Analysis: Nunnelee moving up for sacrificing power

Alan Nunnelee is receiving a promotion and a demotion at the same time as he moves from the Mississippi Senate to the U.S. Congress.

Come January, the 52-year-old Republican from Tupelo will be working among national leaders in Washington. He’ll be one of 435 House members, and will have a voice in shaping federal policy on a wide range of issues, from defense to education to agriculture.

Nunnelee is clearly moving to a more prestigious Capitol, but he’ll be on the bottom rung of seniority, along with dozens of other House freshmen. He’ll be a face in the crowd.

That’s a contrast from the powerful position he’s giving up at the state Capitol in Jackson.

Nunnelee has spent nearly 16 years in the Mississippi Senate, working his way up through seniority and well chosen political alliances.

Amy Tuck was lieutenant governor from January 2000 to January 2008 — first, as a Democrat, and starting in December 2002 as a Republican. She appointed Nunnelee to lead the Senate Environmental Protection Committee one term and the Public Health Committee the next. Nunnelee used the Public Health chairmanship to fulfill one of his priorities of strengthening Mississippi’s anti-abortion laws.

Under Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant the past three years, Nunnelee has been one of the most influential people in state government as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Money is power, and every agency director has had to go through Nunnelee to seek funding.

Nunnelee hasn’t yet resigned from the state Senate, but he has stepped aside from his duties as Appropriations chairman.

When the 14-member Joint Legislative Budget Committee met last week in Jackson, Nunnelee stopped by to say farewell. He told his colleagues and the legislative staff that he’ll miss working with them.

“Once you’re a senator, you’re always a senator,” Nunnelee said with a smile. “But in January, I get to be a House member.”

He received bipartisan congratulations.

“I predict you’ll have many, many years of working among national and state leaders,” said Democratic House Speaker Billy McCoy of Rienzi, who hasn’t always agreed with Nunnelee on how to spend money.

Nunnelee on Nov. 2 unseated Democratic U.S. Rep. Travis Childers, who had represented northern Mississippi’s 1st District since May 2008. Childers had succeeded Republican Roger Wicker in Congress — the same man Nunnelee succeeded in the state Senate.

Republican state Rep. Steven Palazzo of Biloxi was also elected to Congress on Nov. 2, unseating 21-year Democratic incumbent Gene Taylor in the southern 4th District.

Palazzo, 40, pulled off a bigger political upset since Taylor was in office longer than Childers, but Palazzo is also giving up much less power than Nunnelee. Palazzo had been in the state House since 2007, and hadn’t advanced to a chairmanship in the Democratic-controlled chamber.

As Appropriations chairman, Nunnelee used millions of federal stimulus dollars to balance the state budget the past two years. He and Palazzo both campaigned for Congress on promises to reduce federal spending. That didn’t stop state lawmakers from joking — well, OK, not really joking — that they’d sure like it if Nunnelee could bring more federal money back to Mississippi.

“Alan, we’re in bad need of a good earmark,” McCoy said.

Nunnelee chuckled, but tactfully did not reply.

Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Click video to hear audio