Jay Hughes has more energy than any ten people I know. Anyone who lives in Oxford knows who Jay is. How so? Jay is often in two places at the same time… a continuous man in motion. HottyToddy.com’s contributor Steve Vassallo caught up with Hughes on the campaign trail for Lt. Governor, long enough to ask a few questions.
Vassallo: Jay, before we jump into the race for Lt. Governor, please share with our readers a little about your background.
Hughes: Thanks, Steve. My background is similar to too many Mississippians. I was born into a poor, working class family where everyone worked hard and we still struggled to get ahead. I started selling garden seeds and “Grit” newspapers door-to-door when I was 10. After that, I worked every single job from janitor to warehouse. I worked many different jobs over the years to help buy things as simple as school clothes but didn’t understand then the priceless lessons it taught me in life. After I graduated from high school, I worked a while in construction and then for an oilfield company before volunteering for the Army. That one decision took me around the world and forever changed my future. My military service was followed by college, night and weekend jobs, law school and then starting my own real estate firm in Oxford.
Vassallo: Your professional life has had a number of twists and turns….all positive we might add.
Hughes: The sum of my business and professional experiences have been positive. But there were also failures along the way. Fortunately the good outcomes outweighed the bad. My dad always said it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with so many different business opportunities, from construction to cars, and restaurants to real estate law. My dad worked relentlessly and never got ahead. Education is what made the difference for me.
Vassallo: Is it correct that you met your lovely wife Cris at Ole Miss?
Hughes: Yes. We met at a crawfish boil some mutual friends were having one Sunday afternoon during my last year of school. Our first date was supposed to be to an MSU/Ole Miss baseball game. But, that got rained out. We ended up meeting at the Gin for a first date. A couple of years later we got married on the opening day of duck season in 1993, and are celebrating our 25 wedding anniversary this year.
Vassallo: When did you first become interested in politics?
Hughes: I don’t know that I am “interested” in politics even today. My business history in Mississippi taught me how hard it was to get qualified employees and keep them. It was different depending on the school district and region, but I knew the common answer was that it all started with education, long before they would enter the workforce. So, I ran for office to fight for better public education, letting the teachers get back to teaching, and knowing that public education was the single greatest economic investment we could make in Mississippi to reduce poverty and the brain drain, and attract employers with qualified candidates. So, I guess the answer is that I was interested in was finding a way to get to Jackson and try to make an impact on the future of Mississippi. I reached a moment in my life where I realized it was for more important to make a difference than make money.
Vassallo: You were sworn into the State Legislature in 2015. Tell us what this experience has been like.
Hughes: It has been an amazing education. I went to Jackson believing that the legislature operated like the School House Rock version of “How A Bill Becomes A Law.” Unfortunately, I was naive and quickly learned that reality was drastically different and very few bills were passed just because they were good ideas to help people. Even worse, I learned that 99% of the decisions in the Capitol were made by only a few people, for a select few groups, and always behind closed doors. What I learned was that it was the opposite of the democracy I learned about in school, and most Americans expect.
Vassallo: What are your primary goals that you would like to accomplish if successful in this campaign?
Hughes: The first and biggest thing would be to bring transparency and compromise back to the State Government. I wouldn’t just have an Open-Door policy – I would take the door off the hinges. Committees would have an actual hearing and receive input from all sides of an issue. Bills would be debated on the floor without being blocked by a single person because of a large campaign contribution. I would meet weekly or daily with the speaker and governor, regardless of who they are, and try to find common ground on things we could work together on. Compromise would be common again, just as it is in marriage and business, so we could accomplish things for the people, instead of pretending they weren’t blocked for a few insiders. When only one person has their way in the legislature, that means everyone else loses. From a policy standpoint, I would make public education the top economic priority and investment in the state. Along with that would be the recognition of the reality is that we really do have a brain drain problem in this state, far too much standardized testing, and too many students who don’t go to college and aren’t having the opportunity to have work skills training before they graduate from high school. We would also put investment in local communities and local government, as a priority over tax cuts for foreign corporations and unfunded mandates. Finally, mental health and addiction and living wages for public employees would be a must.
Vassallo: Your choice of parties in a strong “Red” State is interesting. Please share the decision process that led you to this conclusion.
Hughes: I’m an individual who is not defined by labels or used to voting how I am instructed. I have long claimed to be purple, a little red and blue. Unfortunately that seems to be a foreign concept to too many party insiders these days. Being Blue in Mississippi reflects my family values and military service where I vote my conscious, not how I am told. It allows me to post on social media what I wish, directly to the people, without fear of retribution by leadership or party elite. I am proud of who I am, my faith, military service, patriotism, but am also deeply passionate about public education, mental health and addiction, basic government services and transparency. Being a Democrat has allowed me to support these things every single year, and not just pretend to support them during an election year.
Vassallo: While we’re on the subject of parties and labels, a number of your friends categorize you as a “Christian conservative.” Is that an accurate description?
Hughes: I’m honored they think that way. It would be more accurate to call me a compassionate, Christian conservative. I prefer to be defined by my actions, not my words or labels. My goal is to be a good husband, a good role model for my daughter, and to serve the public by leaving this place better than I found it.
Vassallo: In a nutshell, analyze the current state of the state of Mississippi in the fall of 2018.
Hughes: Mississippians are great. Mississippi government is not functioning as a true or transparent democracy, or for the actual people who make the engine of this state work every single day. Our economy is lagging the surrounding states by double digits, and growth is near last in the nation. Even with unemployment numbers where they are, Mississippi lags and most of the jobs available are part-time, minimum wage that do nothing to lift families out of poverty. Mississippi needs to understand that business and industry, small town and large, will grow when we invest in education and skills training for all, instead of tax cuts for a few.
Vassallo: What are our state’s greatest needs today?
Hughes: A public education system and funding that means that every single child in every single school of every single district will have access to the same resources and teachers. This will not result in an immediate improvement, but it will result in a lasting improvement. Elected officials need to remember that every single day, 470,000 students walk into school as the future workers, leaders and servants of this state. It is up to us how well they will do.
Vassallo: What are our primary shortfalls?
Hughes: My personal observation is that our primary shortfall is that we have begun to accept a closed, elite group that rule this state behind closed doors, and answer only to the wealthiest donors and political action committees and think tanks. Mississippi will move from the bottom of lists when we have a government that represents all people, instead of a lucky few insiders.
Vassallo: Several of my closest friends tell me the Delta is on life support. How do you view this area of the state?
Hughes: I view it as exactly what it is: An economic jewel which has been neglected far too long by the inside elite. Too many people are moving out, leaving little behind. Crop automation doesn’t mean the communities need to die. It means the economic model needs to be re-invented. Since tariffs have the potential to decimate soybean crops, and cotton, imagine if we had the authorization to grow industrial hemp as a product, like surrounding states. We need to focus on new ideas, not preserving the past. It is so frustrating how our leadership has always been proud to be the last to accept positive change and new directions. There are too many towns chest deep in water and no statewide leader seems to want to acknowledge or care about.
Vassallo: How would this scenario play out in Mississippi….a Governor and Lt. Governor representing different parties?
Hughes: I see it working perfectly and as it should, the exact opposite of how things work or don’t work now. It will be run transparently and by treating all members with the civility and respect they deserve. There will be open meetings, open doors, and compromise that addresses the needs of all Mississippians, instead of a lucky few insiders. When we recognize truly having openness and respect for local control, instead of hostage deals and punitive measures to get votes, all senators will be ready to work together for the good of Mississippi, instead of the good of one official at the head of the Senate.
Vassallo: Politics is referred to as a “blood sport.” Are you ready for the abuse?
Hughes: I’ve had to fight for what I’ve gotten since I was born. It’s how I made it to where I am today. It isn’t always a necessary trait, but it is sure useful when needed. I’m passionate about real change in Mississippi government and prepared to lead instead of follow. I’ll do whatever is necessary to put the real people back in charge of their state government.
Vassallo: You are well known in the northern part of the state. How does one become a household name statewide?
Hughes: Just as I have been doing since the day I announced: By listening, caring and being real. I will continue doing that 24 hours a day, seven days a week until 7 p.m. on November 5, 2019. Regardless of party or person, I’m confident that no one will ever outwork me.
Jay’s campaign theme is “Imagine A Better Mississippi.”
Steve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is an active Economic Development Consultant working with communities globally who live in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 985-852-7745.