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Stories Written by Lloyd Gray
Tomorrow it will have been three months. No doubt it seems longer for the people whose lives and surroundings were turned upside down by the April 28 tornado.
It has been long enough to get past the initial numbing shock, but the difficult work of full recovery won’t be finished for a long time to come, years in some cases.
The waves of volunteers, which reached an incredible climax with the thousands brought by Eight Days of Hope, will begin to subside. The encouragement that comes with seeing immediate progress in debris removal and general cleanup will no longer be evident. The hard work of restoration and rebuilding will have to be done without the initial post-storm surge of adrenaline, and it will be emotionally trying for many, but it will surely get done.
What will be most challenging is sustaining the effort to ensure that the way the recovery proceeds is best for the people and neighborhoods affected and the city and county as a whole. So much rides on doing it right.
In Tupelo, neighborhood associations in the hardest hit areas have stepped up. They’re working to ensure that repaired and rebuilt homes stay true to the neighborhoods’ character, keeping the disaster from destabilizing what have been some of the city’s most stable neighborhoods. With other older neighborhoods struggling, it’s vital that Tupelo keep Joyner, Bristow Acres, Sharon Hills and the Rogers Drive/Bel Air areas strong.
The effort outside the city limits in Lee County provides an obvious impetus for the Board of Supervisors to adopt a building code. State Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney recently noted from his office’s inspection that considerably more wind damage occurred to homes outside Tupelo, which has a building code, than to those inside the city. While there were certainly exceptions, the bulk of damage to homes in the city, Chaney said, was from falling trees.
Of course there was quite a bit of wind damage along the North Gloster business corridor, which remains the most starkly visible evidence of the storm’s impact, given that it is along a major city thoroughfare. Some rebuilding has started, and a few business remnants have been removed, but some damaged or virtually destroyed structures remain largely untouched.
The city will get a psychological lift when North Gloster is more abuzz with rebuilding, but it’s important there, as in the residential neighborhoods, to think hard about how that happens. The opportunity exists to make it better, more cohesive, more attractive than before – and therefore more valuable to businesses and the community alike.
Orderly, systematic thinking and planning for the future has at various times been a strength of Tupelo and Lee County. Now is an important time to reassert that community characteristic. Local governments can’t do it all, but they must play a leadership role.
The 1936 tornado – much more deadly and devastating than the 2014 storm – gave Tupelo and the surrounding area much of its identity and sense of resiliency and connectedness for decades to come. It was a defining moment, one in which the usual social, economic and racial divisions were cast aside, if only for a while, and the community rallied for mutual support, encouragement and tangible assistance.
Those who survived that storm often have identified it as one of the pivotal points, if not the most important event, in developing what came to be called the “Tupelo Spirit.” Before moving to Tupelo 22 years ago, I lived in several other Mississippi cities and the clearest difference I immediately noticed in Tupelo was the community’s “can-do” mindset. Surely that stems, in part, from the remarkable emergence from the 1936 tornado – as well as the poverty that was prevalent before it – into a rural economic development success story of national and even international note.
It was appropriate that community leaders invoked the “Tupelo Spirit” in the wake of the 2014 tornado, with Tupelo clearly referring to areas well beyond the city limits. “Tupelo Strong” became the slogan.
That spirit will be called upon repeatedly in the months and years of storm recovery that lie ahead. Years from now, in fact, we may look back at April 28, 2014, as a pivotal point in its renewal.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recently my wife was engaged in a conversation about education with a man who had one thing on his mind: Common Core.
The man was emphatic about his opposition to the education standards adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia after their development by state education leaders with full bipartisan support of the nation’s governors and business community.
What specifically is it, my wife repeatedly asked, that you don’t like about Common Core?
The man couldn’t come up with anything, but finally he blurted, “Sex education!”
Common Core has absolutely nothing to do with sex education. It’s about language arts and math. He of course had not read the standards or learned anything reliable about them, but his knee-jerk reaction was all too typical of much of the uninformed or ill-informed opposition to Common Core.
Very little controversy surrounded Common Core until the Obama administration embraced it after it was developed by the states. Then suddenly it became a federal takeover of education, and even in some people’s minds an insidious plot. This was Tea Party-fueled overreaction of an enormous magnitude.
Politically it has become a hot potato because of all the misinformation spread about it. So much so that Gov. Phil Bryant recently made the astounding statement that Common Core was a “failed program” when it hasn’t even been fully implemented in Mississippi nor the first tests measuring its effectiveness been given.
Bryant’s backing away from Common Core, just as neighboring Gov. Bobby Jindal in Louisiana had a few days before, is so transparently political as to be laughable – if it didn’t have such serious repercussions. The Tea Party has flexed its political muscle in the Chris McDaniel candidacy and others in the state Republican “establishment” could feel the heat of a primary challenge in 2015. McDaniel is an ardent Common Core foe, but even in the last legislative session only 11 votes out of 52 in the state Senate could be mustered to derail it.
That’s because most elected officials in state government know that the way Common Core has been framed by many of its opponents has been almost Orwellian – the polar opposite of its actual origins and intent.
This “federal takeover” of education, as opponents call it, was a product of the states and leaves to them, as well as to local school districts and classroom teachers, the key decisions on implementation. Common Core is not a curriculum, it’s a set of standards that attempts to provide a more rigorous framework for what students should be learning and how they should be able to apply it in ways that will better equip them for college and careers. It leaves decisions about curriculum to the states and localities, the opposite of a federal takeover.
Common Core is not connected to No Child Left Behind or any other federal education legislation. But after it had been created, the Obama administration’s Department of Education chose to include it as an incentive to states in its “Race to the Top” funding of educational innovation. Guilt by association!
The Obama administration also embraces charter schools and includes their availability in incentives to the states for federal dollars. By the logic of some Common Core opponents, that would mean charter schools are all part of a federal takeover of education.
“While the standards set grade-specific goals, they do not define how the standards should be taught or which materials should be used to support students,” the Common Core website – corestandards.org – explains. In fact, it is this very flexibility given to state and local education officials that produces the isolated examples of this book or that practice used in a particular local school district that Common Core opponents find objectionable. While railing against federal control, opponents cite decisions left in the hands of state and local officials in arguing against Common Core.
No less an authentic social conservative than former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee urged educators earlier this year to do what they needed to do to rebrand or refocus Common Core, “but don’t retreat.”
The retreat on Common Core by some politicians is pure political cowardice. Political leaders who know that Common Core has great potential for good for Mississippi schoolchildren mustn’t back down.
Mississippi is, for all practical purposes, a one-party state when it comes to statewide elections, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood being the only recent exception.
That may change sometime in the future, and this year’s Senate election so far has taught us to expect the unexpected. But for now, the situation is much like it was in the old days when we were a one-party Democratic state.
Back then, if you wanted to have a real say-so in who was elected to statewide office, you voted in the Democratic primary. News reports used to call winning the Democratic primary “tantamount to election.”
Even in the early growth of the Mississippi Republican Party in the 1970s and ‘80s, there were many election cycles with one Republican candidate for an office and no contested primary. So plenty of Republicans voted in the Democratic primary in those days, as Mississippi law allows, just as the reverse has been true through the years.
Even as recently as 2003, when there was a contested Republican primary for governor, Chris McDaniel, self-proclaimed lifelong Republican, voted in the Democratic primary. Mississippians through the years have vigorously asserted their right to vote in whatever primary they wanted for whoever they wanted. I’ve listened to complaints from many readers over the years that our comparatively loose primary laws were too restrictive, and few have advocated requiring party registration and restricting primary participation, as some states do.
When the Republicans were nascent in Mississippi, many advocated a completely open primary like Louisiana’s where every candidate ran on the same ballot, with the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, running it off if no one got a majority.
With this history, the cries from the McDaniel camp that it was somehow unprecedented or sleazy for Democrats to vote in the Republican Senate runoff, or to be encouraged by Thad Cochran and his campaign to do so, ring hollow. This has been going on for a long time in Mississippi, and some voters had what they considered particularly compelling reasons this time.
Travis Childers is a formidable candidate and can’t be written off. But even had McDaniel won the Republican nomination, the Democratic nominee would have been a decided underdog in November. Voters knew that in choosing the Republican nominee they were in all likelihood choosing the next senator.
Cochran is a 36-year veteran of the Senate who had long since gained the general election votes of hundreds of thousands of Mississippians who would identify themselves as Democrats or independents. If they were aware that Cochran was in trouble and thought the state would be better served by him than his opponent, our election laws allow those voters to decide where and how they cast their ballots.
What made this race distinct was the overt appeal by Republicans to black voters, directly and through surrogates. Again, it’s no surprise that many black voters felt comfortable enough with Cochran to vote for him; many have been doing so in general elections for decades. He’s the one Republican official elected statewide who has had some small measure of success in attracting black voters, largely because of his support for education, agriculture and related social service programs and his disinclination to engage in harsh partisan rhetoric.
If black Mississippi Democrats – or anyone else not a yellow-dog Republican – thought their concerns would be better addressed by Cochran’s political survival, the law is set up to accommodate them, unless they had voted in the Democratic primary on June 3. McDaniel supporters are trying to prove that many did, but it’s highly doubtful that any such instances were enough to have turned this election.
The notion that a party primary is a closed affair that only party-line adherents should participate in has never been the consensus nor the practice in Mississippi. If it was political necessity that caused the Cochran campaign to encourage a less “pure” Republican primary runoff, it is no less a political reaction that prompted McDaniel to object.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or email@example.com.
By Lloyd Gray
Having made history in victory long ago, Thad Cochran rallied to avoid making it in defeat on Tuesday.
The 76-year-old six-term U.S. senator, who was the first Mississippi Republican elected statewide in the modern era, survived a challenge that had insurgent Tea Party-backed candidate Chris McDaniel on the verge of a historic upset – what would have been the first defeat of an incumbent senator in the state in 72 years.
It also would have represented a marked departure from Mississippi’s historic practice of sending men to Washington and keeping them there for decades to build influence and make deals on the state’s behalf, as Cochran has done for 35 years in the Senate.
The 41-year Washington veteran, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives the same year McDaniel was born, waited a long time before finally announcing in December he would seek a seventh Senate term.
Then for months he acted almost indifferent to the prospect of his re-election as McDaniel, who had jumped into the race before Cochran made a decision, hammered at him from the right, with Cochran doing very little in response.
Rumors persisted that he really didn’t want to run again but had yielded to the wishes of state and national party leaders. He had said in 2008 that his sixth term would probably be his last.
It was not until McDaniel led him narrowly in the June 3 primary and forced a runoff that the low-key senior senator from Mississippi began to aggressively defend his record and hit back at McDaniel.
In the end, he survived for the general election battle with Democrat Travis Childers, pushing back what had, for a brief moment, seemed an irreversible historic tide.
Cochran’s career is itself one for the history books. In a state now dominated by Republican state and federal officeholders, he was the first Republican to win a statewide election in a nearly a century when he was elected to the Senate in 1978.
Six years earlier as a 34-year-old Jackson lawyer, the Pontotoc native and son of educators had ridden the coattails of Richard Nixon’s re-election to capture an open House seat in the 4th Congressional District, which then stretched from Jackson over to the Mississippi River and down through southwest Mississippi.
He became the first Republican to represent the area in Congress since post-Civil War Reconstruction by winning with a plurality of the vote over the Democratic nominee, state Sen. Ellis Bodron of Vicksburg. The presence of a black independent in the race took votes that probably would have gone to the Democrat, a circumstance that would repeat itself when he ran for the Senate.
His House district included a significant number of black voters, and early-on Cochran paid attention to their concerns, supporting federal education programs like Head Start and otherwise pursuing a more moderate course, substantively and in his political rhetoric, than the other Republican congressman elected in 1972, Trent Lott of south Mississippi’s 5th District.
The two would be both political partners and rivals of a sort for the entire time they served together in Washington.
Cochran jumped ahead of Lott to get into the Senate race in 1978 when longtime Democratic Sen. James O. Eastland announced his retirement, and running against Democrat Maurice Dantin – endorsed by Eastland – and black independent Charles Evers, he got 45 percent of the vote, which was enough to win.
He had won the 1978 Republican primary for Senate – the last contested GOP fight he had endured until the current one – by besting, ironically, one of McDaniel’s predecessors as state senator from Jones County, Charles Pickering, later a federal judge.
Cochran from the start approached his Senate service much as his Democratic predecessors and the senior senator at the time, John Stennis, had done. He learned the ropes, built relationships and worked the system to protect Mississippi’s interests, particularly in agriculture, defense and education.
He was rewarded by voters with easy re-elections, including his first in 1984, a landslide over Democratic former Gov. William Winter, his last formidable opponent before McDaniel.
As he gained experience and seniority, Cochran steadily assumed more power within the Republican ranks, the pinnacle coming when he assumed the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
Only once were his leadership ambitions derailed. Lott had been elected to the Senate in 1988 and in 1996 the Republicans took over the chamber and Mississippi’s two senators ran against each other for majority leader. Lott, much more the out-front, assertive, camera-comfortable presence, won handily over Cochran.
Cochran became famous – or infamous, in some quarters – by bringing billions of federal dollars home to Mississippi as a master of “earmarks,” later officially banned.
Throughout his six terms, he practiced the old-school senatorial style, making friends and allies across party lines and never joining in the acerbic partisan rhetoric that came to dominate so much of Washington. In the end, it was this low-key, relationship-building, quietly persuasive approach that came close to doing him in with an energized segment of the Mississippi Republican electorate wanting a more vocal, hard-line conservative presence in the Senate.
They weren’t happy with the outcome Tuesday, and McDaniel was defiant in defeat. But Cochran, whatever divisions he must now confront in his own party, has lived to fight another day.
Fast forward to Wednesday morning. Either Chris McDaniel or Thad Cochran has won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate the night (or early morning hours) before. The fiercest Republican primary battle in Mississippi history is over.
If McDaniel is the winner, his supporters will be more pumped than ever. They will have pulled off a monumental upset, a precedent-shattering moment in Mississippi’s long history of assigning effective congressional incumbents basically lifetime tenure. They will savor that moment, of course, but they will be looking ahead with excitement to the general election contest with Democrat Travis Childers, confident that with a sustained push to November the seat will be McDaniel’s.
Cochran supporters, meanwhile, will be shell-shocked. They would never have thought this outcome possible back in December when their man finally announced he would seek a seventh term. Many, if not most, will be bitter that the upstart McDaniel ended Cochran’s long and distinguished career in such a fashion. A large share of them will not be in the mood, at least on Wednesday morning, to close ranks for the fall campaign.
If Cochran wins, his supporters will be more relieved than anything. They will have fought back from the unthinkable and against the historic odds that in Mississippi have always favored the candidate with first-primary momentum heading into a runoff. If they think about November on Wednesday morning, it will be only to remind themselves of the perils of overconfidence.
They will still be smarting from the McDaniel challenge and what they believe was the inherent audacity of it all. They will feel their man has been unfairly maligned and may not be in a mood to forgive McDaniel and his supporters for all the trouble they’ve caused.
McDaniel supporters, on the other hand, will be bitterly disappointed. They had come so close only to fall just short. They will likely blame the defeat on the big guns of the Republican establishment and what they will say were untruths and distortions it spread about their candidate. They will hardly be ready, at least immediately, to jump on the bandwagon of a nominee they’ve identified as a big part of the problem in Washington.
Travis Childers and his supporters, meanwhile, will survey the Wednesday morning landscape and assess what it means for them. If McDaniel is the nominee, they’ve got their game plan, and it won’t be a whole lot different from Cochran’s in the runoff: Portray McDaniel as dangerous, a threat to Mississippi’s interests and to federal programs rank-and-file Mississippians value and rely on. They’ll still have to play defense on Childers’ party affiliation, but they’ll know it won’t be quite as heavy a burden as it would be if Cochran were the nominee. And they know that a McDaniel general election candidacy would be an excellent means of firing up the Democratic base of black voters around the state, a portion of whom have some affinity for Cochran.
They’ll also be thinking about history, 2008 to be precise. That’s when Greg Davis, the mayor of Southaven who has since gotten into legal trouble, ran a barrage of negative ads against Tupelo’s Glenn McCullough in the Republican primary for the 1st District House seat and narrowly defeated him. Enough McCullough supporters were mad enough to stay at home or vote for the Democratic nominee, Childers, when he faced Davis. That gave Democrats the seat in a Republican district in a year when Barack Obama was on the ballot.
Other factors were at work in that race, but the failure of the Republicans to unite around their nominee against a formidable Democrat with rural populist appeal was chief among them. Of course, Childers isn’t the only one aware of this history; Republican leaders are as well.
So given the Wednesday morning thoughts and emotions that will be in the minds and hearts of the most ardent backers of the two Republican candidates, particularly on the losing side, can they come together – even if their nominee, the defeated candidate and party leaders insist on it? The answer will weigh heavily on the outcome in November, especially if McDaniel – the bane of Mississippi’s Republican leadership – is the nominee.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the weeks leading up to the Republican U.S. Senate primary June 3, Thad Cochran’s seeming detachment from the campaign fueled speculation that he just wasn’t up to it, that he either wouldn’t or couldn’t get more deeply engaged in what was becoming a closer-than-anticipated race.
His public appearances and media interviews were carefully controlled, and rarely did he utter any overt political pronouncements. His non-appearance on election night at a gathering of supporters reinforced the image of an aging candidate without the fire-in-the-belly necessary to win, or to continue to serve effectively if he did.
Well, Thad Cochran has never been a fire-in-the-belly type, even when he was a young congressman and 40-year-old first-time Senate candidate. He has never been comfortable with the loud political back-and-forth that defines a competitive campaign. He has always been the low-key, “quiet persuader,” not the bellicose speech-maker on the stump.
But in the second week of the three-week runoff campaign with Chris McDaniel, he did his best to dispel the notion that he isn’t capable of getting fired up. Politically, Cochran came to life last week. Whether his new energy for the campaign has come too late remains to be seen, but it was clear he’d finally answered the criticism, even among his supporters, that he wasn’t putting up a fight.
He spoke bluntly about McDaniel, calling him an “extremist” and saying it would be “dangerous” for Mississippi to elect him. He went on the offensive about his own record, visiting medical facilities and industries to which he’d been instrumental in directing federal funds and vigorously defended the value to Mississippi of his own influence as a powerful senior senator. He was much freer in speaking with media on the campaign trail.
McDaniel has insisted all along that Cochran isn’t a true conservative. That definition, of course, has shifted dramatically since the rise of the Tea Party, but Cochran’s long record in the Senate would land him in the conservative column by any but the most on-the-edge measures. And of course his personality itself – the courtly, low-key, non-combative, non-attention-grabbing nature that has defined his political career – make him an easy target for conservative critics who value self-promoting posturing in their politicians.
In other words, he would never appeal to the firebrands. So to attempt to cast him as the same kind of conservative as Chris McDaniel, which seemed to be an aim of his first primary campaign, wasn’t a recipe for success. Cochran’s lack of an ardent defense of his own record of delivering federal funds to Mississippi in ways that have made an enormous impact on the state played into the hands of an opponent who was saying it was time for that to end.
Cochran has now overcome his reluctance to boast about these accomplishments. Unlike others who have been threatened by a Tea Party challenger, Cochran isn’t trying to outflank him on the right. Instead he’s actually touting the federal role in developing Mississippi’s universities, community colleges, public schools, medical facilities, transportation, military installations, agricultural and industrial enterprises.
He summed up the campaign this way last week: “I think it’s the competition for ideas now … whether you want somebody with experience in helping support our state and its needs or someone who’s trying to tear down the federal government.”
Not wanting to “tear down the federal government” isn’t a strategy to swing McDaniel voters over to his side. That’s a lost cause anyway. What it does do is remind voters, including traditional conservatives who want fiscal prudence but a less radical approach, that there are stark differences in the thinking of the two candidates on how much the state needs the help it gets from the federal funds Cochran has directed its way.
Now that Cochran is aggressively engaged in the battle of ideas that this campaign represents, more people may listen, and more may turn out at the polls on June 24. The increase may not be enough to put Cochran over the top, but without the candidate’s transformation we saw last week, the prospects would have been bleak.
The Tupelo Story, as it has been known through the years, is about the determination of a community and region to rise above its circumstances and to make itself better.
Out of the depths of the Depression, when Northeast Mississippi was the poorest region in the poorest state in the nation, came the seeds of a long process that produced a nationally recognized community and economic development success story.
In recent decades, community leaders from all over the country – and even from other countries – have visited Tupelo to learn about that story. But while they have hosted others hoping to learn from the Tupelo experience, Tupelo/Lee County leaders have never hesitated to look elsewhere for similar stories from which they can draw ideas and inspiration.
That’s what was going on last week when the Community Development Foundation – historically the leader in both jobs creation and idea generation for this area – organized a trip to Greenville, South Carolina, for a group of city and county leaders.
Greenville is a model to learn from and emulate. In the 1980s it found itself struggling economically as its garment industry jobs dried up. Its downtown was depressed and people as well as businesses were leaving the city.
In the decades since, Greenville has undergone a transformation and currently has a thriving downtown and a rejuvenated economy. The changes have not been quick or easy; they’ve involved a steady, persistent commitment to the public investments and public-private partnerships that have turned the city around.
The recipe is not a lot different from what has propelled Tupelo/Lee County in its best moments. At every major turning point along the way, the private sector and local governments here have forged partnerships to create something new and better when the alternative would have been to accept decline as unavoidable and inevitable.
Just a few of the more recent examples include:
• Turning an abandoned mall into an entertainment venue, the BancorpSouth Arena, that draws people and dollars into the city and enhances options for people who live here.
• Taking a visually blighted and underutilized 50-acre entrance to the downtown area and converting it into an attractive town center with a new City Hall, commercial buildings, restaurants and residences.
• Recognizing that traffic gridlock threatened future growth and initiating a uniquely innovative citizen-driven, pay-as-you-go program to improve and expand major thoroughfares.
• Seeing the impending threat of a depleted water supply stifling future development and voting overwhelmingly for a new tax that would pay for a regionally based solution.
These are all important successes in the Tupelo Story. They also were neither universally supported nor without controversy. Yet leaders willing to take the political heat forged ahead, and their visionary efforts have been rewarded.
That was one of the themes the Tupelo/Lee County leaders heard in Greenville. That community’s transformation was resisted by people who were always questioning bold initiatives but rarely had any alternative to offer to stagnation and decline.
If Tupelo has learned nothing else through the years, it’s that complacency and inaction are unacceptable in a community that expects to continue to be a viable and attractive place to live and work. Always, the long view must be in sight, plans under way, ideas in motion.
CDF has been at its best in anticipating economic change and preparing for it. The prime recent example was the development of the megasite that eventually attracted Toyota in the face of a decline in the furniture industry.
But Tupelo also faces major challenges today in upgrading its overall quality of life and amenities as a place to live in order to help pave the way for future economic success. Its leaders must deal with resistance from people who can’t fathom how, for instance, public investment in a walkable, vibrant downtown or revitalized older neighborhoods is connected to jobs and economic security for everyone.
Greenville, South Carolina, certainly knows and demonstrates the connection. That’s a takeaway that should give Tupelo/Lee County leaders new energy for the tasks ahead.
It’s hard to imagine how a campaign could get any nastier than Mississippi’s Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. It can’t get over fast enough for most people.
Of course it won’t be over when it’s over. The scars within the Republican Party will not heal quickly, and the scars on the larger political landscape in Mississippi will be around for a long time as well.
What we are seeing in this campaign is the culmination of a steady rise in Mississippi, as elsewhere, of the politics of personal destruction. It is not new, but it has reached a level that threatens to undermine our entire political system.
That it would happen in a campaign involving a man who epitomizes an era when people could disagree without personal animosity, and when finding common ground was the foundation of governing, is particularly sad.
Thad Cochran’s approach to governing is what has gotten him in trouble with a wing of the Republican Party that despises compromise. That the U.S. Constitution, which the Tea Party proclaims as the centerpiece of its message, was birthed by a series of political compromises seems lost in the anti-compromise translation.
An unwillingness to compromise is not, of course, the same thing as pursuing a path of personal destruction against your political adversaries. But inherent in both is an absolute certainty and insistence that I am right and you are wrong, that there is nothing in your approach that might be incorporated into my thinking, that I can’t fathom finding any common ground from which we can forge agreement. Carry this thinking too far and it can lead to viewing opponents not just as wrong politically and philosophically but as bad people who need to be crushed.
Clearly this was the thinking of the blogger who took Rose Cochran’s picture in her nursing home room and posted it online with an anti-Thad Cochran video. Nothing is out of bounds when you’re convinced you’re right and anybody who thinks differently from you is a mortal enemy.
The other people who’ve been charged as conspirators in this case – including a Central Mississippi Tea Party activist and Chris McDaniel donor and fundraiser – no doubt believe they’re on a mission to save our political system. Instead they are damaging it badly.
Governing is contentious. There’s no getting around that. But our founders envisioned, and at its best our government has operated, as a mechanism to bring together and balance competing interests. The genius of our system is that it is structurally set up to force give and take to get anything done.
Yes, hyperpartisanship has led to party-line votes in which legislation is passed without bipartisan consensus or compromise. But even that is a symptom of the compromise-is-evil mentality that has been stoked in recent years. If compromise is consorting with the enemy, who wants to get caught doing it?
The whole thrust of the McDaniel campaign has been that Cochran deserves disdain because he’s a deal-maker and consensus-builder. Those were once valued qualities in a politician.
Cochran has also through the years been a model of political civility, and that is no longer in vogue.
McDaniel has had trouble squaring what he knew and when about the photo episode, but I’m willing to take him at his word that he had nothing to do with it and genuinely finds it “reprehensible.” Yet we’re living in a political environment so polarized that a fervent devotee of a candidate – perhaps even a group of several “conspirators” – apparently believed they were doing their candidate a favor by engaging in such brazenly cruel behavior.
Where do we go from here? How do we get politics and campaigns out of the long, scorched-earth season we’re in?
It won’t be easy because too many politicians and political professionals – not to mention wild-eyed bloggers and cable network loudmouths – have a vested interest in the politics of polarization and personal destruction. But at some point the rest of us have to say, enough is enough. Aren’t we there?
Returning home to Tupelo from a recent business trip to south Mississippi, I decided to take a detour off the interstate into Meridian, where I graduated from high school in 1972, just to get a peek at the old familiar sites.
I drove down Poplar Springs Drive and turned up a street that runs alongside Meridian High School and offers an elevated end-zone view of the field at Ray Stadium, where the MHS Wildcats play. It was late in the day, and the football team was on the field in a spring practice session, doing calisthenics.
All the athletes were black. So, too, are most of the rest of the students at Meridian High School.
Meaningful public school integration, which was successfully achieved on a massive scale in Meridian when I was in high school, could not be sustained over the long haul. It’s sad that a community that poured so much effort into making integration work – and took great pride in the accomplishment when it did – has watched as its schools slowly, steadily resegregated.
Some whites went to the private school in town, which was created in the 1960s to avoid integration and was small at first, but later grew to be the school of choice for whites who could afford it. Many others simply moved out of the city into the county, where certain public school areas remain heavily white. The same story is evident all over Mississippi, and the trend – while not so far along – has been developing in Tupelo and Lee County for the better part of two decades.
Saturday was the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared racially dual school systems unconstitutional. For 15 years, Mississippi’s political leadership recklessly defied that decision, which the court had ordered implemented with “all deliberate speed.” In 1969, “massive resistance” ran out of gas and a new round of Supreme Court decisions forced Mississippi to get the job done.
Predictions of violence and bloodshed came from many quarters. In most places, it didn’t happen. Not that there weren’t problems, and in some towns there was wholesale defection of whites from public schools virtually overnight. But cities like Meridian, Greenville and Hattiesburg – not to mention Tupelo – blended black and white school systems peacefully into one unified and thoroughly integrated system. With the exception of Tupelo, all of those systems, and others like them around the state, have lost most of their white students.
School integration nationwide is in retreat. It peaked in the late 1980s, and ever since the percentage of black students attending majority white schools has been in decline. That’s certainly the case in Mississippi.
The pattern in our state has generally been this: As city neighborhoods age and new, affordable housing becomes scarcer within city limits, middle-class and affluent residents – overwhelmingly white – move outside the city limits and settle in county school districts. As the demographic changes continue, whites become increasingly uncomfortable with the racial composition of city school systems and the outmigration accelerates. Sometimes, as in Lee County, the county systems have schools within the same district that are overwhelmingly of one race or the other.
Nothing suggests that majority black or all-black schools are automatically inferior. That’s one African-American critique of the Brown decision – that it implied blacks had to go to school with whites to get a quality education.
But what happens today is different only in degree with what happened when there were racially dual school systems, and the black schools were chronically underfunded and made do with second-rate facilities and outdated books. As school systems resegregate today, the heavily black systems get less money, less community support and their academic performance declines. Their communities, in turn, face new social and economic struggles.
The bottom line is this: Communities where most whites and blacks and other minorities are in the public schools together are healthier communities and their kids are getting a better education. That’s always been a distinction in Tupelo, but it won’t be sustained without overt recognition and understanding of that reality, and a persistent response to it.
Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, that’s the lesson.
Clearly the most amazing thing about last week’s events in Tupelo and beyond is that the tornado didn’t kill a lot of people.
Many factors contributed to that brightest of spots in what could have been a much darker day for this city. So many more people now have those handy weather alerts on their phones or are otherwise more connected than ever to what’s happening up to the moment. And then there’s Matt Laubhan, of course.
As for the sirens, well … not as much help there, apparently.
But one factor may have been overlooked. It’s a decision that school officials in Tupelo and Lee County made to dismiss school at 12:30 p.m., two hours before all hell broke loose.
No doubt this was inconvenient for many parents. But I doubt few if any of them will ever again question a similar decision.
Imagine what it would have been like if school had been just about to let out when that tornado struck around 2:45 p.m. Legions of parents and other caregivers would have been in transit to school or waiting in lines to pick kids up. Buses could have been heading out. What a monumental tragedy that could have been.
Safety took priority. I have to believe those decisions saved a life or two – perhaps many more. At the very least, it saved an enormous amount of parental anxiety.
This was Tupelo’s biggest disaster since the 1936 tornado. The 2014 version didn’t compare with that one in utter devastation of the city and massive loss of life. But it was a major blow nevertheless, one that the biggest weather disaster since the ‘36 tornado – the 1994 ice storm – couldn’t come close to matching.
Yet the city, unused to this kind of event, has acquitted itself well so far. Police kept darkened neighborhoods protected. Power crews have worked more quickly than any of us had a right to expect in restoring power to all but the hardest hit areas by the end of the week. The first steps in cleanup and recovery have been well-managed. A system for handling the influx of volunteers – the great goodwill pouring in from within and without – is in place.
Another surprisingly speedy occurrence was the signing by the president of the federal disaster declaration within a matter of hours after a request from the governor and a visit by the state’s congressional delegation, two of whom – Roger Wicker and Alan Nunnelee – live in Tupelo. The federal aid that will come will make a huge difference in relieving financial stress on the city and county as they recover.
Here’s a political question: Look at what has happened in Tupelo and nearby. Then ask yourself, how could anybody regard support for federal disaster relief as anything but a positive no-brainer. Yet there are candidates running these days – including one for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi – who haven’t always been so sure. Hint: It’s not Thad Cochran.
I walk many mornings. On recent Sundays, early enough in the morning so that traffic on North Gloster has been light, I’ve ventured from our home in the Pinecrest neighborhood just north of McCullough Boulevard up Gloster and over in to Lynn Circle in the Sharon Hills neighborhood. I’ve walked over there for the sheer pleasure of taking in the stately old trees and the spring flowers.
This past Sunday, 32 hours before the tornado hit, I took my last walk through that neighborhood as it was. Even more than usual, I was struck by how beautifully lush it was that day.
It’s different now, as are several other neighborhoods in the vicinity. Other homes in neighborhoods not so hard hit – like ours – nevertheless have had portions of our surroundings reshaped. Even after damaged homes are repaired or rebuilt, those scars – those missing majestic canopies – will still be gone.
But slowly, over time, the neighborhoods will find their new physical identity and the people who live in them will feel at home again.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or email@example.com