Cole: Focus political discussions on 'meat of things'

March 29, 2014 10:33:17 PM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole is touring the state in hopes of uniting Mississippians, Democrat and Republicans alike, he said. 


Cole, a self-confessed "political junkie" who jokes that he was born a Democrat, has served as the party's chairman since 2012. Cole said that since that time he has tried to unite the state on what he refers to as "pocketbook issues." 


For Cole, that means talking about raising the minimum wage, providing affordable healthcare, improving public education and ensuring that women are paid the same amount of money for the same amount of work as their male counterparts. 


Cole spoke to The Dispatch editorial board Friday. 


"I've been frustrated about the tenor and tone of Mississippi politics for the last couple of years," he said. "We seem to let this culture war, these social issues, suck all of the oxygen out of the air in the room. We spend all of our energy talking about issues that, while they are of great importance to certain people, are not the issues that average Mississippians spend day and night thinking about or worrying about. I don't know a whole lot of people who wake up every morning prepared to go on a great crusade on a moral issue. I do know people who wake up concerned about making a living, concerned about the quality of life for ourselves, our families and our communities." 


With that in mind, Cole said he tries to help "shape the direction of the debate." 


"I want to press the reset button and reset the discussion to move away from some of the hot-button issues that generate a lot of heat but not much light," he said. "If we spend all of our time talking about the state motto and same-sex marriage and guns and abortion rights, all of these very important issues to certain people, then we don't get around to talking about the real entree of the meal ... We don't get to talk about the meat of things -- how do we make end's meet as working people? How do we provide healthcare coverage to those who need it? How do we sustain our hospitals? What are we going to do about public schools? Those are the issues that I would like to see the conversation and more focus put on." 


When it comes to public education, Cole said the state must raise teacher pay before they can begin to talk about merit pay. 


"We have to provide a floor below which no student falls," he said. "When it comes to public education, I think we have to provide a minimum floor through which no educator falls. I think the talk in Jackson about merit pay for teachers is a worthy notion but it's premature. Right now, we are paying teachers at a rate so low to begin with that we are not being competitive for people who have bachelor's degree. So we're issuing them a license, calling them professionals but we're paying them at sub-professional salaries. If we create the floor, commiserate with the professional level we expect, then local districts can begin talking about merit pay and improvement. But I think if you give a teacher a teaching license from the state of Mississippi then that license ought to come with a base rate of pay that allows them to be a full-time professional." 


By raising teacher pay levels, as well as the minimum wage, Cole hopes to unite all Mississippians despite their politics. 


"Mississippi will be 200 years old as a state in 2017. For all that time we've been two Mississippis. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could work a little bit better at trying to find, over the next 200 years, ways for those two Mississippis to become one?" he said. "Because hasn't it been awfully expensive for us to try to maintain two? Expensive in every sense of the word."

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.