Board of Supervisors, former House member and former mayor of Natchez, recently withdrew from the race, saying he did not want his name on the ballot to jeopardize the chances of any of the other Democratic candidates.

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Phillip West, former mayor of Natchez

“I felt I had the breadth of experience to talk about our shortcomings,” he said recently. “On just about every quality of life issue, we are last.”

West said the state needs someone “with the vison” to deal with the many issues facing the state – many of those issues the result of decades of systematic racism.

“I don’t think we should be proud of being last,” he said.

While West said he wanted to call attention to those issues as a gubernatorial candidate, he did not want to jeopardize the election for another Democratic contender. West said he believes Attorney General Jim Hood would stand the best chance of any of the Democrats of winning the gubernatorial election in November.

Hood, who is in his fourth term as attorney general and Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, is one of eight candidates vying on the Democratic side.

“Jim Hood is the only option I see (on the Democratic side) as having an opportunity to win and become the governor,” he said.

Later, in a prepared statement, West said, “After visiting with Jim Hood during the course of this campaign, I am satisfied that Jim shares my values. The stakes are too high and the opportunity is too great for friends to bicker at this important moment. Jim shares my love for Mississippi and he has the vision and integrity to lead Mississippi froward. That is why I am throwing my support behind Jim and will be asking others to vote for Jim Hood for governor.”

The other Democratic candidates are Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith; Velesha Williams of Flora, a former administrator at Jackson State University and a retired military officer; Michael Brown of Lorman; William Bond Compton Jr. of Meridian; Robert J. Ray of Meridian; Gregory Wash of Forest; and Albert Wilson of Jackson.

West said he served in public office for more than 50 years because of his concerns about the state. He credits two events for spurring his desire to work for the betterment of the state.

After finishing high school, West said like many African Americans in the state at the time, he moved to Chicago to find a job where he saw “black people and white people eating together in the same restaurants, doing things together.” After seeing a new life in Chicago, he said he felt drawn to return to Mississippi to go to school at Alcorn State near his home in Natchez.

The day before he was scheduled to enroll at Alcorn State in January 1965, he agreed to travel to Brookhaven with his father to pick up a neighbor who had been visiting relatives for the holiday.

On that trip on U.S. Highway 84, West said he remembers his father’s car being passed three different times by a station wagon that would dramatically slow down after passing them. At one point, West’s father pulled off the highway and stopped at a home where they hid in the backyard. The station wagon followed and a man with a gun got out, yelled a racial slur and warned the father and son to stay off the highway.  West said his father meandered through a gravel road to re-enter the highway farther down the road.

West said the episode had an impact on his decision to enter politics, but the events of that January night were seldom discussed between the father and son.

At Alcorn State, West picked up the nickname “Bucket,” which stuck through all of his political career, including his years in the Mississippi House where he chaired the Legislative Black Caucus. West said he thought for years he received the nickname because of his scoring prowess in an intramural basketball game, but later learned an upper classman and teammate from the ASU baseball team gave him the nickname “because of the size of my head.”

West made the baseball team as a walk-on, but later earned a scholarship and eventually was elected to the Alcorn State Hall of Fame.

And if not for his desire to address the issues he saw facing the state, West said he would have “become a baseball coach” instead of a politician.

Story updated May 30, 2019 to include state released by Phillip West.