(EDITOR’S NOTE: Patsy R. Brumfield worked with Amy Tuck, when Tuck was secretary of the Mississippi Senate, and briefly worked for Tuck as communications director in the lieutenant governor’s office.)
STARKVILLE – Amy Tuck is the second woman ever elected to statewide office in Mississippi, and the first ever to be re-elected.
Today, however, her realm isn’t the state Capitol or the campaign trail. It’s Mississippi State University, where she reigns as the executive director of campus operations.
“If she can run the state of Mississippi,” said one of her 210 employees, “she certainly can run Mississippi State University.”
While that view may be an overstatement of her eight-year role as lieutenant governor, the Starkville native’s $25 million budget responsibilities are a bit dizzying – facilities management, parking, shuttle, laundry operations and transportation services, as well as multiple special projects.
Her daily calendar looks like a map to King Tut’s tomb. Her cell and desk telephones ring every few minutes. Her e-mail in-box sounds like a one-note concert.
She can operate all three at once.
Through the meetings, the luncheons and the after-hours events, Tuck keeps her trademark folksiness and sense of humor.
“How are you doing?” she asks a uniformed female housekeeper as they cross paths outside an elevator in Allen Hall, the campus’ executive office building.
Tuck gives the woman a warm hug and calls her by name.
“Stella, you are the best!” Tuck shouts to another female worker, who moves a street barrier so that Tuck can park her car in a driving night-time rainstorm.
The worker smiles, waves and tells Tuck to call her when she’s ready to head home.
Tuck is an executive cheerleader of sorts but with much more substance. Everywhere she goes, her message is teamwork.
Praising the attractiveness of the springtime campus, she credits the people under her direction.
“This group is really responsible for all that,” she says.
At her meetings, she repeatedly stresses customer service and rapid response to whatever comes their way.
Tuck appears to have brought together staff groups, which rarely had much mutual communication before she arrived in 2008.
This particular morning, the facilities management group hears results from newly instituted satisfaction surveys completed after tasks are performed. The remarks are good.
Tuck says her close work with staff aims “to empower them to be leaders, so that they can empower those they work with to carry out what needs to be done.”
Another hour later, she’s meeting at The Partnership, the Starkville-Oktibbeha County economic development agency for which she serves as board chairman. Talk centers on an upcoming board retreat, as well as legislative redistricting.
Tuck is never too busy to chat about politics. It’s been in her blood a long, long time.
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Amy Boykin Tuck remembers her childhood, when the family attended political events around the region. And she remembers the day she registered to vote.
“Al took me, and I was very excited about that,” she said.
“Al” is her older brother, who became the man of the family when their father, rural mail carrier Grady Tuck, died suddenly in 1975 at the age of 52.
At MSU, Tuck fueled her political passion with Student Government Association involvement. She met a lot of people and made a lot of friends.
She was a Democrat’s Democrat, a populist with the gift of gab and a winning way.
When Sen. Bill Harpole died a few years later, her family and others persuaded her to get into the special election. At 26, she became the state’s youngest female senator.
She fought, with success, for teachers and education funding, for protecting vulnerable adults and, as County Affairs Committee chairman, for safer roads and bridges.
She moved up fast because, as she tells it, “I wanted to be involved – so, I asked for appointments.”
“Maybe they thought I was an upstart, but I was excited to be there.”
She also had the powerful Senate President Pro Tem Glenn DeWeese of Meridian as her mentor when she moved into Harpole’s old desk next to him.
“He took me under his wing,” she recalled. “He said for me to listen to my constituents and always know the concerns of my district.”
After five years in the Senate, Tuck put an open secretary of state’s office in her sights. The primary race was so close with state Rep. Eric Clark that it took three days to realize he had won.
“It was tough to lose,” she said. “But I was given another opportunity and I started making other plans.”
Senate colleague Ronnie Musgrove won the lieutenant governor’s race that year, and the chamber needed someone to make the trains run on time.
Tuck got the call to be its manager, called its secretary. It put her back in the middle of things.
When Musgrove decided to run for governor four years later, Tuck stepped into the race for lieutenant governor. Like Musgrove, she was successful.
At age 36, Amy Tuck arrived in the most powerful political job a Mississippi woman has ever held. Only Evelyn Gandy, who was elected lieutenant governor in 1975,
When she was first sworn into that office, Tuck said, perhaps the happiest person there that day was her mother.
“I remember seeing the excitement in her eyes, that day as we all stood on the dais in the House of Representatives,” Tuck remembers.
By the time she won re-election in 2003 – this time as a Republican – her campaigns had raised more than $4.5 million.
But political columnist Charlie Mitchell of Oxford said her determination to be her own master, in a male-dominated world, may have been her political undoing.
He terms her support for a tax on cigarettes, when she bucked GOP Gov. Haley Barbour, “her greatest moment and worst moment.”
“It showed her willingness to break with the party line,” Mitchell noted. “Barbour was through with her.”
Perhaps her hardest loss came in November 2006, with the death of her affable mother, known outside the family as “Miss Mary Lou.”
“She was the most wonderful mother anybody could have,” Tuck said. “She was my best friend and greatest supporter.
“She told me to aim high.”
Today, Tuck appears to be following that advice – a single woman, committed to her work at her alma mater.
“It’s been very satisfying,” she said. “My priority is Mississippi State.”
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Tuck got back to Mississippi State, in part, because of her political savvy.
In late 2007, she was about to go out of office, blocked from moving up by Barbour’s aim for a second term.
MSU’s president was retired Air Force Gen. Robert “Doc” Foglesong. Perhaps his best decision in a troubled short stay was to hire Tuck to help him navigate the political and alumni minefields.
When Foglesong abruptly departed his tour of duty in Starkville, Tuck quietly supported acting president Dr. Vance Watson, who hoped he’d be the next in charge.
But Watson fell victim to a landscaping scandal, which also took down Higher Education Commissioner Tom Meredith – and the field was open for the twice-bridesmaid Mark Keenum.
Tuck and Keenum seem a happy duo working hard for Bulldog Nation. They genuinely like each other and recognize each other’s strengths in Jackson and Washington, D.C., where Mark and Rhonda Keenum spent two decades in the upper circles of Republican politics and service.
Tuck boasts that the Keenums, also MSU grads, have energized the Bulldog family.
“He’s a visionary,” she said. “And he lets you do your job.”
For Keenum, the admiration is mutual.
“Amy has been a great asset to Mississippi State,” he said. “She is an extremely capable administrator who has brought stability and strong leadership to all facets of our campus operations.”
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Another day, another noon break. Tuck dashes home to release her Jack Russell terrier, Abby, into her sloping backyard brimming with flowering pansies.
It’s an attractive, two-story brick home with stainless appliances; granite kitchen countertops; a mantled living room fireplace; and fashionable colors.
Figuratively, it’s a long way from her early childhood in Maben, a town that straddles the Webster-Oktibbeha county line and where she spent her early years.
When her father died, Tuck, her mother and brother moved out of downtown Maben to the Center Grove community, where Al opened a country store. It’s there the 12-year-old Amy pumped gas or stocked shelves and may have refined her gift for meeting and greeting.
“I enjoyed the visiting better than stocking the shelves,” she recalled with a laugh.
Today, some people wonder what her future will hold.
At least one Jackson-watching insider says Tuck came within 24 hours of signing up to run for governor this year – as a independent.
Tuck hedges her answer.
“Oh, I got some calls,” she admits, but she quickly adds with emphasis “I really enjoy what I’m doing. This is home for me.”
While few think 47-year-old Tuck has completely abandoned her dream to be the state’s first female governor, such a quest would come with a price.
Not only would it cost millions to mount a campaign, she would have to give up the stability she’s found at MSU with her $175,000-a-year position.
Still, she has $158,000 in her campaign fund, and she verbally dances around her plans for it.
“You know,” she said recently, with a bit of surprise at the money question, “I just really haven’t gotten around to doing anything with it.”
Actually, she has – across late 2007 and into early 2008, she used $128,308 for personal purposes and said she paid the taxes on it.
About Tuck’s political future, former state senator and Democratic Party Chairman Gloria Williamson of Philadelphia echoes what more than a few others have said.
“To be honest, I always thought she would be governor. She was our shining star, as a Democratic woman.”
But Williamson said she believes the 2002 party-change ruined Tuck politically, because it got her out of the way for other Republicans who had been waiting their turn longer.
“They couldn’t beat her, so they got her to join them,” she added.
Perhaps Tuck’s campaign reserve, some say, lets her stay in the game.
But others, who knew Amy Tuck when she stocked the shelves at her brother’s grocery store, say she might just remember hard times.
Maybe, they say, she’s keeping it for a rainy day.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal