By Bill Minor
JACKSON – A thumbnail description of Bill Luckett is he’s a tall guy with a passion for painting. I’m talking about the Sherwin-Williams variety, not landscapes or portraits.
But there’s a whole lot more to Bill Luckett than just that brief sketch. On the shoulders of his 6-foot, 6-inch frame lie the hopes of Mississippi Democrats in 2011 to stem the tide of Republicanism that has swept over the state the past decade and to put a Democrat back in the governor’s chair.
Luckett is a very successful 62-year-old lawyer in Clarksdale who has never run for public office and who has an uncanny work ethic. He can’t sit still unless he is starting up a new business enterprise, or personally overseeing restoration of old buildings in and around Clarksdale. Oh yes, with his partner, famed movie actor Morgan Freeman, he owns Madidi, the city’s noted upscale restaurant.
Plus, he owns Ground Zero Blues Club, which amazingly attracts blues lovers from around the world.
Back to the painting bit: As a 16-year-old in high school, Luckett hooked on as an apprentice for the town’s oldest house painter. Since then, hardly a day goes by that Bill doesn’t have a paint brush in his hand.
When he was in law school at Ole Miss, he put together a crew to tackle big and small painting jobs to help pay his way through school. He went to classes wearing his painting clothes under his school clothes so as not to lose a minute getting to a job after class.
The only public office (sort of) he ever ran for (and won) was state insurance commissioner when he was a delegate to Boys State as a high school senior. He credits Sykes Sturdivant, son of Delta business and farming magnate Mike Sturdivant, for persuading him to enter the 2011 gubernatorial race.
The elder Sturdivant, a rare moderate Democrat from the Delta, made a credible race for governor in the 1983 Democratic primary.
Luckett appears to have the party nomination sewn up, because there’s no other Democratic threat on the horizon. As for the general election, Luckett said, “I will be the underdog” against a still unknown Republican.
“I presume it will be (Lt. Gov.) Phil Bryant,” Luckett added, “but the Republican primary could be a real battle, just like we Democrats used to have.”
Luckett says he has been active in the Coahoma Democratic Party since 1973 when he came home from law school and the late Aaron Henry, then state Democratic Chairman, asked him to work with him in the state party. He was elected to the state Democratic Executive committee in the ’80s, but never became a delegate to the party’s national convention.
Significantly, Bill says he never shared the political views of his great uncle, Semmes Luckett, also a Clarksdale attorney, who had been a prominent Dixiecrat and backer of Gov. Ross Barnett’s unpledged elector movement to deprive Democratic President John F. Kennedy of Mississippi’s electoral vote.
After high School, Bill received a bachelor of arts degree in American government at the University of Virginia. Then, following in his father’s footsteps, he took a law degree from Ole Miss in 1973 (doing a stint in the Mississippi National Guard in between).
He joined his father’s law firm in Clarksdale and practiced with him for 23 years until the elder Luckett died. To cut down on the time it took him to get to Jackson, Luckett learned to fly and now gets around the state in his own plane.
His motto, Luckett says is, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, the ex-sharecropper who became an icon of the 1960′s civil rights movement.
“I’m tired of seeing Mississippi constantly at the bottom in both education and per capita income, and I’m determined as governor to change that,” the towering Luckett declared. “Many politicians have talked about improving education,” he added. “but I believe I am more passionate about it.”
For starters, he advocates establishing early childhood education, heavily involving community help to hold down the cost.
Former Gov. William Winter, the patriarch of Mississippi Democrats, believes Luckett would be a strong contender for the governorship. “He would be a fresh voice and he doesn’t have his head in the clouds,” said Winter, adding “he certainly would stack up well again Phil Bryant, if Bryant is the GOP’s nominee.”
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.