(Courtesy of the Starkville Free Press. Originally posted on 02/24/2014.)
On a sunny Thursday morning, Mayor Parker Wiseman hustled into Starkville City Hall, dressed in a black suit, donning his signature spectacles that cover his blue eyes.
Two days before, he had moderated an emotionally charged Starkville Board of Aldermen meeting – a gathering that left two people in tears and generated audible gasps from the audience following an exchange between Wiseman and Ward 2 Alderman Lisa Wynn.
Four weeks ago, Wiseman, along with the board, passed a groundbreaking anti-discrimination resolution that made Starkville the first city in the state to recognize LGBT equality. A day later, Brandon Jones, chair of the Mississippi Democratic Trust, asked him to give the State of the State Democratic response to Gov. Phil Bryant’s address. In his response, he expressed his visions toward a progressive Mississippi.
“How are you all today?” the mayor asked in a surprisingly booming voice to Starkville Free Press photographer Andrew Yerger and me as we waited for our appointment in the reception area.
I’m fine, I thought to myself, but I was there to find out how he was. What was the mayor of a seemingly progressive college town like Starkville up to these days?
What do you think surprised you most about the Board of Aldermen meeting this Tuesday?
It really wasn’t that surprising to me. I knew we had a tough agenda. You can’t predict exactly how a meeting is going to go when it gets sideways, but I knew we were going to have a sideways meeting.
What surprises you the most about being mayor in general?
You know, the thing that is probably most difficult about the job that I did find somewhat surprising is just how much dissatisfaction that this job has to be an instrument of. And obviously, my goal and why I pursued this is to be an instrument of satisfaction. Improved quality of life for citizens of Starkville. It’s very gratifying when we achieve that, but the reality is, there is no way to do this job without disappointing people on a daily basis. That, I guess, has surprised me in terms of how frequent of an occurrence that is. It’s the thing I struggle with the most.
How do you think you’ve satisfied people so far as a mayor?
Well, I think, Starkville is a community that’s on the rise right now. I think that’s attributable to a number of factors. Certainly your quality of life is becoming the envy of other cities around the state. You know, pushing issues like walkability and bikeability relentlessly. That’s not something every city is willing to do and every city’s leaders are willing to do. But it is something that we value as important here, and it’s not always easy promoting that as has been demonstrated by countless policy debates we’ve had, both over funding and over bike and walk infrastructure and policies that require that building of bike and walk infrastructure. That’s one example of how doing it the right way over time, I believe, does pay off because we are more of an exception rather than the rule in that regard.
I feel like we’ve made tremendous strides with our industrial recruitment strategy. Of course, Starkville and Oktibbeha County are a part of the Golden Triangle link now, and that was something that we put together last year. That is the first totally regionally funded and regionally comprehensive industrial development in the state. There have been some regional alliances that have been put together that were project specific, but no other region has been able to come together and say, “Hey, we think it benefits all of us when we’re able to get industrial development anywhere within our region, and we believe so wholeheartedly in that principle that we are going to combine everything and do it together.” I think that’s proven a very successful venture so far.
Of course, over the last year, you had the biggest industrial-development announcement of the year in Clay County: Yokohama Tire Corporation. In Oktibbeha County, we saw more new industrial-development activity last year probably than we’ve seen over the last decade. Everybody has benefitted from that relationship. I think it’s a model for other regions throughout the state.
I know another thing that’s been pretty satisfying for a lot of Starkville citizens is the anti-discrimination resolution. Why did you help to get this resolution passed?
You know, this is an interesting story. Actually, this came about as a suggestion from our chief administrative officer, Taylor Adams. He wasn’t necessarily suggesting this for the purpose of breaking new ground so much as he was suggesting it as a means of facilitating the more competitive grant applications for the city and federal programs. He worked previously at (Mississippi State University) prior to coming to the city. The university has almost the exact same policy (as the anti-discrimination resolution) for years, so that’s something he was familiar with. So, working in federal programs as he does with the city, you know, he said, “Grants often will reward having the broadest possible statement of nondiscrimination. It would be beneficial for us if we could adopt a very broad, all-encompassing statement of nondiscrimination. And a good model, or a place to start, is the policy that the university has adopted.”
Now, I knew because the policy included the LGBT community that it was going to generate some publicity. I would not have predicted that it was going to generate as much publicity as it did because that’s probably one of the top two or three most significant media events we’ve had since I’ve been doing this, from an external standpoint. It was covered nationally, which was really gratifying. You know, the fact that Starkville was in the news outside of Starkville, and we were being praised for breaking new ground from a nondiscrimination standpoint. I don’t think it’s ever anything but a great day for your community when members of the press and advocacy organizations are praising your community for being an environment that tolerates all people and does not tolerate discrimination in any form whatsoever. It turned out to be a really, really positive development for us.
I just read that Hattiesburg was the second city to pass the resolution. Why do you think it’s so important to pass these kinds of resolutions? I don’t know if they did it for federal grants, but do you think they had other intentions?
I can’t speak to what the driving force behind Hattiesburg’s adoption was but, you know, it’s important for cities to create climates of inclusivity. Having strong nondiscrimination statements is one thing that cities can do to show we’re a tolerant place. I guess one of the reasons it’s important–besides that it’s the right thing to do–is it’s good for the long-term health and vitality of the city. One of the most widely published books of the last decade about the success and failure of cities in the United States is (Richard Florida’s) “Rise of the Creative Class.” It’s become a book that city leaders are looking to to advance their cities everywhere. They have it on their must-read list.
One of the first things that the author puts forward as premise is that cities that are succeeding in the 21stcentury are cities that are able to attract what he calls the “Three Ts.” And that’s talent, technology and tolerance. Stated simply, having low entry barriers to your community. Having new residents in your community (and) having new businesses interested in your communities is a huge advantage to cities who are looking to grow and prosper. We in Starkville want to be perceived as such a city.
Do you know of any other cities besides Hattiesburg that will pass a resolution like this? Do you think it will start a reaction?
I don’t know. Typically, once a city has blazed a trail on an issue like this, it does become easier for other cities to follow. I know another experience Starkville has had in the recent past was being the first major city in the state to adopt a smoke-free workplaces ordinance. That was hugely controversial at the time, and not long after Starkville adopted that ordinance, several other cities around the state followed. In the years since then, that has become a common ordinance for most cities of reasonable size all over the state to adopt.
I don’t know if the development of this will be similar. I’m certainly encouraged to see Hattiesburg adopt a resolution of their own. One thing that will be interesting to see is how this translates in communities that are not college towns throughout the state because certainly one commonality between Starkville and Hattiesburg is both having the influence of a large university in their community. You just can never tell over time how an issue is going to change. We’ve got at least one other city that’s gone there, and frankly, I would be surprised if five years from now, Starkville and Hattiesburg were the only two cities that had done it.
How do you plan to implement the resolution? Do you have a plan of action to ensure nondiscrimination?
Sure. Since we adopted the resolution, I have been through Safe Zone training on campus, and they have offered resources out there to help with additional city staff in the future. That’s something that I’m definitely intrigued by. It’s just been a couple of weeks. I’m not at the point that I can tell you, “Yes, this is something we’re going to do, and it’s exactly how we’re going to do it.” But I do believe we stated what our ideals are through policy, and we do have to be able to follow through in instilling that in our city work culture. That’s something we will work to do.
Mississippi has anti-gay rights laws. How, with the current state of Mississippi’s laws, does this resolution fit in with those laws?
You know, I would like to see Mississippi adopt an all-encompassing non-discrimination law similar to this. I think it’s the right thing to do. But currently this state doesn’t have one. It does differ in that respect; however, I don’t think throughout the state of Mississippi there are any credible advocates of discrimination in any form.
Some people have been saying that you might be on track for a higher position in politics after you gave the State of the State Democratic response. What do you think of the notion that you are the future of Mississippi’s Democratic Party?
It’s flattering anybody would say that. Right now, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. I don’t know if that’ll be the case four years from now when I have to decide to run for re-election, but I’ve worked enough jobs that I wasn’t crazy about, and I didn’t find very inspiring. To know you have a job that inspires you and that you truly look forward to everyday, that’s something special. And that’s what I have right now. For the time being, I’m not looking to do anything different.
What do you think the future of the Democratic Party in Mississippi should be?
I think the future is bright for the Democratic Party in Mississippi. Now, obviously the Democratic Party in Mississippi has a lot of work to do. We currently only have one statewide elected officer, and we don’t have a majority in either house of the Legislature. But long term, demographic changes in Mississippi are absolutely a part of potential strength of the Democratic Party. Forty percent of Mississippi’s residents are now minority, and the minority population is growing faster than the white population. The reality is, in politics, that is going to benefit Democrats over the long haul because Democrats tend to have an advantage with minority voters.
So, if that trend continues over time, there comes a point where just on the basic demographic numbers of the state, it’s hard not to envision a competitive Democratic Party that will begin to win seats in government that it’s currently not winning. How long that takes, I don’t know. The party organization has to be there. Fundraising has to be easier than it is now because right now it’s not easy at all to raise money as a Democrat, and a lot of that has to do with viability. Fundraising is difficult when potential donors don’t think you can win a race. I anticipate over my lifetime that the Democratic Party in Mississippi will occupy many more seats in the state government that it currently has.
How are you planning to work for the Democratic Party?
Well, I am here to assist the Democratic Party in anyway that they ask. I am a lifelong Democrat myself. I believe that the principles of the Democratic Party offer the best opportunity for advancement to the most number of people. I am here to advance that in anyway I can.
Can you tell me about any specific goals for advancement? Are you planning on having any more resolutions passed?
My job right now is to advance the general health and well-being of my community. That’s what we work very hard to do, and I’ll continue to do that in every way I possibly can.
What do you think the Democratic Party can do to attract voters, especially young voters or younger candidates?
Demographically, that’s another advantage the Democratic Party has right now. Voters in Mississippi under the age of 30 are much more likely to be supportive of Democratic candidates than voters over the age of 30. I think part of that is the types of policies that Democrats naturally promote. The younger generation is less resistant to the notion of change. Younger people, in general, and I believe this holds in our state as well, get more excited about the opportunity to change the future for the better. It is the Democratic Party that is most inclined to lead that change in the future.
Some of the Democrats have been criticized for being faux-Republicans, and that doesn’t seem to win many elections. What would you do to change this habit?
I’m a big-tent party guy. Unless somebody is, I guess, actively working only for an interest that is against the party, I think party politics, internally, if you are doing it right, it’s going to be messy. The reality is to be successful in the future. As Democrats in Mississippi, we need the person that considers himself a moderate or conservative Democrat just as much as we need the person that considers himself a liberal Democrat. If that moderate or conservative Democrat crosses party lines from time to time, that’s just a reality of where we are. I would rather that person say that they are Democratic than say they are a Republican because we are in a much stronger position to have a conversation about party values that matters if we can ever get to the point where we are winning majorities in the House and Senate or winning statewide offices again. You don’t get there by being a party that is exclusive to one particular point of view.
Back to Tuesday’s meeting, what is your stance on the current sidewalk ordinance?
I think if you truly have the aspiration of being a walkable community, as a city government you have to be able to do a couple of things. First of all, you have to be able to invest public funds in improving the sidewalk infrastructure. That’s something we have done, and we will continue to do. I’d like to see more public investment in sidewalks in the future.
But in addition to that, there has to be some mandate for sidewalk provision in the development process. If there’s not, as the city develops, it will develop more infrastructure without sidewalk connectivity. Even your public investment is less likely to keep up if you are truly trying to be a comprehensive walkable community. That’s what this debate is all about. I think there are avenues for making our sidewalk ordinance a better ordinance without gutting that principle. I’m encouraged by the discussion I’ve seen from the board at this time on how that can be done. I do think the board can find common ground on this issue, and we can maintain that objective.
How has the ordinance affected beautification, pedestrian traffic and business development?
This ordinance was adopted in 2009, and there is no such thing as perfect ordinance. This was a new ordinance that created a mandate that hadn’t existed before, and there have been a couple of changes already to the ordinance that made it a better ordinance than when it was adopted. I’m hopeful that future changes can be made to make it an even better ordinance. I believe it’s an ordinance that contributes to growth and development in the community because it gives us a quality-of-life advantage.
The quality of life translates into other positive trends that we are seeing such as being one of the fastest-growing cities by population in the state, having sales tax growth which is a barometer for local economic activity that is exceeding that of both our peers in the region and our peers throughout the state, tourism spending; (Starkville is) one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the state. All our economic signs are positive, and they have become more positive since we started focusing heavily on quality-of-life issues. I do believe those two things are related.
What needs to be done to stop the brain drain out of Mississippi? What would you say to people who wanted to leave Mississippi whom we need to stay and help advance our cities?
Cities are a huge part of that. Young people that are bright and talented, and millennials are now more than ever before looking for places where they want to live first. Those environments are created by cities, by and large. The markets that we are probably competing for to retain our talent more than any others are the metropolitan areas that surround us–Nashville, Birmingham, Memphis, Dallas, Atlanta. We don’t have a large metropolitan market like that. Jackson is the only metropolitan area, and it’s much smaller than many of those areas.
What we’ve got is a collection of small and midsize communities that can offer fantastic lifestyles for a young professional who is looking for a place to live. Small-town charm has advantages that can’t be achieved in those areas. A big part in winning the future and retaining young talent in Mississippi is for our collection of small, midsize or even our larger communities to create a quality-of-life experience that makes somebody of that profile want to stay in the state. Because if you offer that opportunity, I believe they will.
Can you tell me something about yourself that most people don’t know?
As an elected official, there are very few things people don’t know about you. Your life tends to be an open book. … My wife and I absolutely love to go to the movies. We probably see more movies in a year at the movie theater than the average 10 households.
What’s the last movie you saw?
We saw five over Christmas break. We’ve got kids now. We’ve got one and one on the way, so it makes it harder to go to the movies, but around the holidays, we have babysitters. We kind of binge the movies during the holidays. We saw “American Hustle,” “Wolf of Wall Street.” Maybe it’s a sign, I’m getting older, but it was a little too much for me.