District 5 supervisor candidates Leroy Brooks and Roger Larsen appeared at the Columbus Exchange Club on September 29. The meeting was the third in a series of Exchange Club political forums.
Each candidate was given around 10 minutes to speak.
Larsen, who is running as an independent, spoke first. Larsen is the former owner and founder of the Columbus Packet.
“I went to school with my best friend Gary Sebelius,” Larsen said. “We were best friends all through school and went to college together. He’s a federal judge now, and his wife is Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services.
“We were a small town, with a small group of students,” he said. “We all went all the way through school together. I was editor of the school newspaper. I got an academic scholarship to Kansas State University. I had an undistinguished college career, graduated with 120 hours to get a degree. After college I went to work for the Rock Island line. I ran a weekly newspaper in Kansas for a year. I left Kansas in 1974. I never said much about it, but frankly I was running from a woman. There’s a saying that you can’t run from a problem, but I think you can. Sometimes it’s the only solution. When I got to Columbus I got hired out at Johnson Tombigbee. I guess that’s some of the interesting points. I’ll yield the rest of my time to Leroy.”
Brooks, the incumbent, is running as a Democrat. He has held the office for 28 years.
“When I pulled up in the parking lot, I saw a lot of different vehicles but we’re all in the same place,” Brooks said. “I grew up on Motley Road. I’m a product of the prairie. As a boy I used to walk up to the old 182 and watch people go to Mississippi State, and I said when I grow up I want to go to state college, that’s what they called it back then. Mom worked for years as a maid. She would have done a great job in the movie The Help. My father worked on the farm, did construction work. He eventually got a job in District 5. He worked in District 5 until he had a heart attack in 1992 at age 58. He had a heart attack about 100 yards from the house in a county vehicle.
“My family taught me about hard work, because that’s all they ever knew,” Brooks said. “I grew up as a young kid picking up drink bottles and selling them for a dime. I graduated to something more sophisticated. I would pick blackberries and plums in the neighborhood and sell them to the ladies to make preserves and pies. I was about 13, and I thought I had made the big time. Then I washed dishes, and I worked in the hay fields. I worked on a trash truck. You want to talk about an inspiration to finish school, work on a trash truck. I went three years at Hunt. I was a student in the first class to be integrated at Caldwell.
“After high school I had a scholarship to junior college but I decided I want to work,” he said. “At the time they were building the new 82. I went out to try to get a job. There was a huge crane, and the guy said if I would climb up there and put a cable through a loop I had a job. I joined the Air Force the next day. I only went to 10 days of the six week basic training because I had three years of ROTC in high school and I knew what to do. My first assignment was a law enforcement specialist in Wichita, Kansas. I was the only one-striper in the squadron that they made desk sergeant. I attended Wichita State two years on campus while I was out there. A lot of guys were coming back from Vietnam and Thailand at that time, and their stories were so great that I wanted to go. When I filled out my dream sheet they gave me three choices, and I put Vietnam, Puerto Rico and England. My thinking was that if I couldn’t go the war zone, I certainly wanted to go where there was a bunch of women.
“They sent me to England, and I worked in law enforcement for six months,” he said. “The base commander created a position called the junior airmen advisor. Because of my record they put me on that, and for the next year and a half I worked as an advisor to the base commander. In December 1975 I got out of the air force and enrolled in Mississippi State. That summer I went to work at the airport as airport policeman. I continued going to college and would eventually get a degree in political science and a master’s in social studies, concentration in public administration. After graduation I went to work in the city with the office of federal programs, I helped set that office up.”
Brooks said his first political campaign was in 1979.
“I ran for constable, because law enforcement was my true love,” he said. “I didn’t understand Lowndes County politics. A guy came to me and asked me if I could be bought. He said he had some clubs and he wanted the constable to take care of them. I said no, I can’t be bought, and he said I can’t be elected. I didn’t have an opponent, but two weeks later I had one. I got my first lesson, and from that I made a determination that I wanted to be part of the change. I ran for supervisor, it was a tough race against an incumbent, and the rest is history. I was elected at age 30. It may not seem like much now, but as a young college graduate and as first black on the board, it was something. I wanted to be part of a change in Lowndes County. I had seen politics at its worst, and I wanted to be part of a change.
“Twenty-eight years later, I’ve seen a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve seen the good, bad and indifferent. I’m more than just an elected official. I see myself as a transformational leader in this community. I bring to the table a set of skills that is unmatched by any supervisor. I taught off and on for 18 years at Mississippi State. I taught for a year at the W. For a year I ran the Troy State academic program at the base. During the course of my tenure I’ve done consulting work inside and outside the state. I know I’m kind of the boogeyman in Lowndes County, and I don’t get upset. You’ve got to be able to laugh at this foolishness sometimes. There is a difference between government and politics. There is a different between getting elected and public policy administration. Once you get elected you’ve got to know what to do.
“When I got into office I had public meetings and asked what my constituents wanted,” he said. “They said they wanted a boat ramp, which they now have at Leroy’s Landing. They wanted public water, which they now have. They said they wanted an extension on Old West Point Road. If you exit now you go straight to Old West Point Road, but it wasn’t always like that. When people said they needed another fire station to lower their rates, guess what? Go down Old West Point Road and there’s a brand new fire station. Their rating is down. That’s what I do. Simply put, I take care of my job. Sometimes I’m controversial, but when you’re a transformational leader that’s how you’re characterized. I won’t apologize for it. I don’t mistreat anybody in Lowndes County. I get along with people who want to get along with me. A lot of people say that (District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders) and I need to calm down. The debate that Harry and I have is not as bad as when you get elected officials that don’t say anything. The nature of politics is conflict and compromise. They say it’s going to hurt industrial development, but it’s not. A lot of plants go to Mexico, and they’re killing people down there every day. They’re not looking at whether elected officials get along. All they want to know is how many incentives you’re going to give them.
“I have a passion for my job and a compassion for the people,” Brooks said in conclusion. “I ask you to vote with your head and not your heart. If you vote with your heart you conjure up all kinds of emotions. If you vote with your head, you will vote in a logical way and see that Leroy Brooks is the best choice we have for supervisor.”
At the end of the program, the candidates were asked what they saw as the biggest issue facing Lowndes County in the next four years.
“It still to me is economic development west of the river,” Larsen said. “But as far as this race, this is a unique situation. What I would try to do is take the racial animosity that comes like a plume out of District 5 out of the recipe. I think it’s counterproductive and I think it can be maybe not eliminated but much reduced.”
“I think the key issue is concerning economic development, but we have to approach economic development from the understanding that we have to protect the interests of the community,” Brooks said. “When companies come in, they’re looking at what you can give them. You’re almost buying industry. We have to do that, but at the same time we have to protect the physical aspects of the county.
“As far as racial animosity, I don’t know what that is,” Brooks said. “I get a lot of white votes and I get a lot of black votes. I don’t know what he’s complaining about.” 0