State, local cooperation on Jackson water crisis is the tumultuous yet vital road forward
The inability of Mississippi’s capital and largest city to produce safe drinking water, if any water at all, is not a good look for political leaders both on the state and local levels.
It would at least provide citizens a little reassurance to think their elected leaders were working together to solve the crisis. For the most part — but not always — city and state leaders have conveyed in recent days that they were.
When Gov. Tate Reeves announced in late August a state of emergency because of the failure of the Jackson water system, he tried to establish a sense of collaboration and of common goal shared by both the primarily African American Democratic leadership of the city and the primarily white Republican leadership of the state.
That has not always been the case. Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba has not shied away from using language like “paternalistic” and “racist” in describing how the state’s white power structure has dealt with Jackson. And Reeves has gone out of his way to criticize Democratic leaders, often Black leaders of large cities, using his own incendiary language.
But that rhetoric subsided for a time after Reeves issued the state of emergency last week.
“Those who want to drive division and those who want to try to focus this effort … there will be plenty of time for that. But what we are focused on right now is the immediate recovery from this emergency,” Reeves said. “We have a unified command center.”
For his part, Lumumba has praised the fact that the state was agreeing to help with both manpower and finances to repair a water system that he had been saying publicly for months was on the brink of failure.
Granted, separate press conference — the African American mayor surrounded by Black members of his administration, and the white governor flanked by white male leaders in state government — could be seen as a troublesome optic. It created images of the separate but equal old South.
But Lumumba himself shot down those comparisons.
“I’ve heard people say we’re having dueling press conferences,” Lumumba said. “That is not how I would characterize it.”
And later in the week, Lumumba and Reeves had a joint news conference.
“I believe my representation here is a symbol of the unity that is taking place — a symbol of the coalition that is working arm in arm to ensure we keep the most primary focus on the residents of Jackson,” the mayor said.
“As the governor said, there may be a time when other questions come forward, but right now what we are focused on is this unified effort.”
In a time of an embarrassing crisis, it can at least present a positive image of the state to see white and African American politicians, white and Black Mississippians working together to help people in need.
But remember this is Mississippi, and such cooperation can be tenuous or short-lived. Less than 24 hours after the joint news conference, Hunter Estes, Reeves’ communications director, put out a social media statement saying the mayor’s announcement of another joint news conference was wrong.
“We have not invited city politicians to these substantive state press conferences on our repairs, because they occur to provide honest information about the state’s work. We are investigating why they are releasing misinformation.” Even the governor jumped in on social media, to say, yes, “accurate importation is important.”
Perhaps a phone call instead of social media post would be a sensible way to conduct that investigation.
Regardless of Estes’ troll, for the most part both the mayor and governor have been conveying a sense of cooperation.
But the question — and it is perhaps the most important question surrounding this crisis — is whether that cooperation will continue once the immediate problem is solved. The ongoing effort to restore water pressure and quality is in reality putting a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.
This is not the first time that Jacksonians have been beset with empty faucets. It happened most notably during the winter storm of 2021 and multiple other times in recent years.
The current problem was caused by flooding and the inability of the city to adequately staff its water treatment plants. But other issues, such as 1,500 miles of water pipes — some more than 100 years old — running throughout the city, create a much bigger problem. That problem, the mayor has said, will cost more than a $1 billion to fix.
It is hard to envision that fix happening without additional cooperation between city and state leaders and perhaps federal officials.
That cooperation is needed to prevent Mississippi from remaining a national laughingstock — one that cannot provide the basics to its citizens.