By Bill Minor
JACKSON – Hearing amiable Thad Cochran interviewed on Mississippi Public Radio the other day reminds that his current term ending in 2016 will doubtless be his last, opening perhaps the state’s choicest political plum for plucking, likely by some Republican.
After all, Cochran will be 75 in December, and this year is rounding out 40 years in Congress – six in the House and 34 in the Senate. He was elected in 1978 to succeed Jim Eastland, the legendary Democrat who retired after six terms. Many had regarded Thad’s election as a fluke, because Charles Evers running as an Independent made a three-way race.
Despite Mississippi’s historic reputation as a one-party Democratic state, Cochran has only been challenged once by a formidable Democrat – in 1984 by William Winter, who after his popular governorship made an ill-advised race to unseat Thad.
Cochran used to be a reliable moderate. No longer. For the past few years Thad seems to have lost any taste for bucking party leadership and has become a company man, voting down the line with his intransigent leader, Mitch McConnell. Gone also are Thad’s monumental rumbles with Trent Lott, his Mississippi Republican counterpart, over federal judgeships and GOP leadership posts in the Senate.
For 20 years as senators Trent played bad cop and Thad good cop until Lott suddenly and mysteriously resigned three years ago. No plausible reason has ever become known as to why Lott gave up a safe seat with five years remaining.
The only unanswered question is which Republican hopeful will nab Cochran’s job. As of now there are three GOP officeholders waiting in the wings. That means we’ll see a loud intra-party collision when the race to succeed Thad begins. My guess is the probables will be Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper of Mississippi’s 3rd District and State Auditor Stacey Pickering. Both Harper and Pickering (especially Pickering) are relatively young and ambitious to move up.
But the headline-grabbing Hosemann must be regarded as the top contender, even though he has not said that’s his goal. However, many wonder, why did Hosemann give up a lucrative tax attorney practice in a major Jackson law firm to win a second-tier state office and take a big pay cut? It’s readily apparent Hosemann enjoys power, as manifested by his tactics of pushing the boundaries of his office beyond what his two highly regarded predecessors considered its proper scope. When the state land commissioner office was abolished 25 years ago and the duties put under the secretary of state, he was given oversight of 16th Section school lands, though county and municipal school boards have primary administration of the land leasing. Hosemann has locked horns with the school boards who were upset with his attempts to micromanage details of leases. And now he’s at odds with several Gulf Coast Republican lawmakers for demanding that residential property owners along the beachfront pay a tidelands lease fee in order to put a boat pier in front of their property. Over Hosemann’s objection both House and Senate committees have passed bills that would override his tideland lease plan for residents’ piers.
After pushing a ballot initiative that was adopted last November to require a government-issued photo ID for voting, Hosemann now in public statements sounds as though he would be the lead state advocate for clearance of the proposal by the Department of Justice. However, the 1965 Voting Rights Act gives that sole power to Attorney General Jim Hood.
It’s been known for several years Cochran has hankered to hang it up and leave Washington, especially after he acquired a home in Oxford where his daughter lives. So far, there’s no indication Thad might pull a hasty Trent retreat. But that’s not beyond comprehension.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.