Despite having unprecedented extra billions of dollars to spend, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the Mississippi Legislature failed to provide enough help to the capital city, which faces dire infrastructure and crime problems decades in the making.
In a lengthy post-legislative session interview with Mississippi Today, Lumumba said “paternalistic” and “racist” attitudes of legislative leaders towards one of America’s Blackest cities have resulted in Jackson not receiving enough state support in the past and present.
Lumumba pointed out the infrastructure funding Jackson did receive came with strings attached and oversight no other cities face. Lumumba said this raises “the question of whether Jackson has an equal-protection claim against the state of Mississippi,” although he later clarified, “I’m not announcing a lawsuit.”
Lumumba said he believes there is a push on the state level to privatize Jackson’s water and sewer services.
And, Lumumba also noted, lawmakers earmarked more than half as much — $13 million — for a Jackson golf course as they did for fixing the city’s crumbling water and sewerage system, at $25 million (which the city is matching using federal funds).
Below is a transcript of the interview. It has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Mississippi Today: How would you say the city fared this legislative session, with funding for capital projects, and for water and sewerage, specifically?
Lumumba: Let me say this, at a time where you have more resources available than any time in recent history, I think it’s fair to say that Jackson, once again, didn’t get commensurate support, to not only represent our size, but also your contributions to the state of Mississippi. Being a city in dire need for so many resources to address so many challenges, I’m never in a position to turn down — we readily accept any resources that are handed down.
But when you look at some of our requests, and look at how we have been part of this infrastructure discussion, not only in local conversations, but in a national way … It was in fact stated by the president of the United States that as we look at this infrastructure bill, we have to consider cities like Jackson, Mississippi, right? He specifically mentioned Jackson, and that expresses just how much we have been a part of even having these resources in the first place … $25 million honestly is still just a drop in the bucket … No direct allocation was given to Jackson as part of that.
Mississippi Today: As for the state’s matching program, Jackson is the only city not being cut a direct check, so to speak, right? You have to go through the Department of Finance and Administration, they have to oversee Jackson’s work, right?
Lumumba: There is a duplicitous requirement for Jackson. We not only have to go through the regular proposals, but once that’s accepted, we have to go through DFA … What we have learned with the commissions we’ve had to have in Jackson — the only city to have to have commissions (to oversee state support) — is that when it comes to infrastructure it only serves to delay the services and repairs. Rather than being some justified checks and balances, it’s just to have a paternalistic view or approach to Jackson.
… And I’m going to call out what that is already. I’m going to beat them to the punch and let you know that behind the scenes, there has been an effort to try to get Jackson to either privatize its water or do a concession. That has nothing to do with an overall effort to improve the conditions. What that is about is money, how do you profit from Jackson. We have to call that out. And I think that now it’s time to raise the question of whether Jackson has an equal protection claim against the state of Mississippi, not only in terms of an equitable distribution of resources, but we even have inequity in what we are allocated within the city that can only go to one portion of the city or to certain communities … when we asked for money to deal with our water system, which in large part interrupts distribution to South Jackson more than any other part of our city.
Mississippi Today: What are some of those inequities as far as certain communities?
Lumumba: That is still to be determined through this duplicitous process, but yet and still, the same legislative session, we give $13 million towards a golf course — a 10-hole golf course, which, I’m not an avid golfer, but I know very few golfers that are eager to play a 10-hole golf course, right? … I’m not against the project. I am against the failure as we ask for water that serves all our residents to give $13 million towards golf … We also know that there were allocations made to the Fondren Community. I love our Fondren Community. I love how it is blossoming. But there are equity concerns when we’re willing to give $20 million (in bonds guaranteed by Hinds County) towards a development in that area, but yet and still we can continue to ignore people’s basic need for water.
I also anticipate that this is something you want to talk about, too: People raise the issue of, well, you know, Jackson is fighting over a garbage contract. Well, so, the state is fighting over taxes, right? Other cities fight over garbage contracts, Jackson is just a city that is larger than every other city by far, and so we will always be in the news. Frustrations and battles over politics are nothing new. I think anyone who goes towards perpetuating that myth, that that’s an excuse not to help, we have to check. Because what was the excuse the last 40 years when they haven’t given Jackson the resources it needed? … That certainly isn’t a justification to say that your people don’t deserve the sustainability of water or the equity of how water is distributed.
Mississippi Today: You mentioned a push towards privatization of Jackson’s water system. Are some legislative leaders pushing that?
Lumumba: Yes. There have been conversations between leadership and — I won’t say — but representation between the state saying that and, you know, even meeting with companies … I do more research than they give me credit for. I know that in Detroit, before it reached bankruptcy, they lost full control over their water systems … I think that the effort to have this duplicitous process by which we’ve got to get authorized for projects to fix our water system, it to dangle this over our head. To try to force us into the direction they want us to go.
… And might I mention that Jackson does not have some extensive or real history of illegal contract steering. And right know, you have Anna Wolfe doing a whole big story on the state of Mississippi, and the issues of DHS and potential improprieties of the state. So, this is hypocritical at best … This is more about the unstated position that they have towards Jackson when there’s big legislation that deals with Jackson. It’s about how do we take from Jackson. How do we take your airport? How do we privatize your water system? How do we regionalize your water treatment facilities? How do we look at taking the finances of Jackson every single time?
Mississippi Today: Do you meet directly with the legislative leadership and governor?
Lumumba: I do. I have met with the lieutenant governor … I’ve met with Speaker (Philip) Gunn … I cannot report that I’ve ever had a negative interaction with Speaker Gunn. I don’t know what his position is by and large towards the city of Jackson, but I’ve never had a negative experience with him. I do not meet frequently with the governor at all. I desire more interaction with the governor. I’ve definitely met 10 times as much with former Gov. Bryant than I do with Gov. Reeves. And you know, we’re the largest city in Mississippi, and there’s no reason, you know, that we shouldn’t be sitting down and having discussions. We’ve reached out several times.
… We hear things — people give in to these narratives that Jackson doesn’t, that we’re unable to build relationships. We can build relationships. We build national relationships all over. It is less about our inability to build relationships and more about the resistance that is there, more about the unstated position they have towards Jackson … That is why I have developed national relationships. That is why we have brought in philanthropic support … We are remaining in close contact with national leadership … I’ve gone to Washington, I’ve met with (EPA) Administrator (Michael) Regan in addition to his visit to Jackson. We are very interested in the Justice40 initiative. I’ve met with my good friend former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the federal infrastructure czar … If we’re able to establish these relationships and they see the value and the intent of our city, then how is it that we’re unable to see that right here, where people are suffering the most?
Mississippi Today: So, some lawmakers have been saying that $25 million — $50 million with the city match — is enough for Jackson to get started on water work and for the next nine months, and that the state can come back with more next year. What is your response to that?
Lumumba: Well, let me say this: We have demonstrated, as it pertains to road work, if you give us the money, we can put it to work. We have a 1% commission (for infrastructure work using a local sales tax) and all the money we have in hand is committed to projects. We know that there’s bureaucracy and a lot of red tape with studies and engineering and everything else. But delaying the allocation of money doesn’t make any of that process move any faster. If we had some better sense of what we might have, or even if we had a steady stream of funding over the course of time, then we could better prepare … But we went into this legislative session with a murky understanding of what resources we would have to address our ailing water infrastructure, and if we’re honest, it’s still a bit murky … They gave us the potential of hope, right? … We need more than $500 million just for our drinking water system alone. We know that we can’t go in and expect that we’re going to get $500 million … But I think we’re left at the end of the day with a huge disparity between how Jackson has fared in terms of the resources we have received from the state.
This is combined with the fact that there is a bubble created around certain communities. The state fairgrounds, they receive funds to make sure they don’t have issues with their water system. (University of Mississippi Medical Center) has its water towers to make sure they don’t have issues with water. And so, they insulate certain parts of our city to make sure they don’t see the challenges that the rest of our residents have to deal with.
Mississippi Today: You’ve used the term “paternalistic” for the legislative leadership’s view of Jackson. Is that a nicer way of saying something else?
Lumumba: Paternalistic. It’s racist, is that what y’all want to hear? (directed towards city staffers in the room during the interview) It’s racist. I wasn’t holding that back. It’s what it is. And there are going to be people who don’t like that I say that. But if they really have true heartburn about it, prove me wrong. I dare you. I dare you to prove me wrong.
… To say the things that I’m saying I know does not make me popular among certain crowds, right? But I’m not here to be popular, or even to have, you know, friendships and relationships. It’d be nice to have friendships and relationships. I’m a pretty nice guy. But that isn’t my aim. My aim is to represent my people.