A governor and a prospective governor spoke one week ago about Mississippi’s capital city and its ongoing water crisis.
The contrast was striking.
“I’ve got to tell you, it’s a great day to be in Hattiesburg. It’s also, as always, a great day to not be in Jackson,” Gov. Tate Reeves said Sept. 17 at an economic development event. “I got to take off my emergency management director hat and leave it in the car and take off my public works director hat and leave it in the car.”
A few hours before the governor made the comment that made national news, Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, a potential 2023 challenger of Reeves, sat for an extended interview with Mississippi Today about Jackson’s water woes.
“I’m a Mississippian, and we should all be concerned about it because it’s our capital city and this ain’t the signal we ought to be sending the entire country,” Presley said Sept. 17 on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. “The blame game’s gotta quit, it’s gotta stop. And we’ve got to get to a point in which we say we got this fixed, got this behind us.”
The contrast in leadership styles between the two runs deeper than just their public comments. While Reeves continues taking shots at Jackson city leaders and the city’s residents living through a continuing crisis, Presley is meeting with principal officials to discuss long-term solutions.
Presley, a Democrat who represents north Mississippi, has met with key Democrats with a major stake in the water crisis, including Congressman Bennie Thompson and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. Presley, according to sources in those meetings, has offered up resources from the Public Service Commission to expedite and support proposed plans.
The Democrat is also leveraging some key relationships he’s built over the years with legislative Republicans. Presley, who in his 15 years on the Public Service Commission has gotten numerous bills passed with the blessing and support of Republicans, has met several times in recent weeks with top GOP legislative leaders about Jackson water crisis solutions.
“Haley Barbour used to say, ‘Good policy is good politics.’ And that’s the truth,” Presley said on the podcast. “Everybody can come out of this looking like judicious, leaderful statesmen if we do this in a manner that is respectful across the board but understanding it’s got to be results-oriented. And let’s not be dishonest in our jargon, let’s not be dishonest in our plans. Let’s talk about practical solutions.
“You cannot say you’re going to ignore Congressman Thompson, ignore city government, or even ignore state government,” Presley continued. “None of that’s gonna work. We can’t take that attitude and expect to build public confidence. It’s gotta be built to get through this mess.”
Meanwhile, Reeves has not been in meetings about long-term solutions with Republicans at the Capitol, with Thompson, or with Lumumba.
Reeves deserves credit for leading both the state’s effort to get the city’s water pressure restored after the system failed on Aug. 27 and getting the state-issued boil water notice lifted a few days later. In the early days of the crisis, he went out of his way to not be critical of the city or its leadership.
But search “Tate Reeves water crisis” on Google today. You wouldn’t know he led any positive, helpful effort. He’s negated his good work with political belligerence and petty backtalk.
Throughout the crisis, Reeves gave major updates to the public without first communicating with the mayor, leaving the many Jacksonians desperate for basic information with conflicting accounts of what was being done on the ground. Reeves’ staff, with his apparent blessing, went out of their way to exclude the mayor from their response efforts.
“We have not invited city politicians to these substantive state press conferences on our repairs, because they occur to provide honest information about the state’s work,” a Reeves staffer tweeted during the height of the crisis. Reeves retweeted that message from his own account.
When Reeves announced that the state’s boil water notice had been lifted, he was asked why the city’s reports didn’t jive with state reports. Reeves responded, plainly: “I don’t read the city’s daily reports, and I don’t think you should, either.” Meanwhile, Jacksonians to this day are left trying to decipher for themselves which information they can trust.
Presley, in the podcast interview, said that Mississippians he’s talked with — even in north Mississippi — just want results for the state’s capital city.
“People I drink coffee with in Nettleton want to see Jackson thrive, they want to see the water system up, they want to know what they’re gonna have for supper tonight, and they want to know if Nettleton is gonna beat Caledonia at 7 o’clock,” Presley said last week. “And they expect state leaders to stand up and make those things happen, and I think that’s what we’ve got to get to. It involves engagement, though.”
“It’s all about relationships and trust,” Presley said. “… I think any idea that you’re going to have a conversation about Jackson’s water issues without respectfully engaging city leadership of Jackson, Congressman Thompson, the governor, lieutenant governor, and others is out the window. We’ve got to, as much as possible, pop that ego … Ego is the enemy of politics in these situations. If we don’t get rid of it, we’re going to be back in the same shape again.”
Presley continued: “This is a chance for Mississippi to get this right.”