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Winter surprised' at Republican candidates

By By Georgia E. Frye / staff writer
Aug. 31, 2003
Former Gov. William Winter has strong opinions about what he thinks Mississippi needs and doesn't need to make progress.
Winter, a Democrat, was governor of Mississippi from 1980-84. He then ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate against Republican incumbent Thad Cochran, and has maintained a keen interest in state issues over the years.
What Mississippi needs, Winter said, is to establish a prekindergarten program that will benefit economically disadvantaged students. What Mississippi doesn't need is to make race a deciding factor in state politics.
Winter sat down with The Meridian Star's editorial board last week while he was in town to speak at graduation ceremonies for Leadership Lauderdale.
The Meridian Star: How do you think Gary Anderson, running for state treasurer, and Barbara Blackmon, running for lieutenant governor, will fair in the general election? Do you think that they can find enough support among white Democrats to win the offices?
William Winter: I hope so. I think the state has a opportunity this year, regardless of partisanship, to make a huge statement for the elimination of race as a factor in state politics.
By anybody's judgment, both Barbara Blackmon and Gary Anderson are highly qualified candidates and they both have outstanding academic backgrounds and a lot of experience in state government.
You can't disqualify them on the basis that they don't have the qualifications for those offices. I hope people will take the opportunity this year to look at what kind of statement it could make for the state, that we are now putting race behind us, as far as judging people for political office. It may not be easy.
The Star: I don't recall last time we had more than one black person on a statewide ballot. I can't remember if we've had any black Democrats or Republicans who actually made it to the general election and had a shot in office.
Winter: No significant candidates, no candidates that were given a chance to be elected. Of course we've had independents running, like Charles Ellis in 1971, when Bill Wall was elected.
The Star: But nobody carrying the party banner?
Winter: He ran as an independent. This is the first time in the Democratic party, which is where most black voters find their homes. This is the first time the Democratic party has nominated, in a fair and open contest, candidates for state office.
The Star: Why has it taken so long for the Democrats to finally come along and nominate two very qualified people to run for these offices in the general elections?
Winter: Because we have contested primaries. Unlike the Republicans, we don't just say we want you to run for this office, we put the candidates out there and let them fight it out.
This is the first time we've ever had a wide-open contested race for statewide office in a primary of either party, where we have nominated two well-qualified black candidates.
To answer the question of why it has taken so long, you have to answer the question: Why is it taking us so long to get race out of the equation generally in Mississippi politics? Why are we seeing Haley Barbour claim the race card already or Amy Tuck claim the race card already. I hope we can eliminate that as a factor in this election.
The Star: Is that what is going on when Barbour talks about, "Do you want the ticket with me and Amy Tuck, or do you want the ticket with Barbara Blackmon and Ronnie Musgrove?"
Winter: Of course it is.
The Star: Are you surprised at that?
Winter: I really was. I must tell you I was. And I hope that is the last time we hear it. Because we deserve better than that. I told my wife this is 1967 all over again. It's time we got past that.
The Star: You say you see yourself as an unapologetic Democrat. Are you a die-hard Democrat all the way?
Winter: I'm a philosophical Democrat.
The Star: Are there any Republicans you could vote for?
Winter: Sure, absolutely.
The Star: Any that you can think of off the top of your head?
Winter: There are some local candidates I might vote for, but I have not made that decision. I'm pretty much a yellow dog Democrat, but I do separate out candidates that I think are not worthy of holding an office.
The Star: When you look back on the 20 years since you were in office, how has Mississippi changed? What is the biggest change you've seen in this state that our elected officials can play a role in crafting and changing?
Winter: Well, I think the continuing recognition of the absolute vital importance of having education at the top of the agenda. We didn't have that before, and I think, except for Fordice, we've had it pretty much since then and in the Legislature for certain.
But, I think the recognition that the key to the ability of Mississippi to achieve parenting for the rest country is going to lie in its ability to achieve parenting educationally and we still have a long way to go on that and there are a lot of factors behind that problem.
The Star: The Educational Reform Act of 1982 came in when you were governor. Haven't we seen the first children graduate from high school since that educational reform went into place?
Winter: Yes.
The Star: Is the quality of graduates any different because of that today than they were 20 years ago? Tell us a little bit about your take on that and how the educational format has changed Mississippi.
Winter: The number of graduates is higher and I think recent testing indicates that the quality is higher, not dramatically higher, but you have to remember on these so-called test scores, a relatively smaller number of people were taking those tests back 20 years ago.
The bigger the pool, the larger the number of people who have minimal requirements are taking the tests. There hasn't been a great jump in ACT or SAT scores, but there has been a significant improvement.
What I think is maybe more important than just specific results measured in some sort of numbers has been the acknowledgement in the state that education is the most important factor in a person's life. We didn't have that before the Educational Reform Act. We just did not have that commitment to education from our citizens.
The Star: What was the mindset like in Mississippi, as far as education, when you were governor?
Winter: I ran for governor two times. I ran in 1967 and then in 1975; I made education my No. 1 issue and I was overwhelmingly defeated.
I asked a friend who won governor in Kentucky how he got elected governor when I got beat and he said, "What did you run on?" I said, "Education."
He said I had a rural state and education does not have a strong political constituency in either of our states. He ran on better-paying jobs for everybody. So in 1979, I ran on better-paying jobs for everybody and I diminished my focus on education and I was overwhelmingly elected.
The rest of the story is, education comes before better-paying jobs and that is what we were able to do in my administration develop that constituency in a very calculated way. By literally going all over the state and getting people together.