The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Report on Feb. 5-6, 2009 Delta Conference--Thanks a Million for your Support!

Posted on February 16, 2009 at 05:58 PM

Thanks a million for your crucial help in making the Feb. 5-6, 2009 event probably the best Delta conference we’ve had yet in Arkansas. President Clinton’s superb presentation was one of the high points, but there were many other great presentations. We greatly appreciated President Clinton for giving us his ideas about how to generate economic development in the Delta region for a full half hour and opening it up for questions, which he normally does not do because of his busy schedule. It was great to have President Clinton, Gov. Beebe, US Sen. Mark Pryor, and many dynamic grassroots leaders on the agenda.

Gov. Beebe gave a great speech emphasizing education, jobs, renewable energy and health care for underserved areas. Sen. Mark Pryor did an excellent job of giving us an up-to-the minute report in the middle of the economic stimulus debate from Washington. Dean James “Skip” Rutherford of the Clinton School of Public Service and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and the opening speakers did a great job at the opening, and the Clinton School of Public Service is really a great location for our group–it has an elegant, warm atmosphere, and the school is directly engaged in the Delta. The Clinton School graduate student, Regina Wilkerson, was so enthusiastic and energetic about her public service work in the Delta–we really appreciated her as well.

ECONOMIC STIMULUS PACKAGE WAS THE MAJOR FOCUS–Most participants at the conference believed that the economic stimulus package that was being debated during the conference, and which passed shortly afterward, contains many beneficial economic provisions in job creation, transportation, rural housing, nutrition, renewable energy, information technology, health care, education, tax cuts to spur the economy, and other initiatives. Certainly no bill of such enormous proportions will be perfect but by and large the Delta grassroots coalition believed that it was a necessary response to our current economic crisis both regionally and nationally.

President Clinton stressed that making public buildings more energy efficent will save money and create jobs. He said Delta communities should close their landfills and use the organic material from them to produce fertilizer for farmers or biofuels. Clinton said he was working to close landfills in large cities in Mexico, China and Nigeria, where he said “They can convert hundreds of acres of land, improve the public health, fight global warming and put a gazillion people to work. On a smaller scale, we can do that throughout the Delta, and it’s a very good economic development tool.”

The former President emphasized the potential for expanded renewable energy and energy efficiency as part of President Obama’s stimulus package. He said that municipalities that want to use energy-efficient equipment in police departments, courthouses and city halls can get loans backed by a promise by the energy company that the new equipment will save enough money to pay for the loan.

Clinton stressed the importance of expanding and streamlining the New Markets Tax Credit to generate economic growth in the region. He also emphasized the importance of expanded nutrition programs in the Delta and nationwide, and pointed out that utilization of food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is far lower than those who are eligible. Expanded nutrition programs not only help needy people but also stimulate the economy.

At the opening session Beth Wiedower started off by summarizing the Rural Heritage Development Initiative’s activities in the east Arkansas Delta in collaboration with the Clinton School and many other groups in the region. Then we had Dean Rutherford talk about the Clinton School’s increasing involvement in public service work in the Delta. Skip has had a longstanding involvement in Delta issues going back to the Clinton administration’s Delta Regional Initiative and earlier.

Then we had two people who are in the highly unusual category of having known President Obama for many years: Mayor Brad Cole of Carbondale, Illinois, who knew Obama when he was a member of the Illinois legislature, and then was one of the leaders of Republicans for Obama in Illinois. Mayor Cole will be a great asset with his bipartisan leadership as we move forward in dealing with economic development in the region.

Lisa Ferrell is a distinguished attorney in Arkansas who goes even further back with Obama, having been a colleague of his at Harvard Law School. Last year she represented the Obama campaign at the Delta regional forum for Presidential candidates to state what they would do for the region’s economic development, and she did a great job both last year and this. At the Clinton School she recalled the intellect and commitment to helping people that Barack Obama demonstrated at Harvard Law School, and she summarized the various influences on his development, such as the noted constitutional law scholar Laurence Tribe, experts in family law, and other nationally recognized scholars. We are glad to have Lisa Ferrell’s leadership in Arkansas and the region.

Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville, Alabama is one of our most vigorous supporters. In the spirit of bipartisanship, we asked him to summarize his work as one of Sen. John McCain’s key supporters in the South. Mayor Day goes back many years with Sen. McCain, who traveled to the Alabama Black Belt in Thomasville, Selma and other communities to see firsthand conditions in that part of the country. John McCain spent the entire day touring these areas and talking with the people, so this was not just a photo op visit. Mayor Day stressed that McCain expressed real concern for the plight of people in economically distressed rural regions. Sheldon Day continues to stay in touch with Sen. McCain, who clearly continues to be a major force in the Senate. Mayor Day is a Republican who works well with people from both parties. When he said that Barack Obama “is my President” and everybody’s President, he received a very enthusiastic round of applause for his nonpartisan, cooperative spirit.

Despite having many cancellations from some of our partners because of the massive power outages caused by ice storms in much of northeastern Arkansas, southeastern Missouri and western Kentucky, we had a total of about 175 people who attended at least part of the conference, with a packed house for the sessions with Gov. Beebe, President Clinton, and for most of the opening session. (One of these years we will have good weather for this conference–or if not we’ll keep on plugging along anyhow.)

Then we focused on what many people believe is the key to long-term sustainable economic development: education. Lt. Gov. Halter discussed Arkansas’ new lottery that will provide funding for college scholarships.

We had an excellent panel on education led by long-time Delta regional advocate Alan Gumbel, president of Gumbel & ssociates in Memphis, Tennessee, who has worked on regional issues since the days when then Gov. Bill Clinton, US Sen. Dale Bumpers and many other leaders worked on the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, through the Clinton administration’s Delta Regional Inititative and today. President Robin Myers of Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville, Arkansas discussed his innovations in education in northeast Arkansas with the Great River Promise, an initiative for expanding opportunities to college education in that area, and his work with a consortium of colleges across east Arkansas. Then we heard from Regina Wilkerson of the Clinton School as noted above. We were glad to have Barbara Andrews of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which does a great job of educating people about the great legacy of the civil rights movement of the Delta. We were glad to hear her presentation at this time, as America elected an African American President 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mayor Barrett Harrison of Blytheville, Arkansas started off the big picture panel on community and economic development in the Delta at the main session on Feb. 6 at the Clinton Library. Mayor Harrison described his remarkable successes in generating job growth in the Blytheville, Arkansas, where job creation has greatly expanded in recent years. He recalled the cooperative work he conducted with many different organizations, businesses and individuals, including Clif Chitwood of the Great River Economic Development Foundation and many others. We had about a dozen participants from Blytheville, Osceola and Mississippi County and we greatly appreciate that area’s steadfast support for the coalition.

Robert Cole of the East Arkansas Enterprise Community gave a very insightful accont of the work of the East Arkansas Enterprise Community, based in Forrest City, Arkansas. Dr. Cole was a high-ranking official at the national USDA Rural Development headquarters in Washington, DC during the Clinton administration, and in recent years had led efforts for the East Arkansas Enterprise Community’s work in community and economic development in east Arkansas. A number of people commented about Dr. Cole’s summary of the successes of the East Arkansas Enterprise Community in making a modest amount of funding go a long way and in leveraging larger resources. We appreciate Dr. Cole as well for organizing a group of about a dozen local leaders fom St. Francis County and nearby areas to take part in the conference.

Mayor Thelma Collins of Itta Bena, Mississippi is highly regarded as one of the excellent mayors of a small community in the Delta, and she spoke eloquently of her town’s struggles to weather the storm of the economic crisis. Mayor Collins has been a participant at Delta Caucus events in Mississippi, Arkansas and Washington, DC and we greatly appreciate her advice and support for our organization.

Larry Williams of the Delta Citizens Alliance spoke about the collaborative efforts to get nonprofits and other local leaders throughout Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana to join together for the region’s development and in sharing information about best practices and models for development. The Delta Citizens Alliance is based in Greenville, Mississippi but operates across three states. Their Annual Convention is scheduled for April 23-24 in Greenville and we know that will be a very successful event.

Dr. Ivye Allen, President of the Foundation for the Mid South, based in Jackson, Mississippi, gave a superb presentation. She has been the head of that organization for a couple of years now and this was the first time we were able to schedule her to speak at one of our conferences and we greatly appreciated her taking the time from her busy schedule to join us at the conference. The Foundation for the Mid South headquarters is in Jackson, Mississippi but it operates throughout the Mid South, and it has been one of the largest and most important nonprofit foundations for many years. We know the foundation is in good hands under Dr. Allen’s leadership and we look forward to working with her for many years to come.

We also would like to express our appreciation for this panel’s patience in working their presentations around the statements from President Clinton and Sen. Pryor, who had to speak at times originally scheduled for that panel.

State Rep. Tommy Baker of Osceola, a long-time leader for the Delta and now a widely respected legislator from the Arkansas Delta, introduced Gov. Beebe, who has earned very high marks from our organization for his great work on expanded educational funding, transportation improvements, advocacy for the Delta to become the new “Silicon Valley” for alternative energy, improved health care for underserved areas like the Delta, and expanded tourism efforts for the region. He also informed us that he has been vigorously going to bat for our region in direct communications to Congress and the White House.

Speaker Robbie Wills of the Arkansas legislature spoke about the new tobacco tax that is designed to fund improvements in health care for underserved areas like the Delta, and we appreciated his concise and informative presentation on that vital topic.

At the luncheon, all the speakers were women: Mayor Heather Hudson of Greenville, Mississippi; nationally recognized FEMA expert Kay Goss, and Jan Paschal, executive director and founder of the Every Child Is Ours Foundation.

Jan Paschal was a high-ranking Presidential appointee in the Clinton administration in the US Department of Education. As head of the Every Child Is Ours foundation, she is based in Tuckerman, Arkansas but is engaged in many activities throughout the Delta and America. During the recent ice storms in the Delta she prepared meals for a couple of hundred people who had been without food and power for extended periods. Her foundation is involved in a series of philanthropic activities in education, nutrition, community service and other issues. She brought several students who work with Every Child Is Ours initiatives at Newport High School, such as food drives, mentoring program for upcoming high school students, Big Brother/Big Sister program, providing school supplies and textbooks to Mexico, and other activities.

Mayor Heather Hudson is the dynamic young mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. She is both the first African American and the first female to serve as mayor of the major Delta city of Greenville. As a bright young graduate of Tulane Law School, she could have had many job opportunities with firms in big cities outside the Delta, but chose to return home to Greenville, and we in the Delta are so glad to have her leadership in our region. During the Presidential campaign last year she had an opportunity to talk in person with Barack Obama, and gave him thoughtful insights into the issues of Greenville and the Delta region. Recently she has consulted with high-level officials of the Obama transition and now President Obama’s administration. She has pursued a wide variety of community and economic development innovations for the development of Greenville, and is now serving as President of the National Conference of Black Mayors. She will clearly be an important leader for many years to come regionally and nationally.

Kay Goss is a nationally recognized expert on emergency relief, FEMA and related issues. She served as Associate Director of FEMA under President Clinton and Director Jamie Lee Witt, and FEMA was regarded as a model agency in the 1990s when Kay Goss was one of the key leaders of that vital agency. In recent years she has been a leading executive for organizations working on FEMA and related issues. She has done extensive analysis of the inadequate FEMA responses to Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters in the Delta region. Currently she is advising the Obama administration on how to reform FEMA after the debacles that have afflicted that agency in recent years. She is especially an eloquent advocate of the need to assure that top FEMA officials have excellent professional qualifications and are not placed in positions at that agency for partisan political reasons. Kay Goss is a regular speaker at Delta Caucus events and she gave a great presentation as always. Many people at the conference expressed their opinion that it would be great if President Obama appointed her as FEMA Director, although of course that decision is strictly up to the President.

Minnie Bommer—west Tennessee rural development expert and veteran advocate for the Delta region–After the luncheon, the Caucus heard an excellent motivational statement from Minnie Bommer, rural development expert and long-time Delta regional advocate. Ms. Bommer has engaged in many constructive activities in rural health care, community and economic development in the region for many years. She commended the grassroots coalition for their efforts to work together as a coalition for the development of the region, despite the difficult economic challenges that we all face. Ms. Bommer is from the west Tennessee community of Covington and has helped recruit other Delta Grassroots Caucus participants from the important area of west Tennessee. She has many contacts with grassroots leaders across the region and has strong ties with the Tennessee Congressional delegation. She has been a dynamic supporter of the Delta regional movement from the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission, the Clinton administration’s Delta Regional Initiative, and the Delta Grassroots Caucus activities of today and we greatly value her stalwart support for our coalition.

The conference concluded with an panel on transportation, housing and other infrastructure issues, led by Mayor Sheldon Day of Thomasville, Alabama, who along with speaking at the opening also moderated this panel. Mayor Day has a great deal of expertise on infrastructure issues and he is a vital partner in our efforts to go to bat for our region’s development on Capitol Hill. In particular he has close ties with Alabama Members of Congress such as Senators Shelby and Sessions and Congressman Artur Davis.

Mayor Mike Marshall of Sikeston, Missouri has many years of expertise in banking, infrastructure, as a commissioner of the Southeast Missouri Regional Port Authority, and as mayor of the important Delta city of Sikeston in the southeast Missouri Delta. He is a stalwart partner of the Delta Caucus and has strong relationships with Sen. Claire McCaskill and Rep. Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri, and those ties were and are very valuable to us as we move forward in attacking our current economic problems. Mike Marshall takes a proactive approach to problems, and for example, recently led the way in convening a summit to address alarming inadequacies in bridges across the Mississippi. That summit cast national attention on the reality that bridges in the Missouri, Kentucky and Illinois area along the Mississippi have the lowest sufficiency ratings of any from Minnesota to New Orleans. He is currently working on funding resources to build a new bridge connecting Missouri and Illinois. Mike is an entertaining and inspirational speaker and we appreciated his participation.

Chris Masingill is DRA Alternate for the state of Arkansas and a key adviser to Gov. Mike Beebe, who has won praise from our coalition for his many constructive actions in education, health care, job creation, renewable energy, and transportation. Chris is very knowledgeable about DRA issues and has been a strong supporter of both that agency and the Delta Grassroots Caucus. He worked closely with Bill Triplett, R.L. Condra and other officials of the DRA in helping develop a list of “shovel ready” economic development projects amounting to a total of $5.8 billion for water and sewer, information technology, and a broad range of other infrastructure projects across the region, working closely with the local planning districts and states in developing this list. This is the kind of research and information that the Obama administration and Congress greatly need as they decide where to invest the money both wisely and expeditiously enough to have an impact on stimulating the economy. Chris and the DRA officials and others involved in activities like these deserve our great appreciation.

Johnnie Bolin, head of the Arkansas Good Roads Transportation Council, is one of the most knowledgeable experts on transportation in the entire region. He emphasized that we have two big opportunities this year to make major progress on improving our region’s transportation system—first in the stimulus package, and then in the upcoming highway bill. Indeed about one half of the projected jobs to be created out of the economic stimulus—1.5 million—will be transportation jobs. This is historic chance to make major progress on the Interstate 69 Corridor, the Great River Bridge, and the entire $18.5 billion Delta Development Highway System plan. This plan was developed with extensive research and consultation among the DRA, the states, US Dept. of Transportation, transportation experts, grassroots leaders and other relevant parties, and that is always a major plus when you are asking Congress for appropriations. I-69 has already been named one of six national Corridors of the Future that are supposed to have priority in funding decisions. Johnnie Bolin has been there every step of the way for us and we know he will continue to do so. We will keep relying on his experience and expertise throughout the year and he will be a key participant at our June 2, 3 and 4, 2009 Delta conference in Washington, DC.

National and regional housing experts: Kenny Gober, Executive Director of the McGehee-Lake Village Housing Authority, and Lance George from the national Housing Assistance Council gave presentations on the housing market, which has been so crucial in the economic crisis. The economic stimulus has major provisions for expanded rural low-income housing, which has suffered major cuts during the Bush administration, and these disproportionately harm the Delta with our relatively larger percentage of low-income people. There will always be some fine tuning and revisions needed in such a massive piece of legislation, and we will need to keep following up on reforming the rural housing programs that declined so much under the previous administration. Kenny Gober is one of the most knowledgeable housing experts who is there working in the heart of the Delta in southeast Arkansas. Lance George is one of the most knowledgeable experts on national rural housing. The Housing Assistance Council has provided superb support and substantive information about housing issues for many years and we always place great value on their advice.

We would like to also express thanks to Kenny Gober, Desha County Judge Mark McElroy, Charlotte Schexsnayder, Ann Cash and all the other Desha County supporters who are too numerous to name for their fabulous support year after year for the Delta Caucus. We would not be where we are today without such energetic support from an area that lies at the heart and the crossroads of the whole region.

MEDIA COVERAGE: The media coverage turned out well on the whole. The Democrat Gazette had the article emphasizing President Clinton’s ideas about renewable energy, and the next day the Delta Grassroots Caucus was quoted on the front page article on the economic stimulus’ impact on predominantly rural, impoverished regions like the Delta. They referred to our conference at the Clinton Presidential Center and quoted my comment about the stimulus having many beneficial economic provisions in renewable energy, jobs, etc., and actually much of the framework for that entire article was based on the memo I wrote and sent to Jane Fullerton of the Democrat Washington, DC bureau earlier summarizing the key sections of the stimulus that were most relevant for the Delta. That was quite a challenge to go wading through that monstrosity of a bill for the most relevant provisions and for our analysis of its merits, but we provided an important service in doing so. Channel 7 had two very good reports, the Stephens news media had a good article on Gov. Beebe’s speech, Channel 4 covered it as well as some smaller media outlets. We always get some local coverage in smaller papers across the region as well.

Our group is concerned about the economic crisis but also confident that the new leadership can turn things around for the economy in time, with bipartisan support.

In particular we appreciated Skip Rutherford and Nicolai DiPippa for doing a great job in hosting the opening session at the Clinton School. I appreciated Joyce Willis for working on the request for President Clinton to speak, as well as Taren Robinson and Neil Gillespie for doing a great job with the logistics at the Clinton Library main session.

Once again we would like to thank our sponsors:


Nucor Yamato Steel and Nucor Steel of Arkansas, Blytheville, Arkansas


University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service

Entergy Corporation

Housing Assistance Council in Washington, DC

Inspire Hope Institute, Chairman, Laymon Jones

City of Sikeston, Missouri

City of Carbondale, Illinois

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (state organizations in Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, and national headquarters in Atlanta Georgia


Grambling State University, Grambling, Louisiana

Susanna Wesley Family Learning Center, East Prairie, Missouri

East Arkansas Enterprise Community, Forrest City, Arkansas

Delta Citizens Alliance, Greenville, Mississippi

McGehee Industrial Foundation, McGehee, Arkansas

McGehee Bank

Mississippi County Equal Opportunity Commission

First Bank of the Delta, Helena-West Helena, Arkansas

Desha County Judge Mark McElroy

Thanks again for all you did to make this conference such a big success, and keep up the good work for the Delta’s community and economic development.

Lee Powell, MDGC (202) 360-6347