After publicly endorsing GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd and welcoming Muslims and immigrants to take jobs in Gibson County, Mayor Tom Witherspoon, twice elected as a Democrat, will run for re-election as an Independent.
Witherspoon credits Randy Boyd for helping “Gibson County stay in the race to land the Tyson Foods plant” and on several occasions, has suggested that his vote for Boyd is payback for that assistance saying, “[t]hat man kept his word with me and I’ll keep my word with him.”
Witherspoon also says that like Boyd, he welcomes Muslims and immigrants to come work in Gibson County:
Randy, like me, isn’t afraid of a Muslim coming to the county and maybe seeking a job, or a legal immigrant coming to the county. He’s not afraid of that; neither am I. If somebody wants to come here legally, and seek employment and be productive and work hard, God knows we need more of that, not less of it.
Meat processing and packaging companies, including Tyson Foods, employ a steady stream of arriving refugees in plants across the country. In the case of the Tyson Foods plant in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, the company justified bringing Burmese refugee workers to supplement the “aging workforce, help lower the complex’s employee turnover rate and other factor.” A Tyson Foods representative explained that while most of the workers were local, sometimes the company is forced to look elsewhere for workers – “It’s part of an effort to keep our plant fully staffed and operating at its maximum.”
Mayor Witherspoon insists that the jobs in Humboldt will go “Gibson Countians” despite Tyson Foods’ record of soliciting and accommodating refugee labor and despite his own admission that county officials cannot dictate who the Tyson Foods company should hire in any of its plants.
Tysons Foods has a demonstrated commitment to employing refugees; its Human Resources Manager, Gary Denton served on the board of the Nashville-based Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee. The Refugee Resettlement Program of Pennsylvania presented Tyson Foods with an Award of Excellence for being “one of our greatest partners and employers in the Lancaster, PA area.”
Lavinia Limon, former Director of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement during the Clinton administration and the recently retired CEO of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants refugee resettlement agency, confirmed that the meatpacking industry flipped from illegal alien workers to refugees resettled in the U.S.:
What the meatpacking industry knows is that these are really good workers. They show up on time. They say ‘yes’ when they are told what to do. They do what is necessary for their survival, Limon said. It works really well for employers.
Doris Meissner, former Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the Reagan and Clinton administrations, now a Senior Fellow and immigration content expert for the Migration Policy Institute, also confirmed big meat’s reliance on refugee labor, especially chicken processing plants:
The poultry industry has been one of several industries that has had the clear experience that it needs foreign-born workers or access to foreign-born workers as part of its workforce.
Nine days after filing his petition to run for re-election as a Democrat and then finding out that Keith Cunningham, chair of the Gibson County Democratic Party will also run for Mayor, Witherspoon said he would run as an Independent.
The Star asked Keith Cunningham about his decision to run for Mayor against Tom Witherspoon, his view of Witherspoon’s public endorsement of Randy Boyd and his position about Tyson Foods’ plans for Gibson County. Cunningham forwarded the following statement:
There were many competent people involved with the decision to bring Tyson to Gibson County. As long as any environmental issues are addressed and the people of Gibson County are given opportunity for employment, I believe it would be a great asset for West Tennessee.
Mr. Witherspoon has the right to vote for whomever he wants. But out of respect for the Democratic party of which he claimed to be a ‘lifelong member’ I believe he should have kept his endorsement for Randy Boyd private.
If I am elected as mayor I want to ‘Restore Faith in Gibson County.’
Witherspoon used Facebook to confirm that he would vote for Randy Boyd in the GOP gubernatorial primary election, because he “votes people, not parties.” Witherspoon has also generated controversy related to the Tyson Foods plant with comments he has posted on Facebook.
After The Star reported about Tyson Foods’ use of refugee labor at its chicken processing plants, the impact on other rural towns with the arrival of this labor force and the lack of transparency about the plans for Humboldt, Witherspoon defended the process bringing Tyson Foods to Gibson County. Using Facebook Witherspoon claimed that “media was involved before, during and after. All public meetings were properly advertised, conducted and closed.”
Neither the Mayor of Humboldt, the Gibson County Director of Economic Development, nor a representative from Tyson Foods was willing to confirm Witherspoon’s statements or produce evidence of the public meetings. Nor were Gibson County officials willing to admit The Star’s acceptance of their invitation and offer of dates to meet in Gibson County.
Gibson County officials and the state legislators representing the county have also been short on answers regarding the $18 million dollar supplemental appropriation that will be made to this year’s state budget and will be given to Tyson Foods as a FastTrack grant, presumably in exchange for the deal in Humboldt.
Tyson Foods reported $38 billion in sales for Fiscal Year 2017.
“Welcoming” Witherspoon says he’ll run on his record. Whether his record of endorsing a GOP candidate for governor and welcoming Muslims and immigrants to take jobs in a county he claims has many unemployed and underemployed residents, wins him a third term as mayor, remains to be seen.