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Congressman Bennie Thompson on the Israel-Hamas conflict, House leadership void and Brandon Presley

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U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., comments on the support the Biden Administration has provided for rural broadband projects at the Bolton-Edwards Elementary/Middle School, in Bolton, Miss., Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023, during a celebration hosted by media and technology company, Comcast.
(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Congressman Bennie Thompson represents Mississippi’s second congressional district, which comprises much of the Mississippi Delta. He is also former chair and current ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. 

Mississippi Edition host Desare Frazier spoke with Thompson in an interview that has been edited for clarity.

Isreal-Hamas conflict


Desare Frazier: What was your reaction when the Israel-Hamas conflict began? That surprise missile strike Saturday hitting cities in Israel, all of the death and destruction. Your thoughts? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, like most of the people here in the United States, we were quite concerned, as well as upset that the Hamas terrorists would strike Israel. But as important is that conflict has been going on for quite a while. We have put resources into Israel for quite a while to protect it and from our intelligence sources no one really saw this coming. The potential has always existed, but normally there would be some upticks in intelligence to say that you need to be on an enhanced watch. We've not seen that, so right now it's an unfortunate situation. The lives lost, American lives, Israeli lives, the people who are still captured — is just sad. And so, like so many people, we pray for those who are involved and we hope for an expeditious outcome to this situation. But from all indications, this is going to take a while.

Desare Frazier: What do you think about trying to broker some type of peace? 

Bennie Thompson:Well, you know, our secretary of state is headed there to Israel as we speak, to try to start the process of getting cooler heads to prevail and people to talk. We're going to have to bring some of our allies around the region involved in this conversation so that if they can talk to one side better than the United States, then we need to have them as part of the conversation. So from the Democratic side, we are fine. I understand the Republican colleagues in the House have taken a similar position that at best, if we could get the people freed who are captive as well as try to bring some closure to the fighting, we all would be much better off. 

Desare Frazier: As chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, what does this mean for your work and for America? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, we've been briefed on a daily basis about the current situation. At this point, we are of the opinion that while we are on heightened alert here in the United States, we don't have any upticks and warnings that might say something imminent will happen. But all our resources are being applied to making sure that people here in the United States are protected. We do have systems in place for that to occur. From a homeland security perspective, we've also made money available to houses of worship, mosques, synagogues and other situations to protect their facilities. And we'll continue to do that. 

Desare Frazier: Do you support providing military aid to Israel? Won't that hurt any effort to resolve this in a way that will at least stop the violence? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, the help is we are repositioning ships as well as manpower in the region, which is something we normally do at any hotspot in the world. We also have started moving equipment directly into Israel so that they can defend themselves, and we will continue to do that. I'm not aware of any soldiers being deployed that will go on the ground in Israel at this point. 

Desare Frazier: Supporters of Palestinians say there's always been violence in Gaza, even though it wasn't portrayed as such. The settlements that have developed and continued to develop throughout that area kept encroaching on Palestinian land and boys throwing rocks at soldiers were jailed indefinitely or killed. So there is an argument here that there has been a form of oppression taking place Without a war. But definitely not how you would want human rights being neglected or human rights abuses. 

Bennie Thompson: The only thing I can say is I am for a two-state solution. I think the Palestinians, as well as the Israelis, ought to be able to peacefully coexist. I've encouraged that ever since I've been here. Hamas is a totally different situation — they are terrorists sworn to do all they can to defeat Israel. That's not where the Palestinians are. They differ and they've had differences, but not to the extent that the Hamas are in this situation. So my support is for those individuals who are willing to talk and debate peace, and I encourage that to occur. But what has occurred this past weekend is totally unacceptable and we have to support Israel and help them defend themselves against these kinds of situations. 


House speaker


Desare Frazier:Moving on to your chamber, Republican Kevin McCarthy is no longer House Speaker. Matt Gaetz was able to lead a small group, along with Democrats, to oust him from that position. Do you think McCarthy should have agreed to that rule change? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, any time it takes you 15 votes to win an office and each time a vote is taken, you give a concession to get individuals to support you. By the time those 15 votes are cast, there's nothing left in terms of influence with the office because you've given it up. And one of those things he gave up was that one person could put forth a motion to vacate the speaker's chair, and that's what Matt Gaetz did. And ultimately, eight people sided with him, and that's what happened. But this is Republicans fighting Republicans — Republicans are the majority party. If they can't get along, that's a Republican problem. Now that Republican problem spills over into a situation like what we are doing and discussing with respect to his rule, because we can't take up any legislation until they elect a speaker. If they elect a speaker and then if some additional resources can be made available to Israel as well as Ukraine, we'll do that. But we are basically in neutral, waiting for the Republicans to get their act together. I hope they do it in short order because there's too many critical issues facing this country and the world where United States influence is sorely needed. And because we don't have a leader in the United States House of Representatives, we all are just here waiting for Republicans to get their act together.

Desare Frazier: Republicans met and decided between Jim Jordan, chair of the Judiciary Committee, and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who they would put up and vote for for House speaker. Turns out Scalise won that vote, although it's not finalized until it goes to the floor. What do you think about that? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, normally in America, we settle our differences by voting. If Steve Scalise is the vote and heir apparent or the speaker and he gets the vote, we Democrats will work with him. But the ability to get the requisite number of votes within the Republican Party to become speaker is strictly the Republican Party's problem — they have to get to the votes. At some point Republicans have to demonstrate that they have the leadership to run this country and influence the rest of the world. By taking out their leader of the Republican House of Representatives majority, they have really shown an ugly side of their party politics. Normally, these kind of fights you have in the room and when you come out you're united. Republicans are divided, Democrats are united. We're willing to work. I think we have to resolve this issue in Ukraine and Israel. As Democrats and Republicans are working together right now, we don't have a Republican speaker and so the critical issues facing this great country of ours, we're just kind of in limbo until Republicans come forward with an individual they all can agree with that's capable of providing leadership at the speaker's position. 

Desare Frazier: Steve Scalise has called himself David Duke in a suit, and David Duke is the former grand wizard of the KKK. How do you see this playing out? How will folks be able to work with him of different nationalities when he has characterized himself like that? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, that's a poor characterization. Associating yourself with David Duke is unfortunate, and I hope at some point he apologizes for such an insensitive statement. But from my standpoint, I will vote for Hakeem Jeffries for speaker. I'm a minority vote in the overall vote but I think all 212 Democratic votes will be united for Hakeem Jeffries. But in terms of who becomes speaker, it's the Republican majority. If they pick someone who has identified with David Duke, I think they are making a serious mistake. 

Federal budget

Desare Frazier:The House of Representatives has a budget to pass. Whether it's temporary or extended, that deadline is coming up next month. Where do you think that stands at this point? 

Bennie Thompson: The last thing we need is a shutdown. Well, if November 17 comes around and we're no further ahead than where we are now, then a shutdown is. We shouldn't put military, farmers, school kids or senior citizens — anyone who's at risk if government shuts down — in that kind of position. I can assure you that on the Democratic side we will vote for any measure that keeps the government open. We're not here to punish American citizens. But it's the Republican leadership that has to understand that it's more than just who they are, but it's the United States of America, and they expect the 435 members in the House and 100 members in the Senate to do their job — a government shutdown is not doing your job. And so while we will make the arguments between now and November 17, I hope we get some resolution to it. But at the outset, I want to say to the listeners, you need to call your congressperson and let them know that you are concerned about any potential shutdown, and for us to stay here as long as it takes so that we can get our budget passed and get on with the business of taking care of American citizens. 

Desare Frazier: How do you feel about restoring funding for Ukraine in this budget? 

Bennie Thompson: There's no question about it — Russia has attacked Ukraine just like Hamas has attacked Israel. And if we allow somebody like Russia to jump on an ally of ours like Ukraine, shame on us, because it's all for the wrong reason. I don't trust Putin in Russia, I don't care what former President Donald Trump said about his relationship with him. All I know about Putin as an individual is he can't be trusted. And what I've seen him do to the country of Ukraine and his people is a sad commentary for anyone who tries to defend him. And the same thing about what Hamas is doing to Israel — we have to help both of them. I'm looking forward to whatever their vote comes to support the people of Ukraine as well as the people of Israel. 

Desare Frazier: Is there any tracking going on for how that money in Ukraine is being used? There are critics who are complaining about corruption there. 

Bennie Thompson: Well, we track a lot of money all over the world. I can tell you that it's probably no different than some of the other countries that are not at war, but that we help. It's just some of those necessary things that happen in situations like that. But if the question is, 'do we stop because of the allegations of what's going on in Ukraine, or do we continue to help them?' I think we obviously have to continue to help them because I know what Putin is capable of doing and he's doing it for all the wrong reasons. And if he's successful in Ukraine he's not going to stop there. Those other countries that border Ukraine, they become at risk, and so we have to be the adult in this whole debate and protect our allies no matter where they are, when they are confronted with people like Putin who are trying to destroy, not just people, but their entire culture. 


Brandon Presley campaign


Desare Frazier: This weekend. James Clyburn of South Carolina will be joining you in Mississippi to campaign for Democratic nominee Brandon Presley, who's running for governor. Tell us what you're going to be doing. Can you tell us about some of the stops planned or your itinerary at all? 

Bennie Thompson: Well, let me say I'm happy that my good friend James Clyburn, who I've known for over 40 years, is coming to Mississippi. When I ran for Congress the first time, he came back then and campaigned for me. He's a solid leader in the United States House of Representatives. He's a wise sage that people from all over call for advice, and I'm so happy that he's taken two days out of his schedule to come to Mississippi and help Brandon Presley and others in their campaign to get elected on November 7. He will be in the Jackson metropolitan area, we will be at Key Chapel Church, we’ll be at New Hope and we will be at Anderson United Methodist Church. And on Sunday morning, we will also be at Jackson State University and Tougaloo College. We will have some other meetings with young Democrats and others. So it'll be a full two days of getting people to understand why it's so important to go out to vote and in this instance, why voting for a Democrat makes good sense for a state like Mississippi. We cannot make it without the federal government's help, so every dollar we send to Washington, we get $3 back. And if people continue to turn down resources coming to Mississippi like the Medicaid expansion, dollar opportunities for hospitals, then that's shame on us. And so I think Congressman Clyburn's visit highlights why, in Mississippi, every person should go out and vote, and in this instance, to support Brandon Presley and the other Democrats on the ticket. 

Desare Frazier: This is a hotly contested race. Most recently, campaign reports filed show that Brandon Presley has raised more money than Governor Tate Reeves, although Reeves has more in his coffers. The National Democratic Party has been very effective in raising money to send to Presley. Do you think that that is going to make a difference in this race? 

Bennie Thompson: Resources are important in just about every race, whether you can raise them locally or nationally. The Republican Governors conference is supporting Tate Reeves, just like the Democratic Governors Association is supporting Brandon Presley. So what I see here is an identification that with proper resources, Brandon Presley can win and you can make an argument about resources being needed and people here support it, then I think that has to be complimentary of the Presley campaign. They've done a wonderful job. Every day I'm in Washington, someone asks me about that race — they're not asking me about the Louisiana race, they're not asking me about the Kentucky race. They're asking me about the Mississippi race, which tell me it's on a lot of people's radar screen, and that's a good thing because ultimately it helps if there's a robust turnout on November 7. If the African-American vote turns out, if the young folk turn out, if our senior citizens turn out, we could very well have a new governor elect at the end of that day. But it all depends on trying to get people out to vote. I'm excited about it, and I just look forward over the next three weeks to doing all I can to make that happen. 

Desare Frazier: After former Attorney general Democrat Jim Hood lost in 2020, folks are asking if a Democrat can win in Mississippi because there was a lot of hope and he had Republican support. But he also was criticized for not pursuing the Black vote. 

Bennie Thompson: That's been one of those red herrings that has operated in our state for too long. Black voters are just like white voters and you need to pursue those votes as aggressively as possible. I think the misnomer is that if I as a white individual try to get more Black votes then that's going to hurt me on the white side. I don't believe it. I think voters are smart enough now to know that if you really want to win, you got to get Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, as well as Black people, Latino, and white to vote for you. So in order to do that, I have to have a message that resonates with all those entities. And so I think Brandon Presley is running a smart campaign — you can't slip up and win a race. You've got to be public, front and center and ask people for their votes and support and prayers on Election Day. 

Desare Frazier: There is a perception among some that equate the Democratic Party in Mississippi with being the Black party. 

Bennie Thompson: They call you all kinds of things to try to hold you back, but I think we have a two-party system in this state. We have more local Democrats elected in Mississippi than we have Republicans, and so that's a good thing. It's just the fact that over time, the Republican Party is growing, but the Democratic Party is still robust. I feel good about Joe Biden as president. He's done the right thing when Mississippians needed help, whether it was a disaster or whether it was just addressing coal and some other challenges, infrastructure as it relates to broadband, highways, bridges, all these things. He has come and he didn't say, 'I'm doing this because I want to help Democrats,' he says, 'I want to help Mississippians.' And that's what we got to have. And so if I get accused of being identified with Joe Biden, I will take Joe Biden any day over Donald Trump.