A Conversation with Cecil Brown on years of public service
After four terms as state representative and one term as Central District public service commissioner, Cecil Brown is retiring. The Northsider recently reflected on his time in office with Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren. Brown is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and the University of Texas. He and his wife Nancy, a retired math teacher, have four children and six grandchildren.
Why are you retiring?
“I’ve been in the workforce for 54 years and I’m tired. I’m 75 years old. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the public to have an 80-year-old public service commissioner. Had I run again I would’ve been 79 at the end of the term. I don’t think that’s smart. I’ve enjoyed my work and am really happy that people allowed me do to this. We’ve done a lot over the last four years, a lot that people do not know about.
“The Public Service Commission touches everybody, every day. I don’t know if there’s another state agency you can say that about. You flip a light switch, and it’s something we worked on. You turn on the gas – we worked on that. You have a problem with a utility, you call us and we have a group of people who work to resolve it. I had one just the other day; a telephone line was cut in Morton and it affected people all the way to Meridian. We got the line restored yesterday afternoon. We (the Public Service Commission) used our influence, our contacts with the phone company, to get it restored.”
What area does the central district cover?
“We have 22 counties. In our district, we have the counties with the highest average income (in the state) and the lowest average income, the highest employment and the lowest employment. It’s 50 percent black and almost 50 percent white. It covers the Delta, Hinds County, Madison County and Rankin County, Lauderdale County, Kemper County, Neshoba County – it’s very interesting to me.
“By the end of the year, we’ll have covered 700 public events. We have nine people on our staff, who will set up tables at public events to talk to people about the public service commission and what it does. We’ve met with every board of supervisors and talked with them about how we can help their constituents with utility issues. We’ve burned the road up. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.”
How do you appeal to all people in such a diverse region?
“Treat everybody the same. When I got there (was elected), there were 15 people (on staff), one black person. When we had turnover, we tried to make our staff look more like our constituents. We have white folks, black folks, people from diverse backgrounds – from farms, towns, the city of Jackson, young people. I’m very proud of that.”
Looking back over legislative career and time on the commission, what are your biggest accomplishments?
“I have thought a lot about that. It’s not always the big things that hit the paper. Sometimes, it’s helping someone get the power on. My friend, (The late House speaker) Billy McCoy, gave a speech to a group of firemen when he was running for re-election in 2013. He talked about what he cared about, and it was the people. If you don’t care about the people, you shouldn’t run. Billy thought he could do a better job representing his constituents than anyone else could, and I felt the same way when I ran. I lived here for 50 years, I knew my constituents and thought I had some good ideas on how to help them.”
What was the toughest part about being in public service?
“In the legislature, my first three terms I didn’t think it was tough because the Democrats were in the majority and I had some influence over public policy. When the Republicans took over, I had no influence. I could see where the Republicans, before they took over, felt the same. In Billy McCoy’s first term, he had Republican (committee) chairmanships. But in his second term, he did not, because all the Republicans signed a pledge that they would vote for anyone but Billy (for speaker). How could he put them in as chairs? He couldn’t trust them.”
The PSC has not been as partisan.
“Not at all. We don’t ever talk politics. There are three of us, so any two of us makes a quorum. We can’t sit down and talk issues without having a public meeting. By talking to him, you were never know that Sam Britton was a Republican and that I and Brandon Presley are Democrats. I hope that will be the same for the next commission. We are the public service commission. The whole idea is to help the public. It’s not the Democratic PSC or the Republican PSC. We have staff whose job it is to make sure utilities are available and affordable to the public. There’s nothing partisan about a toilet flushing or an electric bill. Those are not partisan issues.”
What advice would you give your successor, Brent Bailey?
“We’re meeting together next week. He knows a lot about the commission, but I invited him to come and learn the inside day-to-day workings of the office, which are things you can’t see from the outside, such as who the attorneys are, who the chief financial officer is. In fact, the staff is still putting together notes to give him.”
Do you have any regrets?
“The state is headed in the wrong direction. The emphasis on cutting taxes at the cost of providing public services is misguided. We’ve underfunded education all across the board. The failure to expand Medicaid was a dumb decision. It’s cost us billions of dollars. It’s hurt people and is killing people. Initiative 42 was defeated because of lies about it. Roads are not funded. To Dick Hall’s credit, he’s been talking about the failure to increase the gas tax for 20 years, but the legislature and the governor will not listen to him. The failure to fund education in the state has already cost us. People are leaving the state, the gross state product (when adjusted for inflation) and the number of people in the workforce are less than they were 10 years ago.
What was Initiative 42?
“It was initiative started by petition to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to require the legislature to fully fund MAEP (the Mississippi Adequate Education Program). It barely failed because we had legislators out there telling lies about it. They said (funding) would be left up to a judge in Hinds County. That was not true. They said it would take power from the legislature. That was not true. The way they designed the ballot, it was designed to fail.”
So, what’s next for you?
“Retirement. My wife and I don’t have specific plans for anything. There are places she wants to see and grandchildren who are out of state. We want to go see them. My future does not include a political or appointed office of any kind.”