Analysis: Personal ties matter in Miss. politics

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi is still a small enough state that personal connections matter greatly in politics, and that’s evident when ex-lawmakers visit the Capitol.

Members of the House and Senate put aside partisan differences to cheer their former colleagues, often saving the loudest applause — and the occasional waving of tiny American flags — for those who’ve moved on to other government jobs.

This past week, senators warmly welcomed a man they still consider part of their legislative family. Republican Alan Nunnelee of Tupelo spent nearly 16 years in the Mississippi Senate before unseating Democrat Travis Childers in north Mississippi’s 1st District congressional race this past November.

As chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee from 2008 through most of 2011, Nunnelee spent countless late nights and long weekends at the Capitol in Jackson to help decide how to divvy up taxpayers’ dollars.

Now, he’s helping set federal spending priorities on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, albeit as a rank-and-file freshman rather than a powerful chairman.

Standing before the Senate this past week, Nunnelee, 52, joked about feeling that he should “move the previous question” — part of the parliamentary jargon lawmakers zip through when they’re calling up a bill for debate.

On the other end of the Capitol, representatives applauded a House alumnus who has advanced to a higher-profile job. Leslie D. King of Greenville was appointed to the Mississippi Supreme Court this past week after having served as chief judge on the state Court of Appeals.

A day after King’s promotion, House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Percy Watson, D-Hattiesburg, proudly introduced him as a fellow member of the House’s Class of 1980.

Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, who’s also in that class, told King on behalf of the House: “We look forward to your many years of service on the high court.”

King, 62, is known for his analytical mind, quick smile and easy demeanor. He served as a Democrat in the House for 14 years before winning a nonpartisan election in 1994 to join the first group of judges on the newly created, 10-member Court of Appeals. He had been chief judge the past several years.

Republican Gov. Haley Barbour tapped King to fill a vacancy on the nine-member Supreme Court after Justice James Graves of Jackson was confirmed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears cases from Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

“I have appointed nearly 30 judges,” Barbour said in announcing King’s appointment. “This is the first occasion when I did not have a process where we let anybody who chose, apply — because it was very obvious to me by the job that Judge King is doing, by the leadership that he has exhibited on the Court of Appeals, that he was the right choice.”

Standing by the governor at the announcement, King thanked his own family — sisters, brother-in-law, mother, wife, daughter and granddaughter.

Demonstrating how camaraderie is important in public service, King recognized his new colleagues on the Supreme Court and former colleagues on the Court of Appeals, including Leslie Southwick, who was active in Republican politics before moving into nonpartisan judicial jobs.

Southwick now serves on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Along with King, he was in the first group of judges on the state Court of Appeals. King noted that Southwick “started with me as a baby judge back on Jan. 3, 1995.”