“Move Mississippi Forward” The Lighthouse Q&A with Zakiya Summers

After a year of campaigning, former ACLU Communications Director Zakiya Summers won the Democratic primary for Mississippi’s District 68. Summers will be running against Republican Jon Pond in the November election, but her district is a safe, blue district with a history of electing Democrats. As it stands, she will likely be a double-minority entering a legislature dominated by white Republicans who view much of her agenda with contempt. How she champions the legislation she favors in the next two years will be pivotal to her success. Summers spoke briefly with The Lighthouse in the days leading up to her November election.

Photo courtesy ZakiyaSummers.com

The Lighthouse: Congratulations. You’re now a minority in a minority party, serving in a state house where the GOP has a supermajority. How do you intend to promote your issues in such a restricted environment?

Zakiya Summers: It’s tough, because the numbers aren’t in my favor, as a Democrat and as a Black Caucus member, but my main focus for my first year is to try to learn and absorb as much as possible and develop as many relationships as I can. I know from my experience as an advocate that there’s going to be more times than one that (me and the GOP) are going to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. … But I’m not alone on some of my issues, so I’m looking forward to understanding what the policy agenda will be from the Black Caucus and the Democratic Caucus, and seeing what influence and power we have in our numbers.

TL: What are the issues you’ll be pursuing?

ZS: I’ve got five main issues: education, infrastructure improvement, healthcare access, expanding voter access and criminal justice reform. … Right now, the state has just 14 (pre-K) collaboratives, like Head Start, which is not enough. From my research, (things like Head Start) are actually a very successful model in Mississippi, and we need to increase investment in that, and I’ll be helping my colleagues see the wisdom of that. Now, some of these policies are not a one-term issue. We’re going to have to fight for these things for a good period of time to see their benefits.

TL: Some of your issues will be more easily sold to both sides of the political spectrum than others. Early childcare is popular, but voter expansion is not the trend in this state. There are folks on the other team who just don’t believe in early voting, same-day voting or voting rights. In fact, many of them believe voting should be more restricted. How will you sell the idea of voting rights to people who are hostile to them?

ZS:  I really think it depends upon who the leadership is going to be. … New leadership in the Lt. Governor’s office will give us a better chance of pushing for voting rights. Either of the candidates running for the lieutenant governor’s office right now, whether it’s (Republican) Delbert (Hosemann) or (Democrat) Jay (Hughes), would have an appetite for voting reform.

TL: Yeah, but how do you intend to sell voter expansion to your colleagues in the House?

ZS: I think we can look at it through the lens of how (voting rights) can save counties money and how it could make the process more efficient, so when we have big races during major elections, we don’t have people standing in long lines and missing their opportunity to vote because we failed to put in place early voting or online voter registration. Another good argument is that if these measures have already worked in 37-plus states across the country, then surely we can find a way to make it happen here in Mississippi. We can show them the facts, the models and solutions that other places have experienced by implementing these measures. This isn’t something I would be able to do alone. I know that in order to get some of these laws passed, I’m going to need folks on the outside lobbying their legislators. I’m talking about circuit clerks, election commissioners, individual voters and voter-advocacy groups.

You know, we had a really good omnibus voting bill that came through last session, and it had no problem in the House, but it stalled in the Senate. That’s why I keep bringing up who’s in leadership—particularly who the next Lt. Governor will be—because if they’re really concerned about these issues then I think we’ll have a better chance of getting the laws through the process.

TL: We’ve had a few bills get pushed through that restrict abortion. How do you sit across from somebody who doesn’t agree with the freedom to choose and convince them otherwise?

ZS: We have to be careful not to make decisions based simply on emotions and not allow those emotions to impact how we work across the aisle. … I know these issues are going to come up, and I hope there are no more attempts to limit or restrict (abortion) access. We’re already at six weeks, right? I don’t know how much lower you can go without outright outlawing it. Thank God we have a judiciary that follows the constitution and is not trying to take away people’s civil rights and civil liberties.

TL: Your career is unique in that you come from several organizations, like the ACLU, that know a bit about writing legislation. How is that going to help you in your role as a new legislator?

ZS: During the last two years at the ACLU, I was leading advocacy campaigns and lobbying legislators, and I created a program that taught citizens how to become citizen lobbyists. So I was showing folks how a bill becomes law, and how to find out who your legislator is and what committee they sit on. I was attending committee meetings, and I was helping my team write legislation and amendments. That is going to be a huge benefit to my position as a new legislator. One of the things that stood out for me on the campaign trail is a lot of folks just don’t understand what’s going on at the Capitol. They want to be involved, but they don’t know how to be involved, or who to contact, so we’ll be prioritizing communicating with folks in the district, making sure they see a face, and that they have access to us. After all, I need their voice to help push legislation that we all favor.

TL: Can I assume that the hyper-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council and the NRA hasn’t been beating down your door since you got elected?

ZS: I have to say that ALEC has not been in contact with me, but the NRA did send me a survey, and I read through it, and I took some time to decide whether or not I was going to answer it. Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to be put in a box when it comes to gun rights and didn’t send it. I’m an advocate for the constitution and the 2nd Amendment, but I don’t believe in a lot of stuff that the NRA says, or does or pushes.

TL: Don’t worry. They’ll send you another … and another… and another. Anything you want to say here that I failed to ask? Now’s your chance.

ZS: I want to say that I think we are experiencing a tide of change here in Mississippi. I know people squint their eyes when they hear things like that, especially considering how the midterm elections turned out last year here.

TL: Yeah, Mississippi lost a lot of Democrats.

ZS: I am absolutely hopeful that people are beginning to listen with their third ear and see with their third eye and understanding the importance of equity and justice and the importance of their participation. I think the time of people just sitting and being quiet is over. I think they’re ready to take action to move Mississippi forward. I think people are mad as hell and tired. They realize that we’re not headed in the right direction, and if we want our children to be successful, then we have to act, think and believe differently, so we don’t continue the last 50 years into the next 50 years. That’s not going to help anybody on either side of the aisle.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and is not an endorsement of any candidate by The Lighthouse | Black Girl Projects.

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