Judge Henry Wingate, JXN Water chief Ted Henifin, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Federal Judge Henry Wingate says critics lobbing racial accusations against Ted Henifin “have no experience in water management, and no logical rationale why an African American would be better suited to fix a lingering problem which has gone unsolved for decades by past African American leadership.”
Federal District Judge Henry Wingate is black. The man he brought in to help straighten up the disaster that is Jackson’s public water system, Ted Henifin, is white.
When Henifin first arrived, it seemed he might be able to navigate around some of the racial accusations that have plagued the state’s relationship with Jackson. City officials seemed eager to be done with the state and to be in league with the Biden administration. They also seemed pleased with the dollars pouring in from D.C.
The honeymoon between the City’s power structure and Henifin did not last long.
In early July, Wingate held a status conference, during which he allowed a mounting cadre of Henifin critics to voice their opposition. Having heard the naysayers’ arguments, Wingate took the unusual step of entering a response to the status conference on the Court docket Friday.
The 76-year old jurist pulled no punches. “This court expected the speaker-attendees to come armed with quantifiable facts, fair assessments of progress thus far, and reasonable expectations for the the foreseeable future. Not so! Overall, the presentations from Henifin’s critics were either uninformed, short-sighted, clearly political, well-intentioned but naive, or racist.”
Wingate summarized the racial critiques of Henifin thusly: “‘Ted is White,’ they protested. “Jackson,’ they said, ‘is more than 80% African American.’ As such, they reasoned, Jackson should have its water savior an African American and more, someone from Jackson itself.”
In response, the judge excoriated the line of argument:
These critics inexplicably did not appreciate the inexcusable impact of these racially-charged words uttered in a deep-South State they have attacked all their lives for racism. Lady Justice must have experienced a stabbing pain from these dagger-like words which are so reminiscent of times when African Americans have been on the receiving end. The speakers of these malignant sentences could not justify their statements.
Wingate went on to explain that critics of the JXN Water chief “have no experience in water management, and no logical rationale why an African American would be better suited to fix a lingering problem which has gone unsolved for decades by past African American leadership.”
The judge made clear that competence and progress is what should matter, pointing to one very concrete example of past failure and Henifin success. For seven years, at a location off Atkins Road, a busted water pipe gushed 5 million gallons of water a day, enough to serve 50,000 residents. The cost of the leak over the seven year span was over $16 million to the City’s residents.
“The City says it did not know the extent of this leak, nor the length of time it had existed, even though the City should have known from its instruments, that massive amounts of water were not being delivered to homes,” said Wingate.
He continued increduously, “whether the City was aware of that enormous rupture, or exactly how long it took for that lost purified water to form an artificial lake approximately thirty feet deep and create a huge, breathtaking waterfall over seven feet high, Henifin, his round-the-clock-crew, and his expeditiously-procured contractor managed to fix the rupture in approximately sixty days after locating it.”
Wingate described the effort as “heroic,” referenced at least 200 other leaks that have been fixed since Henifin arrived, and expressed confidence that Henifin “clearly is the man for the job.”
He also responded to criticism that Henifin had set up the Call Center for complaints outside of the city limits, in Pearl, under a new contract with an external vendor.
Prior to contracting with Protel, Inc. five weeks ago, City of Jackson employees and temp staff were fielding customer calls. The average wait time was an astonishing 4 hours and 9 minutes. The average wait time for customers under the new Protel Call Center arrangement is 1 minute and 46 seconds.
So yes, Henifin took a task away from the city and the result is a reduction in customer wait times of over four hours.
The message of Wingate’s response is clear. He believes Henifin has done more in a few months than the City of Jackson did over decades to address its flailing water system.
People who have failed almost invariably feel resentment when others step in and succeed. It exposes them. Ultimately, though, if Henifin can successfully fix what ails Jackson’s water and sewer system, it will be a win for the people of Jackson. In Wingate, he has the perfect guardian–an African American federal judge who can blunt the weaponization of race, is above Jackson politics, and is unwilling to suffer fools.