‘It All Starts With Education’: The JFP Interview With Jay Hughes

U.S. House Rep. Jay Hughes
• Party: Democrat
• Hometown: Oxford
• Age: 56
• Profession: Attorney
• Service: United States Army, First Cavalry Division
• Education: Business and Economics Degree from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.; juris doctorate from University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford
• Opponent: Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann
Photo by Ashton Pittman

U.S. House Rep. Jay Hughes • Party: Democrat • Hometown: Oxford • Age: 56 • Profession: Attorney • Service: United States Army, First Cavalry Division • Education: Business and Economics Degree from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La.; juris doctorate from University of Mississippi School of Law in Oxford • Opponent: Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann Photo by Ashton Pittman

On Aug. 24, Democratic Mississippi House Rep. Jay Hughes thought he had "struck gold" at an antique store in the southwest Mississippi town of Columbia, when he found a freshly wrapped moon pie and an RC Cola, a snack combination that was once widely popular and easy to find.

Hughes was in town for a meeting he had just had that day with a group of local teachers. Education is the No. 1 issue for Hughes, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor this year, who has taught in public schools himself. He has spent much of the past year traveling across the state, to towns big and small, listening to teachers 'concerns—among whom he has a sizable social-media following. So when he posted that he had found the prized snack on Facebook, a local teacher who had not been at the meeting left a comment.

"Oh, I wish I knew you were in town," she wrote. Hughes sent her a private message, and she asked when he was going back. He would be happy to adjust his schedule to stay in town a little longer and meet with her the next day, Hughes wrote. He did, meeting with her and several other local educators and community leaders for lunch at a local restaurant the next day.

The Democratic nominee, who says he "likes to keep a fluid schedule," adjusted it once more that day to make room for a long interview with the Jackson Free Press.

He talked about the conversations he has had with teachers and other Mississippians this year about the issues that keep them up at night—and how he hopes to address them. If he wins the election, he would have what is arguably the most powerful position in the state. Lieutenant governors not only have executive powers, but serve as president of the Mississippi Senate, giving them significant influence in deciding which bills make it to the governor's desk and which ones never even make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

Why run for this office?

This office of lieutenant governor gives me the greatest opportunity to influence public policy and allow policies that improve education, health care, roads and bridges for all 82 counties instead of just a few. I see the role of the lieutenant governor as actually representing the people because that's who elects the lieutenant governor and being transparent. Something that my opponent and current leadership have done is spend far too much time looking for headlines instead of solutions. And I don't care who gets the credit for a good bill that's passed, but it just needs to get passed so we can make a difference.

My grandma always used to say, 'If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got.' Well, we've always elected the next in line in Mississippi. I'm not the next in line. I'm not the establishment. And I would like to do something different.

Why are you so passionate about education?

It was a lifetime of experiences. You can't understand public education unless you've truly been in it and a part of it in a family. I grew up poor. Public education was the only opportunity I had it. It was the great equalizer. And I saw the difference it made for me ending up in the army, and then in college, and then in law school. Every single day of my entire education has been in a public-school classroom, and I think we have an obligation to the next generation to let their minds be the greatest they can be, and public education is that.

What are your ideas for improving public education?

Making it our No. 1 priority. It's strange to quote Haley Barbour as the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, but he said something in his State of the State speech in 2008 that echoed what Gov. William Winter said. And that is that public education is the single greatest economic-development investment we can make. It's the single greatest quality of life investment we can make. We need to start seeing public education as an investment, not as an expense.

Do you think fully funding it according to the Mississippi Adequate Education Program formula is enough?

It's an easy talking point. The reality is that there are many, many issues that need to be addressed. The first thing we need to do is show teachers and educators that we respected them. That's what it is. They're not fighting so much for money as they want respect. Because the politicians have held them out to be the bad guys are girls for too long. We need to have all the same resources for all schools.

When you underfund a school district in Rankin or DeSoto (counties) or even Oxford, the result is they have property taxes they raise and the schools go on without missing a beat. But in far too many of the counties, when they are underfunded for their school resources, there are no local taxes, and that just means the schools just have to do without. Fewer teachers, fewer field trips, older buses, and that just means children aren't getting the same opportunity to be the best they can be.

So I have developed a plan with the help of a whole lot of educators, current and former. It's called 2020 Vision in 2020. There is no single answer for how to fix it.

But how do you get that funding to the schools who need it?

Well, the first thing is, it's not equal funding for the schools. It's equal funding for the students to make sure they have the resources. And the MAEP model does need to have some modifications to take into consideration the higher cost it takes to educate a high-poverty student (or) those who are English-language learners, which we have throughout the state, and so there are some modifications to the formula that need to take place. We also need to get away from so much of the focus on standardized testing and revamp the grading system so it's not so punitive.


Mississippi House Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, says education is his No. 1 issue. Photo by Ashton Pittman

One of the ways we can also save a lot of money of course is to quit giving these secret giveaways—to quit taking public dollars and giving them to private schools. We need to stop giving $2.5 million to one lady to hang $3,000 worth of posters. To stop giving away $1.5 million to a single Weight Watchers franchise. There's no telling how many of those there are out there secretly eating at the trough while students and teachers get taken advantage of.

Is there any version of a voucher system that you would be OK with, such as one specifically for special needs schools?

In its current structure? No. Because the plan has always been, in the states that have entered in with the voucher programs, that's what they do first. You can watch what their plan in 11 other states. The first thing they do is offer vouchers for special-needs children, because how could you vote against that? Then they expand it to the poor or inner-city kids, the minorities, because how could you vote against them. And then once those two are complete, voila! It's vouchers for everybody in the state.

I worry about those who have been left behind. Because just because you have three or four children that leave a school, or just enough children that it's $100,000, that's $100,000 left from a school district. Not all of those children came from one classroom. The utility bills are the same. You still need the same number of teachers, buses, everything. So what we need to do is improve our public schools and put those that teach and do therapy for special-needs children in every school so that they don't need a voucher to go somewhere else.

What kinds of stories do you hear from teachers that really stick out? What kind of things do they tell you that people ought to know?

I think the most prominent thing I heard that stunned me was from a young lady who came to a testing committee hearing that we have last year. She was a graduate, went away to college, came back and was teaching. And she told a story, saying she was an emotional wreck with the pressure they put on her as a teacher and thinking of quitting. We put it on Facebook and it had more than 1.4 million views on it.

And so I called her back, and I asked her, if you could have anything you want for your school to make it better and funding weren't an issue, what would it be? And her answer was toilet paper in the girls' bathrooms. And I was caught off guard.

And I said, what's the second thing? And she said, "Soap, in the sinks." It's like Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. When you're worried about the basic things, it's hard to get them to focus on education.

The third thing that I hear the most of and the saddest is how many hours they are working per day, because their day starts before the average mom and dad, it ends after that, and then they have to go home and be a mom or spouse or a grandparent, and a lot of them have other jobs on top of that. It's sad to hear how many jobs teachers work just because they love teaching. And I wish more people realized that when I hear those who don't like public schools say, "Well, they only work have a day half a year." Because it's a lie and it's an insult.

You know, one thing I do want to add is that there are too many special interests who have paid several million dollars aggregate to my opponent, to current leadership, and they (get) their pet bills brought in when they're not helping 3 million Mississippians—they're helping one donor. They're also passing bills that, in my opinion, are just for headlines in this way. When you ask, 'What is it that we do to stop the brain drain or the generational drain?' We've got to start passing bills that say, 'We want you here' instead of, 'You're not welcome here.' There are too many bills that—actions speak louder than words.

At the entrance of the Interstate, we have signs that say, 'Welcome to Mississippi.' But so many of the bills that we pass say, "Welcome to Mississippi, kinda." That's not a welcoming environment. That's not going to attract business and industry. They don't come into a state and say, "First, we want to know where you stand on religion and social issues." What they want to know is, "Do you have skilled workers? How are you pubic schools? How is your access to roads and bridges?" That's it.

Beyond solving the teacher crisis and raising pay to help with that, how do you attract people to the teaching profession and to areas where more teachers are needed?

It's going to take a host of different things. First and foremost, it's going to take respect. It's going to take pay. It's going to take incentive pay, that's already happening in some areas, to attract them. But we've got to start investing in those communities as well, instead of just one $265-million plant in the speaker's home district. Think of if we had spent that same amount of money investing in Main Street in 100 different cities throughout. Because it's hard to attract someone to teach in a community that lost its only hospital and its only grocery store that sold produce.

We can't keep letting those towns die. We've got to make them not just survive, but thrive. They've got to have internet access in these communities. You can't attract young people who have been away and who spend all day on an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy and put them in a place where there's no cellphone signal.

It's not going to happen. We have to grow with the rest of the nation.

Across the state, rural hospitals have been closing in recent years, and we have heard stories about people dying because they couldn't get to a hospital in time. Experts say our refusal to expand Medicaid is a big part of that. Where do you stand?

Well, I've been crystal clear on it. Since my mom is one of those who died in the back of an ambulance while on the way to a hospital a few miles too far, we need Medicaid reform. Exactly. Period. It will save the community hospitals, which we desperately need instead of just a network of three or four major hospitals in the state. There will be a billion dollars a year brought into Mississippi without a single taxpayer dollar being spent.

And you're looking at 16,000 to 20,000 more jobs. It's frustrating for me to watch leadership day-after-day after day beg for the headlines and brag and get a golden shovel and say, 'Look, they're building a new building on a college campus.' They're getting all these federal dollars. And they love them. But when it comes time to accept a single dollar to save a human being's life, they don't want that money. I just passionately disagree with that.

The federal courts have ruled that Mississippi is violating the rights of those with mental illness, in part through over-institutionalization and even jail time in place of adequate community treatment options.

It is. My second biggest point behind public education is addressing mental illness and addiction. Those are major, major issues. I've been 80,000 miles. I've knocked on doors. And neither of those conditions discriminate between rich and poor, Democrat or Republican, white or black. Mental illness is very serious. It's impacted my family as has addiction. And that doesn't make me unique. What makes me unique is that I'm willing to talk about it. There's not a day that goes by that I don't talk to someone who either has a family member with addiction or a serious mental disorder—or who has buried one.


Mississippi state Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, 2019 Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, spoke and listened to Lamar County teachers at a town-hall event at the Movie Star Restaurant in Hattiesburg on May 13, 2019. Photo by Ashton Pittman

A couple of weeks ago I was in the east part of the state knocking on doors in a very rural area, and a woman opened the door. I introduced myself and said, 'My name is Jay Hughes, and I'm running for lieutenant governor, and I'd like to know what's important to you.' And she broke out crying. Her son was 37 years old, had a carpentry job, and got injured. They buried him from a heroin overdose not but a few months before that. Sadly, there are too many elected officials who believe addiction is a choice and reject all medical science that says it is an addiction, and that 7% of the population will react differently when you give them the same drug, and they will never recover.

And as much as I would like to think you could pray it away, it's proven that that does not work. It may help, but it doesn't cure it. We are ending up with far too many people who are mentally ill and addicted—many of whom are mentally ill and use a substance to cope with or self-medicate their mental illness. And they end up in jail. And about half of the people in our jail or prison population suffer from mental illness or addiction. And incarcerating them does not fix either one of those things. So we've got to address it. We need better community resources available—a community mental health system as well as a state one.

What do you support doing to make the Legislature more transparent?

I would like to say that no bill can be taken up by any committee unless the agenda for the committee is posted at least 24 hours before a meeting and that it's posted online what the bills are for that committee meeting, period. And on conference reports, we should do something that has a minimal number of hours that a bill must be given to House members and to the public before it can be voted on so that we don't end up with just 23 minutes to read a bill before voting. There needs to be a return to formal hearings, not just shams. When an education committee takes up three bills in three minutes, that's not a hearing. We need to invite stakeholders in and have them hear it and discuss it.

What we're operating under now is a shroud of secrecy. Right now, what they do is they ram these through so that nobody can question them, and what that means is that the lobbyists who want them passed are getting them passed with as little resistance as possible.

You claim Secretary Hosemann is more dangerous and ideological than Tate Reeves. What are some examples of that? Hosemann supports some form of Medicaid expansion, which Tate Reeves is completely against. And unlike Reeves, he says he opposes expanding private-school vouchers and supports a more targeted version of the current special-needs school-voucher program.

Well, he's for business courts as opposed to circuit courts. He wants to reframe our court system, so that if you sue a business it only goes to a business court where only judges hear it that are interested in business. 
(Reporter's Note: Hosemann has not taken this position in the campaign, but Leah Rupp Smith, his communications director, said his office did take part in a 2008 study on the possibility of convening "a special court to handle complex business-related litigation" that would not have included "torts or personal injury," but "no legislation was filed.")

And he's big on vouchers. And you can say that it's for special needs and, "I love special needs more than you love special needs." And that's a cheap shot. The reality is, I was in special ed. and I have family members who are on the spectrum. I'm not going to get into that debate. I do care about those children. But the difference is, I don't take donations from Empower like Delbert Hosemann did. I don't take donations from the private school that is the largest recipient of vouchers in the state (New Resources Learning Center) like he did.

Should the Legislature be open to public records, and why or why not?

Absolutely. I file that bill every year. There's no excuse for it not to be. You would be able to learn who is paying for which legislator. You would learn who is really behind which bills. You would start seeing bills passed that helped people instead of private companies, one at a time. You would see bills die that needed to die. Transparency is a great cure for dark funding.

What are your ideas for funding infrastructure and what projects should we prioritize?

The lottery funding going to roads and bridges was merely a ruse. It does not accomplish anything except it got political headlines. I don't think we'll ever reach $180 million when you're the last one to do it. That money should've gone toward education just like in every other state that has done it.

As much as you are going to hate it, and there can be some kind of offset somewhere, it's got to be a fuel tax increase to cover it. These roads and bridges are not going to attract any new industry here. And if you think about the last big projects—Toyota, Yokohama, Continental, Nissan—the very first thing that every single one of them did was rework the roads and bridges and access to each of those. So that tells you right there, that's what business and industry wants. So any community that does not have good roads and bridges, it's telling business and industry: we're not ready for you.

Why did you break with the 
majority of your party and vote for the new fetal heartbeat law that bans abortions after six months, and what would you say to people in your own party who say that it makes them less likely to vote 
for you?

I would tell them that I respect their opinion. I voted for it because I voted my conscience. I'm pro-life, but I'm pro-entire-life. Which means I respect the life of the mother. We need to deal with the fact that we have the highest infant-mortality rate, we need to deal with equal pay, education, health care access—all of these things need to be dealt with. There's a big difference between being pro-birth and being pro-life.

So I would say I voted my conscience, but this is an issue that Republicans use to divide Democrats. The only one who is going to make a decision on that is the U.S. Supreme Court, so that's where their concern needs to be. You're not going to agree with me on every single issue, and if you ever do find someone you agree with on every single issue, then one of you is not being genuine. I respect everyone's view. I just had to vote my conscience the same way I did before when it came up.

House Rep. Missy McGee, the only Republican who voted against it, said sheis pro-life but could not support it because it does not include exceptions for rape, incest or severe fetal deformities. Would you have changed that bill to add exceptions? Would you require that any future abortion legislation include those exceptions?

We did make amendments to try to add those to it. I don't know if you could pass something more restrictive than what we have, so I think it's time for the Legislature to focus on the issues that we have and we know about, like the highest infant mortality rate, last place in education, roads and bridges, access to health care—all of these things. We spent so much time, when there were already other bills being passed in other states, I didn't have time to decide what bills got brought up. But when it got brought up, I had to vote my conscience.

What are your thoughts on mass incarceration in the state and how we reform our prison system?

Non-violent offenders become a burden to society even when they get out if we're not focused on rehabilitating them, too. That's what the Department of Corrections actually means. But we're not rehabilitating. We're warehousing people. That's it. We're also warehousing those with mental illness and addiction and doing nothing to cure that, so when they get out, they circle right back in. I'm opposed to this private prison industry. You shouldn't be making a profit or doing victory laps off of prisoners or incarcerated citizens.

Any final thoughts?

That I found out when I ran that, actually, I lived in a bubble. And I think everyone lives in one. We tend to surround ourselves with people and things we're comfortable with, and having been 80,000 miles now and visited everywhere that there is imaginable. I've learned that we all want a better Mississippi, we all want our kids to do well, we all love our own town, and we're all proud. And everyone wants to work if you give them a chance. I've really learned that. Nobody wants to not work. And so what I want to say is thank you, because this has been the greatest education of a lifetime for me. This is amazing.

And It all starts with education.

The election is on Nov. 5, 2019. Any Mississippian who registered by Oct. 7 can vote, but must bring an accepted form of voter ID when they go to the ballot box. Those without a photo ID can obtain one for free from their county clerk. For more information, go to voterid.ms.gov. Send story tips to [email protected].

Questionnaire Excerpts: GOP Nominee Delbert Hosemann


Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a candidate for lieutenant governor, appeared in Hattiesburg for a campaign rally on Jan. 10, 2019. Photo by Ashton Pittman

The Republican nominee for lieutenant governor did not make himself available for a JFP interview on issues he supports. These answers are from his candidate questionnaire he returned before the Republican primary. Read full answers at jfp.ms/hosemann.

Mississippi is near the bottom when it comes to health-care coverage and outcomes. What's your plan to change that?

Moving Mississippi forward requires us to take action now to ensure every citizen has access to high-quality healthcare. We must incentivize healthcare providers to live and work in our rural communities. This includes strengthening team-based and collaborative care agreements between physicians, nurses, and nurse practitioners, and funding rural scholarship and residency programs for healthcare professionals at all levels.

We must also shore up our rural hospitals by considering and evaluating healthcare reform solutions implemented in other states with no net impact on the state budget. Additionally, I support emphasizing wellness and preventive care. Access to good healthcare should not start with an emergency room visit, but in the event of an emergency, no Mississippians should be 30 minutes from a facility equipped to provide necessary treatment.

How will you address Mississippi's teacher shortage and education funding crisis?

We have heard from educators all over the state about the significant impact the teacher shortage is having on all Mississippi school districts, and we support immediate action to remedy it. This includes reexamining licensing requirements, including the current 21 ACT requirement to receive credentials; incentivizing retired teachers to return to the classroom full-time; and funding the Mississippi Teacher Loan Repayment Program, which incentivizes students to choose to teach in critical shortage areas after graduation.

In terms of MAEP, fully funding our public schools is a goal we will and must move toward. Public schools educate more than 90 percent of our children. Our State's future depends on the success of our public schools. Some necessary funds can be acquired by cutting unnecessary earmarks in appropriations bills, increasing efficiency in state government, eliminating duplication in state-funded efforts, and moving education to our top priority.

What is your stance on using public-school funds to pay for private-school vouchers?

I do not support diverting more funding from public schools to private education. I do support fully funding special-education services for our public schools. Our special-education teachers are saints, and we need to support them.

Every child in special education is legally entitled to educational services which meet his or her needs. If a school cannot provide the level of services a child is entitled to, the child should be able to attend another public school with programs equipped to serve the child. If another public school cannot provide necessary services, the child should be able to attend a school qualified to provide such services, provided there are accountability measures attached to state money received. Qualified schools should not include private schools without special education services, or without the specific services the child needs, home schools, day-care programs, or any other similar school or situation.

Every teacher I have talked to has said the emphasis in policy should be on the well-being and education of the child. I agree.

Where do you stand when it comes to our state's reliance on private prisons? Do you have any plans for criminal-justice reform?

We need a wholesale evaluation of our corrections system, from the cost of housing incarcerated persons in private prisons versus state facilities to staffing concerns, including severe shortages, under compensation, and lack of training. ... Our workforce development plans must include providing our prison populations with employable skills and transition services. Helping those exiting the prison system find meaningful employment is proven to reduce recidivism rates, which saves taxpayer money, makes our communities safer, and strengthens families.


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