Bill Minor, Thursday, May 13, 1999

AUTHOR: MINOR

Bill Minor, Thursday, May 13, 1999

JACKSON – He used to roam the outfield as the star centerfielder for the Ole Miss Rebels. Now Charlie Williams is roaming the state trying to haul in votes for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Right now, Williams is in a position akin to his old role as centerfielder on the baseball diamond. He’s somewhere in the middle of a six-candidate GOP pack pursuing the state’s top job.

Of all the candidates, both Republicans and Democrats in the gubernatorial hunt, Williams, with 24 years in the Legislature, much of it as a key legislative player, probably knows more about the workings of state government than any. One possible exception is Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, the leading contender on the Democratic side, who had eight years in the Senate before being elected to his present job. However, Musgrove’s experience didn’t deal with the nuts and bolts of government machinery as did Williams in his long legislative career.

Many attribute much of Gov. Kirk Fordice’s governmental malfunctioning to his total lack of knowledge of how state government operated and the absence of any desire on his part to learn.

Williams, 54, is best known as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee over the past decade and a workhorse on major legislation before it. Of course, since Ways and Means is the tax-writing committee, Williams played a prime role in funding some of Mississippi’s most important programs of the 1980s and ’90s.

No doubt Williams’ foes on the GOP side will hammer him for having a big hand in raising taxes, dismissing the fact that such tax hikes were essential to launching a desperately needed four-lane highway program and assuring a sound funding base for public schools at a critical time.

He’ll probably get scant praise, however, from adversaries for trying the last several years to engineer a gradual tax cut without blowing a gaping hole in the state treasury.

Although Williams enjoys fairly good name recognition around the state from being in the news as a key legislative player, his two chief GOP foes, ex-U.S. Rep. Mike Parker and ex-Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs, obviously have more. That fact seems to have been borne out by the recent opinion poll done by Mississippi State University political scientists.

Like both Parker and Briggs, Williams is a party switcher, shifting from being a Democrat to a Republican in July, 1996. Parker switched parties six months earlier, while Briggs shed his Democrat label in 1991 to run for lieutenant governor. He won that year, but was ousted by Musgrove four years later.

Williams, however, should win points with loyal Republicans for sticking his neck out a year or so ago as a gubernatorial candidate at a time Democrats seemed to have a lock on winning with either Attorney General Mike Moore or Musgrove. Moore, then a runaway choice in all polls, only later surprisingly passed up a bid for the top job to seek his present one.

While most of the deep pockets Republicans seem to be in Parker’s camp, Williams has some very important old-line GOP allies. Chief among them is former National Republican chairman Haley Barbour, a Williams friend going back to Ole Miss baseball days, who became his honorary campaign chairman.

Barbour, the Yazoo City native, now a practicing lawyer and high-paid legislative consultant in Washington, probably won’t be able to spend much time beating the bushes for Williams down here, but he can deliver that other vital ingredient: campaign money.

It’ll take $1 million to $1.5 million, Williams figures, to wage a full-scale race through the Republican primaries. He’s fully aware that with only two other states Louisiana and Kentucky having governor’s races this year money raising will be easier.

Williams has another unseen weapon in his arsenal his two-decade association with all the South’s leading political figures, as well as state legislators as the state’s delegate to the Council of State Governments, and the Southern Legislative Conference, being elevated to chairman of each.

His prominence in both associations no doubt gives Williams ready access to the corporate and business lobbies which always were at hand whenever each of the two groups met. Having that connection could help offset Parker’s inroads to corporate money bags during his 10 years as a member of Congress.

Williams does well something that many other politicians don’t: He knows how to listen. He learned to do that hours on end as a fiscal leader in the Legislature, hearing the plaintiff pleas of state and local officials for new or additional revenues.

Now he believes that by going out, and listening to what Mississippians are thinking and want from a governor, he can be in a better position to lead. That’s why he’s been going about the state on his “Mississippi Listening Tour,” meeting with over 300 groups across the state.

Education is foremost on their minds, he says, followed by economic development, health care and fighting crime, all areas in which he can claim strong credentials. Williams can rightfully boast of being a strong education supporter, having actively backed the 1982 Education Reform Act, and steering to passage the 1992 one-cent sales tax which prevented deep cuts in teacher pay and is now regarded as a cornerstone of education enhancement. Perhaps better than anyone else in the race, Williams could blunt Parker’s strong suit in any debate situation the one-line barb to evoke laughter from the audience at the expense of his opponents.

Williams learned well the art of fending off darts tossed at him in the well of the Mississippi House and heaving them back at his assailants. This could be a fun summer.

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