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State Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez says he can remember his parents “having him on the picket line when he was 10 years old” in Adams County because a local store would not employee Black cashiers.
But he said the same parents developed relationships with white power brokers in Adams County: a banker who helped his father obtain a needed loan for his business, and a real estate agent who helped his father purchase land along the Mississippi River that powerful white residents didn’t want an African American to own. His mother, Johnson said, developed relationships with white school administrators that advanced her career.
Johnson, the Democratic leader in the Mississippi House of Representatives, applies those values at the Capitol, where Republicans can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Even outside the Capitol, Mississippi Democrats wield little political influence and have struggled to organize and fight against a growing Republican landscape.
Often, Johnson said, he tries to balance his party’s platforms and stances on issues with his pragmatism about where the power really lies.
“I know we have possibilities in this state to do things we have not done,” Johnson said Monday during a lunch meeting of the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute of Government/Capitol Press Corps.
“I continue to work that way,” Johnson said. “I don’t do it because I am a Democrat. I don’t do it because I am a Black person. I do it because (Mississippi) is where I want to be … I hope it is the beginning of what I think are progressive ways to get things done around the state, to continue to work together to get things done.”
Johnson has earned respect among many lawmakers — and sometimes criticism from his fellow Democrats — for often working with House Speaker Philip Gunn and other Republican House leaders. He said even though he disagrees with Gunn on many issues, he considers him a friend.
He pointed to Gunn’s massive tax restructuring plan as an example of where he has tried to work with Gunn. He and most House Democrats voted in January for Gunn’s proposal to phase out the income tax and increase the sales tax while reducing the tax on food and on car tags.
“Income tax, getting rid of income tax long-term, it doesn’t make much sense at all. But short-term, it gives me an opportunity to be in the room with Philip Gunn when we’ve got $1.8 billion (in federal COVID-19 relief funds) to spend, $1 billion in surplus funds, figuring out what we can do for people all over the state,” Johnson said.
He added, “As we move this state forward, we need to try to find places we can agree.”
Johnson questioned whether the Republican majority can ultimately agree on a plan to eliminate the income tax because of disagreements in how to undertake such a massive endeavor.
“I am betting they butt heads and nobody passes anything,” Johnson predicted, but added that at least Gunn’s plan cuts the state’s grocery tax and reduces by 50% the cost of car tags — both proposals that he said would benefit poor and working people.
Still, Johnson said he often becomes frustrated by what he says is a lack of progress in Mississippi. He believes state leaders are missing opportunities to help the state, such as not expanding Medicaid to provide health insurance for primarily the working poor. He said eliminating the income tax would not convince young, successful people to stay or move to the state. He said fixing the state’s infrastructure and addressing crime issues, especially in the city of Jackson, would be a much more effective ways to grow the state’s population.
“Jackson, the capital city, is the front door to the state of Mississippi,” Johnson said.
He said expanding Medicaid and fixing infrastructure could be done with existing funds, including $1.8 billion in federal funds, and go a long way toward addressing the problems in the state.
Still, even as he tries to work across the aisle to get things done, the frustrations mount. He said just about each week of the legislative session, he asks himself, “What the f— are we doing here in the state of Mississippi?”