By Davis McCool
Mississippi Capitol Press Corps
As a Democrat accustomed to facing challenges from a Republican-controlled state legislature, Sen. Derrick T. Simmons (D-Greenville) knows he awaits many roadblocks on the path towards what he describes as a better Mississippi, but that isn’t stopping him.
Simmons, 41, serves the people of District 12 in the Delta in his role of chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus. He has seen a lot in his seven years in the Mississippi Senate, and he is familiar with many challenges Mississippians constantly face.
“The current state of affairs keeps me up at night,” Simmons said. “We underfund our K-12 schools. We are cutting budgets at our colleges and universities. We’ve cut our agencies. We are in a mental health crisis. Our roads and bridges are in desperate need of repair. And we haven’t been able to address any of those concerns, because we’ve given all of our money away to corporations instead of the people.”
The Jackson State and Howard University graduate set out as a junior senator to make Mississippi a better place, but found himself bewildered and hindered financially by a massive tax cut in 2016 sponsored by Republican leadership in a state with already-declining revenue.
“We are suffering, as a state, due to the largest tax cuts that we’ve ever passed as a state two years ago,” Simmons said. “It was a $415 million tax package that we gave away to corporations. We, here at the legislature, decided to choose corporations over citizens, party over people, and the state is suffering because we are trying to rob Peter to pay Paul. We don’t have money, we’re broke.”
Not all of Mississippi’s issues can be fixed with money, though, and Simmons knows that.
“The biggest problem, and challenge, is how divisive and stuck in the past we are, not only to fellow Mississippians, but also to the rest of the world,” Simmons said. “If we can get past the dark history of Mississippi and move forward as a progressive state, it would be beneficial to young Mississippians everywhere.”
The first step in rewriting history, at least according to Simmons, is replacing the controversial state flag.
“Remove that flag,” Simmons said. “You have people way more notable than a little senator from Greenville, Mississippi who have spoken loudly and clearly about what we need to do. The MEC, John Grisham, Dan Mullen, Hugh Freeze, Andy Taggart, Roger Wicker, there’s a whole chorus of people telling the Mississippi legislature to do the right thing. I just pray that we have the legislative will to do that, and I think the healing process will definitely begin.”
As for what’s next beyond that, Simmons has been outspoken on his efforts to reduce the state’s prison population, a step that would help satisfy his goal of a better Mississippi, as well as save the state much needed money, according to the senator.
“One, we need to change our habitual offender laws, our three-strike laws, where we are not as punitive to non-violent offenders. The prison should be reserved for the people that we want to remove from society, and that are creating a public safety concern. A lot of people are in our prisons that are nonviolent offenders, and if we could focus more on putting the right people in prison instead of these nonviolent offenders, that would be a way to both fulfill our policy goals and save the state money.”
The Democrat knows that pushing meaningful legislation through a Republican-controlled legislature is no easy feat, but his continued daily efforts will not cease until he has shaped Mississippi to his liking.
“What drives me is knowing the type of Mississippi that we can become,” Simmons said. “That drives me everyday, to wake up and know that I want Mississippi to be a better state for my 4-year-old, and if I could come everyday to try and make it a better Mississippi for my child and other young citizens, that drives me and excites me.”