| By Billy Davis
(Editor’s note: The Panolian interviewed House District 11 candidate Joe Gardner last week for the following pre-election story. The other candidate in the race, Teresa Wallace, will be interviewed this week for a story to be published in the Friday, February 23 edition of The Panolian. The run-off election is Tuesday, February 27).
Dr. Joe Gardner bested a field of five candidates to claim a first-place finish in the January 13 special election to fill the District 11 House seat.
Despite his good showing in the election, Gardner, 62, failed to capture 50 percent of the total vote, leading to a February 27 runoff with the second-place finisher, Teresa Wallace of Como.
As the run-off election nears, Gardner spoke to The Panolian about why he is qualified to serve as Panola County’s District 11 representative.
Panolian: Why do you want to be a state representative?
Gardner: I think I can make a difference in our county and in our district.
Panolian: What qualifications would you bring to the job?
Gardner: I would point to my military background, my business background, my education background.
Panolian: Let’s break those down one by one. Describe your background in education.
Gardner: I taught biology in the North Panola School District and was an administrator there at Como Elementary (School,) where I was vice principal. I retired after 28 years.
I have served as a trustee for the South Panola School District since 1993. I am now the vice president.
Panolian: And you earned a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in biology, and later a doctorate.
Gardner: That’s right.
Panolian: What field is the doctorate and where did you earn it?
Gardner: It’s a doctorate in school administration from Southwestern University, which is in Louisiana.
Panolian: Did you study on campus or take a correspondence course?
Gardner: There was some correspondence. It was distant learning.
Panolian: Describe your military background.
Gardner: I made a career in the military. I was in the (U.S.) Army and went from the regular Army to the Guard to the Reserve.
Panolian: How many years did you serve?
Gardner: About 30.
Panolian: At what rank did you retire?
Gardner: E-7, which is sergeant first class.
Panolian: And you’ve been busy in business, too.
Gardner: Yes, I was a subcontractor some years back in which we installed insulation, and now I operate the Gardner truck driving school.
Panolian: How did you become involved in the trucking school?
Gardner: In the latter part of my military career I taught truck driving. We dealt with 18-wheelers, and many of those units would later drive those trucks in Kuwait and Iraq.
Panolian: Let’s move on to the state legislature. Describe your stance on some current issues, starting with a vote to increase the tobacco tax.
Gardner: I would have to look at the program and see what the money will be used for. Just to vote up or down ? I would have to see what it’s all about, then make a decision.
Panolian: Here’s a second issue: voting to slash the grocery tax.
Gardner: I think that if the taxes are reduced on groceries, since everybody has to buy groceries, it would help those who are unemployed or underemployed, especially those on a fixed income.
Panolian: How do you feel about voter I.D., the suggestion that voters should show some form of identification before they’re allowed to vote?
Gardner: They should have some form of identification in case somebody moves in and the poll workers don’t know that person. They should show a driver’s license or something like that.
Panolian: People who voted in the special election last week didn’t have to prove they were who they said they were. They just gave their name.
Gardner: I think it would be good, but you’re also dealing with individual privacy. That could become tricky.
Panolian: You’re familiar with funding public schools and the MAEP. How important is fully funding the state program to fund K-12?
Gardner: That is a necessity, to fully fund MAEP. Basically some school districts have to use their reserve funds for upkeep of their buildings, and that money could be used better to educate our children.
Panolian: In your opinion, what is wrong that needs fixing in Mississippi? What’s our biggest need?
Gardner: We need to devote more resources and funding to our educational system and improve on workforce investment, that is to get the unemployed and underemployed job skills.
Panolian: Some critics would argue that we’re already throwing lots of money at education, and we have yet to see any improvements.
Gardner: It’s not a matter of throwing money at education. It’s how that money is used. When we look at other countries, how they put money into education and their children are excelling. We have the resources but need to channel it differently.
Panolian: What’s an example of "channeling it differently?"
Gardner: We need to make sure that those who drop out of school are provided with some way to get job skills. Whenever someone is skilled, we all benefit. In order to attract quality business, we need to upgrade our labor force.
Panolian: Most of Panola County’s voters can probably be described as conservative-leaning, even if they don’t follow politics. How do you "lean" politically?
Gardner: I’m pretty moderate.
Panolian: What do you mean by "moderate?" What does that word mean to you?
Gardner: I think that we need to be fiscally responsible to our county and our state. The money that we have is not ours. We need to treat it in that manner.
Panolian: How would you vote on hot-button issues, such as abortion and gay marriage, that could come before the legislature?
Gardner: Coming from a Biblical standpoint, the Bible says it’s wrong and I’m going to line up with the Bible.
Panolian: Rep. Leonard Morris won the District 11 House seat during some turbulent times but, as you know, over the years he managed to bridge a gap between white and blacks in our community. If you’re elected, how do you plan to continue that "bridge" that Mr. Morris built?
Gardner: When we go back to my education background and my military background, you learn to deal with each person as an individual. In the military we didn’t train men or women ? we trained soldiers.
Panolian: The runoff that will be decided February 27 has broken down along racial lines, between yourself and your opponent, Teresa Wallace. Should race be a factor in the race?
Gardner: When voters went to the polls, hopefully they looked at the candidates and voted according to person they thought could best serve the district.
Panolian: Some voters may look at your qualifications and your opponent’s qualifications, but others may look solely at skin color as a qualification. Do you think voters will ever get beyond skin color?
Gardner: I hope so. I hope so. We haven’t arrived, but we’re becoming. I hope we get to the point where I’m judged on the content of my character, not color of my skin.