Bill Minor, Thursday, April 29, 1999

AUTHOR: MINOR

Bill Minor, Thursday, April 29, 1999

JACKSON – Mississippi hasn’t elected a woman to a statewide office since 1975. This year, Democrat Amy Tuck aims to change that.

Many seasoned political watchers, knowing that Tuck already has one impressive statewide race under her belt and is a proven campaigner, tend to agree she will be tough for any opponent, Democrat or Republican, to beat in 1999.

Tuck, 35, is going after the job of lieutenant governor in the Democratic primary, seeking to follow in the footsteps of her heroine and mentor, Evelyn Gandy, who won the post back 24 years ago.

After Gandy served one term as lieutenant governor, (having previously been state Treasurer and Secretary of State) Gandy made a bid in 1979 to win the state’s top job. She gained the Democratic runoff, but lost to the eventual gubernatorial winner, William Winter.

Not long out of graduate school at Mississippi State University, Tuck started her political career in 1990 by winning a special election to fill a vacant seat in the state Senate from Oktibbeha, Choctaw, Montgomery and Webster counties. At age 27, she became the youngest member in state history. However, she quickly carved out respect for her legislative ability in rural circles by being named to chair the important County Affairs Committee.

Traveling around the state mostly at her own expense she brought back a startling picture of dilapidated rural bridges by the hundreds, a report which eventually resulted in legislative action to launch a county bridge construction program.

Four years ago, she went after the open Secretary of State’s office, building upon her five years of legislative experience and the contacts she had made as a leader for county government. She lost by an eyelash in a Democratic runoff with Eric Clark, the eventual winner of the post.

Rebounding from her disappointing loss, Tuck was picked in 1996 by members of the state Senate to become that chamber’s secretary, heading up the Senate staff. Before she resigned that job to enter the race for lieutenant governor, present and former senators gave her their Distinguished Service Award, indicating her reservoir of good will to now become that body’s presiding officer as lieutenant governor.

In his 21 years of teaching political science at Mississippi State, Dr. Steve Shaffer says that of all his students, Tuck showed the most promise to be elected to public office.

“She had the drive and natural ability to gain political success,” Shaffer declared.

Tuck not only was voted the outstanding undergraduate student in political science, but in her study for a master’s degree, she was picked university-wide as the outstanding graduate student.

Tuck has come a long way from the gushy, awe-struck country girl from Maben who arrived in the Mississippi Senate in 1991, straight from the hills of Oktibbeha County (by way of Mississippi State University, of course).

Although she has obviously gained more maturity and poise, Tuck still hasn’t lost her radiant smile and her dark eyes still sparkle with enthusiasm.

Some observers worry about how much influence her brother, Al Tuck, an oldtime political warhorse in Northeast Mississippi, will have on her campaign. Their concern is Al Tuck’s old political ties to tarnished politicos such as former State Auditor Steve Patterson.

However, Amy Tuck minimizes her brother’s role in her present campaign, pointing out that she has brought in Trey Bobinger, who resigned his job as Attorney General Mike Moore’s top assistant to manage her campaign.

“I hope my brother (now employed by the state department of Parks, Wildlife and Fisheries) will support me, the same as other members of my family,” she said. Though Tuck realizes she’s carrying the hopes of a lot of women as the first female in a quarter of a century with the best chance to win a statewide office, she plays down the gender factor.

“I’m a woman,” she says, “but I am qualified.” As Dr. Shaffer, her former political science professor puts it: “She has the ability not to rub men the wrong way.”

Tuck’s major hurdle for lieutenant governor comes in the August Democratic primary when state Sen. Grey Ferris of Vicksburg, who is highly regarded in education circles, looms as her biggest threat. Troy Brown, a faculty member at Mississippi Valley State, is not believed a strong contender in the Democratic race. Meanwhile, two Republican state legislators, Rep. Terry Brown from Columbus and state Sen. Bill Hawks from Hernando, will battle it out for the GOP nomination. Both, however, lack statewide identity.

Bill Minor is a syndicated columnist who has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. His address is Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215.