BY BOBBY HARRISON
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – Jamie Franks enters the room, surveys the surroundings with an intense gaze and starts shaking hands as he asks for support.
He doesn’t miss any of the 20 or so early arrivals at a political event on an chilly and wet night at Millsaps College.
Compared to state Auditor Phil Bryant, his Republican opponent in the race for lieutenant governor, Franks might not be a natural campaigner, but he is an intense one.
The Mooreville legislator taken that intensity across the state in an almost nonstop tour, trying to pull what would be a political upset by topping Bryant.
“I think I have been getting a real good reception,” Franks said. “We have been going all over Mississippi and have been received well. We are going to continue until the last hour of the last day and we are going to win in November.”
Franks, 34, is spending his fourth straight state election cycle campaigning nonstop. His first run for office came in 1995, when at the age of 22 he captured the open House District 19 seat in a tough election battle.
Daily Journal research at the time indicated that only Jamie Whitten, who later served as Appropriations chair of the U.S. House, and Keith McNatt of Holly Springs had been elected to the Mississippi House at an earlier age.
Franks, who had just graduated from the University of Mississippi when he won the seat, was re-elected twice despite tough, well-financed opposition. In the House, he has been a key part of the Democratic leadership and has served as chair of the Conservation Committee.
But this election cycle, Franks gave up the District 19 seat, which includes portions of Itawamba, Lee and Tishomingo counties, to try to become the first Lee County resident since Sam Lumpkin in 1948 elected to statewide office.
“I have enjoyed going all over Mississippi and meeting people from Corinth to the Gulf Coast,” said Franks, who started the campaign with minimal statewide name recognition and has had to battle that obstacle against Bryant, who has been on the statewide ballot in three previous elections.
On this particular night at Millsaps, Franks is sitting at a table along with gubernatorial candidate John Arthur Eaves Jr., secretary of state candidate Rob Smith and insurance commissioner candidate Gary Anderson, all Democrats. Republicans were invited to the forum sponsored by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, but none accepted.
The other candidates, led by Eaves, all smile as they face the crowd, waiting to begin. Franks doesn’t. The intensity never leaves his face. It’s not a standoffish scowl because he is more than willing and able to engage in casual conversations. But he does even that with an intensity.
“He will stand up for what he wants and believes in…,” said the Rev. Jack Ezell, who pastors the Tupelo Church of God where Franks has been a lifelong member.
“He has a heart for service. That is what inspires him.”
At the forum, the moderator asks the candidates if there have been any negative ads against them that they want to talk about.
Franks’ intensity lightens. “I have $1.3 million worth of them,” he says with a smile, presumably referring to the amount of money Republican groups have spent on commercials about him.
Franks zeros in on one ad that shows a man walking through a cemetery criticizing him.
“I think they have gone too far,” he said. “Where I live and the way I was brought up you don’t have someone trampling over graves in a cemetery – a place where we are supposed to respect the memories of the dead.”
While the ad was not paid for by the Bryant campaign, Franks said a member of Bryant staff previously worked for the national group that did the ad and could have stopped it. The Bryant campaign said they had no control over the commercial.
But Franks, who has a reputation in the House of not running from a fight, has been no wallflower during this campaign, either. He has accused Bryant of being incompetent as state auditor and of failing to adequately monitor construction of a beef processing plant that ended up costing the state $55 million.
“I consider myself an easygoing person who tries to get along with everybody,” Franks said in an earlier interview. “But I am here to try to make a difference…I don’t consider myself someone trying to pick a fight. I come from a blue-collar background, and I want to help the average Mississippian.”
He bristles when someone refers to him as a liberal. At least on social issues, his record does not reflect that. His votes have been pro-gun ownership, anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion.
By most accounts, Franks, a trial attorney, would be considered a populist. While he ended up voting for most of the changes to the civil justice system to provide businesses more lawsuit protection, he fought in the process some provisions, such as caps on punitive damages.
He often says big corporations have their lobbyists and the poor have advocacy groups, but the working class has no voice in the legislative process. He claims he is that voice.
His parents, Roger and Gale, are both lifelong employees of Day-Brite Lighting factory in Tupelo. Franks says he is the first in his family to graduate from college and did so by starting a yard/landscaping business that paid for his college and also for law school.
“I know about hard work,” Franks says matter of factly.
He is now in private law practice with Bill Wheeler, who held the District 19 seat before Franks, and in many ways has been Franks’ political mentor.
But the intensity that has elevated Franks to a leadership position in the state House – and perhaps eventually to the second-highest post in the state – is something that comes naturally.