Listening Sessions Help Mississippi Gov Stay in Touch

By: - August 23, 2001 12:00 am

They gather in the morning, with excitement, hope or even desperation in their eyes.

Once each month, ordinary Mississippi citizens find their way, one-by-one, to a desk outside governor’s office on the third floor of the capitol. There, they sign up for a slot later in the day to spend five minutes with a man whose time is usually occupied by legislators, corporate executives and other big shots.

The common folk return in the afternoon, and patiently wait their turn. When they are finally ushered into the governor’s office in the ornate, century-old capitol building, they find themselves face to face with Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

“I was wondering who was going to be in there. But when you walked in, he made you feel comfortable. He guides you to your seat, shakes your hand. Then, it’s okay, I can talk,” said Monica Betts, a 30-year-old once-homeless woman who had some prison rehabilitation ideas she wanted to share with her state’s chief executive.

Betts is one of an estimated 200 people who have taken part in a one-on-one program Musgrove initiated over a year ago. A few are now regulars — one woman has been to see the governor seven times.

Some have complaints about state services or local schools. Others have ideas about legislation. More than a few have a relative in the state’s penal system. The meetings are held on the second Wednesday of the month. Citizens, when they sign up, are asked what they want to talk about. They come back in the afternoon, and the meetings start about 4 pm. Musgrove often stays at it until 9 pm or so.

Based on the sign up sheet, the appropriate staff person in the governor’s office typically sits in on the meeting.Betts, for example, said that while she was living in a homeless shelter, she met many inmates who were leaving the state prison system but were unprepared to find work. She found they faced many of the same challenges she did, and began thinking about rehabilitation ideas.

“He (the governor) thought it was a pretty good program. I think it went well. At least I had the opportunity to present it. I feel positive about the meeting,” said Betts.

After meeting with Musgrove, she said, she received a letter and, ultimately, another appointment in Jackson to meet with the head of the state’s prison system. And, she said, her friends and neighbors have taken note.

“People are always asking me: are you really getting letters from the governor?'” she said.

While it’s not clear that any of this interaction has resulted in tangible changes in state policy, Musgrove says the meetings are nonetheless important.

“Every time I have the opportunity to hear people across the state, I get a new appreciation for the concerns and challenges and problems people have. It gives us another opportunity to help a person overcome a challenge,” said Musgrove. “In other instances, we’ve heard good suggestions and ideas we ought to consider.”

Musgrove, a Democrat who was elected in November of 1999, said the idea for the sessions was born during a breakfast conversation at the mansion with his teenage son, Jordan. Jordan told him every citizen should have a chance to speak with the governor, just as he was doing.

Of course, governors aren’t presidents. And, in a small state like Mississippi, accommodating those who want to meet with Musgrove is not the logistical nightmare it might be in Texas, Florida or California.

Among the power players in the capitol, Musgrove’s meetings are largely seen as unremarkable except as evidence of non-stop, dawn-till-dark schedule. On a variation of the theme, Musgrove is taking the seat of government representatives from every major executive branch agency – to remote towns around the state for a day each quarter.

They are another example of a near workaholic pace that this governor, once a record-setting door-to-door Bible salesman, sets for himself and his often-weary staff. It is one of the strengths of an administration that has been beset by problems despite some policy successes and the landing of a Nissan vehicle assembly plant.

Besides dealing with a slumping economy , Musgrove went out on a limb by leading the charge to change the state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag. The public overwhelmingly rejected the idea at a referendum.

The former state senator has been feuding with the Legislature, suffered a rash of defections from his staff and earlier this summer announced that he and his wife were divorcing.

“I always think it good for governor to meet with his constituent. Based on trouble he’s had lately, he probably needs to, ” said state Republican Chairman Jim Herring. ”

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