‘Do your damn job and quit hustling for yourself’: Apathy, distrust run deep for south Mississippi voters

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MOSS POINT – Vern Smith chuckled as he chewed on the butt of a burned out cigar and cast a line into the Escatawpa River from a dock at the Moss Point Community Center.

Smith, a 65-year-old resident of Gautier, recently retired as an electrician at Huntington-Ingalls, the shipbuilding megacorporation a few miles south of where he fished on a late September afternoon. Right before he cast his line, he was asked if he followed politics much.

Adam Ganucheau

Vern Smith of Gautier catching a fish in Moss Point.

“I try to stay away from politics because to be a politician, you’ve got to be a good liar,” said Smith, who caught two fish during an 18-minute interview. “They always could do something for us, but they ain’t gonna do it. They’re all about themselves – I, I, I. They don’t care about people. They don’t do shit. They’re just there collecting their checks. That’s it. You know, do your damn job and quit hustling for yourself. Hustle for the people for a change.”

Mississippi Today sent reporters to all corners of the state to ask citizens about the most important issues in their communities. In six of the southernmost counties of the state, a large number of people we interviewed were largely unfamiliar with the candidates and only vaguely aware that the midterms are approaching. Every person who agreed to speak with us, without exception, described a disconnect between their needs and the actions taken by politicians in Jackson and Washington.

That feeling might not be contained just to south Mississippi, according to a recent NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll in which a majority of 1,152 adults expressed distrust in both the federal and state government “to do what is right.” 

In a state with a range of regional diversity and complexity, south Mississippi is an aberration. The three coastal counties collectively serve as an economic anchor, drawing big industry, tourism and a diverse set of residents. Residents in the three coastal counties alone contribute 13 percent of the state’s taxable income, and corporations based in the three counties make up 8 percent of the state’s corporate income, state records show.

Along the Coast, a drive from west to east reveals more industrial prosperity than any three-county span anywhere in the state: In Hancock County, there is the NASA Stennis Space Center, where rockets are tested; in Harrison County, the port of Gulfport, Keesler Air Force Base and the billion dollar casino industry; and in Jackson County, the Chevron oil refinery and Huntington-Ingalls, where billions in federal dollars flow annually to build naval ships.

Residents along the Gulf Coast pride themselves both on the region’s economic independence and idiosyncratic characteristics while lamenting a lack of attention from leaders in Jackson and Washington.

“There are three or four Mississippis, and we’re one of them,” Mike Cockrell, a NASA rocket scientist from Pass Christian, said while watching a New Orleans Saints game at a bar in Bay St. Louis. “Representatives in Washington have multiple approaches they can take. The approach they’ve taken for decades, as it relates to the Gulf Coast and Mississippi, is to go along with your party and work as much for your state as you can considering your state doesn’t necessarily have to build on.”

Cockrell dove deeper into analysis: “They can do one of two things: Play that game as much as they can, which means sacrificing a few things but there will be more winners. Or you can stand up and yell about how everything’s wrong and try to hit a home run but ultimately end up with nothing. I don’t know that we’re self sufficient enough that we can get up and swing for the fences every time. So they’re taking the pragmatic approach.”

Drive into the northern parts of the coastal counties and the three counties to their north – Pearl River, Stone and George – and the attitudes about place and prosperity differ drastically. 

Pearl River County is the largest of the three, with Picayune serving as a true suburb to New Orleans and home to many NASA employees. Stone County benefits from U.S. Highway 49, a main transportation artery connecting the Gulf Coast to the rest of the state, while George County is more isolated.

Residents in Pearl River, Stone and George counties contribute just 3 percent of the state’s income tax revenue, and corporations based in those counties make up just 2 percent of the state’s corporate income. Compared to the coast and the rest of the state, unemployment in Stone and George counties is much higher.

Cuppie Smith grabbed some loose tomatoes and placed them in paper boxes at the produce stand she and her father own on the side of Highway 49 in Stone County south of Wiggins.

There are no big international corporations with thousands of jobs to be had based in Stone County. Some people who live here drive south for those jobs, but many are landlocked and left with fewer options than their neighbors about a few dozen miles to the south.

Adam Ganucheau

Cuppie Smith sorts fruits and vegetables at the produce stand she manages in Stone County.

Smith and her father have based their livelihoods on agriculture; farmers from around south Mississippi without corporate contracts bring the Smiths their produce. Because their stand sits along the crowded U.S. Highway 49, infrastructure also means a lot to them.

Noticeably missing from the produce stand and the overgrown grass around the Smiths’ property are campaign signs, which in recent weeks have decorated many stops along Highway 49.

“They always come by and ask if they can put them up,” Smith said. “I’m very much into politics myself, and every now and then, they’ll get me. I’ll listen to them a while and think, ‘This one seems like the one. This is the one.’ A lot of them will promise you the moon, and when they get (elected) in there, it was never actually about them wanting to help. It’s about doing what’s best for them and ignoring us little people back home.”

Over in Lucedale, the George County seat, a few people walk outside the half dozen or so of shops and boutiques that are open downtown.

Chris Williams, who has lived in Lucedale for 40 years and works at a local pharmacy, rides his bike around town. When asked how he feels about politics, he said he doesn’t vote because he doesn’t trust politicians.

“We’ve got our problems up this way that I’m not sure they have on the Coast,” Williams said. “I don’t know where you’d find a job if you needed one. Man, politicians want your vote, but when they get in office, things change. They teach us in school in the preamble that ‘We the People’ hold the power, but nah, it doesn’t feel that way. They should do what the people want them to do, but they do what they want to do.”

Adam Ganucheau

Chris Williams rides his bike around Lucedale in George County.

Everyone interviewed for this story was asked some variation of the same question: “Do you think you will ever be satisfied with how politicians serve you?” The resounding consensus: No.

Vern Smith’s answer: “As soon as the Lord returns, it’s gonna be all good. Until then, no way.”

Mike Cockrell: “Oh, I can’t imagine anything’s going to change.”

Cuppie Smith: “I want to believe, but I’ve been fooled enough times to know better.”

Chris Williams: “I guess they could change, but they won’t. They never have.”

Susan Humphrey, a retired public school teacher who lives in Bay St. Louis, who was sitting with Cockrell watching the Saints game, summed up these feelings.

When it’s election time, they say whatever they need to say to get elected to office, but then it’s all about wherever the money is,” Humphrey said. “That’s just especially sad because I see the direction our country is going. We’re not going in a positive direction. We’re fighting amongst ourselves. I don’t know what the answer’s going to be. We’re a relatively young country. What’s going to happen in 100 years in the direction we’re going?”