By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee served his first term in a Congress plagued by the worst political gridlock in recent history, yet called it a success.
His class of freshman Republicans, elected in a national wave of disgust over the status quo, wrestled control of the House. They then blocked the Democratic Senate and Democratic president from passing any more of what Nunnelee calls “failed policies.”
As examples of those already unleashed, he cited the $800 billion economic stimulus plan, the Cash for Clunkers program and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – commonly called Obamacare.
The last two years, by contrast, have seen the passage of no such bold initiatives offered by either party despite continued woes over the economy, health care and the middle-class crunch.
Now seeking a second term in the Nov. 6 general election, Nunnelee, 53, said he’ll continue blocking liberal legislation under the current political structure. If Republicans gain control of the White House or Senate, though, he’ll help pass conservative policies he says will improve America and Mississippi’s 1st Congressional District.
“If we will pursue the agenda that the House of Representatives has passed over the last two years that, unfortunately, has died under the Senate leadership of Harry Reid, then we can have a very bright future,” Nunnelee told the Daily Journal on Thursday. “We have positioned ourselves as a state to be primed for great growth.”
A consensus builder
Nunnelee took federal office in January 2011 but had served Mississippi in the state Senate since winning a special election in 1994.
During that time, the Tupelo businessman built an impressive list of contacts and established a solid, conservative voting record. He quickly rose through the ranks and established himself as a leader.
By 2008, he’d been appointed chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.
“They don’t give that job to anybody that’s not strong enough to handle it,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of Mississippi State University’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government.
Wiseman and other statewide political experts say Nunnelee earned his stripes by staying true to the conservative principles of his party while still working across the aisle. He was fair. He was polite. He was genuinely concerned about the state and his home district.
“He was probably the most conservative, most honest state senator in Jackson,” said Ellen Jernigan, chair of DeSoto County Republican Party and vice chair of the state party.
A defining moment in Nunnelee’s legislative career came during his first session as head of Appropriations.
It was a tough year with big questions looming over the state budget, and Nunnelee had to preside over a committee on which he’d never served.
Not only that, but he had replaced former chair Jack Gordon, a highly knowledgeable and powerful Democrat from Okolona who had headed the committee for 12 years and was known as “Mr. Appropriations.”
Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Joe Nosef, who during that time served as chief of staff to then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, recalled Nunnelee handling the assignment with grace.
“He’d never been on the Appropriations Committee and now he was chairman, and he managed to do it in a way everybody was happy with and everybody appreciated,” Nosef said. “He took over under very tough circumstances.”
Towing party line
Nunnelee’s style hasn’t changed in Washington. He sticks with the party, forming bonds and voting with its leadership. Some have called him a “foot soldier for the Republican party,” a title that earns him guff from critics but could lead to a bright political future in the GOP.
It’s noteworthy that he already earned a spot on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee – a rare and coveted spot for a freshman.
“Whatever John Boehner and Mitch McConnell and whoever else in leadership wants, you can count on Nunnelee to go along,” said Lee County Tea Party Chairman Grant Sowell. “But I’m looking for him to take a strong, principled stand on fiscal issues and social issues.
“It looks like sometimes he’s more interested in representing the Republican Party establishment as a whole versus taking a tough stand to do the right thing for our nation.”
That perception among some Republicans caused Nunnelee to have a GOP primary challenge in March, which he won handily.
Mississippi’s Democratic leaders have made similar remarks, saying Nunnelee has followed the GOP line at the expense of his constituents and their long list of needs. The Republican agenda that Nunnelee serves, they say, doesn’t benefit the 1st District.
“If we were a rich state with a booming economy, a low unemployment rate and a highly educated population with many professionals, it might be a different situation,” said Chickasaw Democratic Party Chairman Gene Barton. “But we’re a struggling economy in Mississippi.”
Among the votes Nunnelee took that angered Barton was his opposition to Essential Air Service, a federal program that subsidizes airlines to fly in and out of rural communities. It directly benefits four Mississippi airports, including one in the 1st District: Tupelo Regional Airport.
Tupelo just got a deal with Silver Airways to fly passengers to and from Atlanta thanks to a two-year, $4.5 million EAS subsidy. Without it, commercial air service of that scale would be impossible for the rural airport today, said its director, Josh Abramson.
Yet Nunnelee has consistently voted against EAS, even though its roughly $200 million annual budget represents a fraction of the $3.8 trillion the federal government plans to spend in the next year.
A regular Tupelo Regional Airport flyer, Nunnelee said he appreciates the convenience the subsidy affords him but doesn’t think it’s worth the expense. The federal budget needs cutting, he said. It borrows 42 cents for every dollar it spends right now, he said, so unless they’re absolutely necessary, items like EAS should go.
“Is it worth borrowing 42 cents of every dollar to subsidize air service out of Tupelo?” Nunnelee asked. “I don’t think so.”
Nunnelee also argued the Republican agenda will give the 1st District a booming economy, low unemployment rate and highly educated workforce – if the Democrats only would step aside and let the GOP implement its plans.
Born in Tupelo and raised in Clinton, Nunnelee attended Mississippi State University in the late 1970s when he lost most of his sight to a degenerative eye disease.
The tragedy didn’t prevent him from continuing his education, though. Nunnelee persevered, going to classes and doing his work even though he could barely see.
A cornea transplant later restored his vision.
Nunnelee eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980 and went to work for Amory-based American Funeral Assurance Co., which also had employed his father since 1977.
Father and son moved up the ranks of the company together. Nunnelee eventually became vice president of sales and marketing; his father rose to president and CEO of the multimillion-dollar group in 1992.
Two years later, Nunnelee won U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker’s old state Senate seat in a special election runoff against Claude Hartley. And four years after that, he and his father opened their own pre-need funeral insurance firms in Tupelo, Allied Funeral Associates Inc. and Allied Funeral Associates Insurance Co.
When Nunnelee won the congressional race in 2010, he again filled Wicker’s old seat. And the two remain close friends and colleagues both at home and in Washington.
If elected, Nunnelee said he’ll work with the Republican leadership to further its agenda – starting by re-electing U.S. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, to speaker of the House.
“In legislative bodies, even more so than in other elected positions, the job is a team sport and what color jersey a candidate wears makes a significant difference,” Nunnelee said. “My first day on the job I voted to empower Speaker John Boehner to the leadership position. If I’m elected in January, that’s the leadership team I will vote to re-empower.”
He also wants to reduce the federal debt, repeal the national health care plan, lower corporate taxes and promote more off-shore drilling and nuclear energy.
Nunnelee is married to the former Tori Bedells and they have three children, Reed, Emily and Nathan, and two grandchildren.