KELVIN BUCK: In the spotlight

JACKSON – Kelvin Buck is not used to turning on the radio and hearing unflattering comments about himself.
Neither is he accustomed to finding himself the target of attacks on the Internet.
To most of the state, Buck is an unknown commodity – one of 174 members of the Mississippi Legislature. And with a few notable exceptions, individual members of the Legislature have little name recognition outside their home areas.
But Buck, a Democrat from Holly Springs, could become one of those notable exceptions during the 2010 legislative session, which starts Tuesday.
Buck, 48 and a second-term House member, is in the cross hairs of one of Gov. Haley Barbour’s most controversial proposals to deal with the state’s budget woes.
Barbour has proposed merging the historically black universities of Alcorn State at Lorman and Mississippi Valley State at Itta Bena with Jackson State, and he has advocated merging Mississippi University for Women at Columbus with nearby Mississippi State University.
The governor has said the mergers will save money and make the overall university system more efficient and stronger.
Barbour’s university merger proposal most likely will have to get through Buck’s House Universities and Colleges Committee to be successful. As chair of the committee, Buck says he will study the issue of university funding, but has no intention to consider merger legislation.
By announcing his position so early in the process, Buck has drawn a wave of criticism on talk radio and on the Internet.
Sitting in his state Capitol office and speaking with his usual affability, he said he didn’t mind the attacks but, “I do wish people would be more civil about opposing views. I don’t think that you have to try to destroy someone you disagree with.”
Buck’s wife, state Rep. Kimberly Campbell Buck of Jackson, says that despite the intense pressure Barbour can exert in support of his programs, her husband has the will to stand by his beliefs.
“He has such a passion for education,” she said. “He is willing to listen to ideas from everyone, but he will stand by guiding principles for what he believes is right. I think he understands the criticism is part of the job. He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Wesley Walls, a Tupelo businessman who has known Buck since their days at Joyner Elementary in Tupelo, said Buck always has been able to give as well as he got.
“Buck would stand up for what he believes is right,” Walls said.
Buck grew up in Tupelo, the son of John and Vassar Buck, who still live in Tupelo. His father was a truck driver and his mother worked primarily in the health care field as an aide.
Buck’s three children from a previous marriage still live in Tupelo, so he gets back regularly to see his parents and children.
At Tupelo High School he participated in theater and also ran track.
Former longtime Alderman Boyce Grayson influenced him and helped spark his interest in politics.
“I was friends with his sons,” Buck said. “I remember going door to door for him.”
Buck is starting the third year of his second term in the House. In the 122-member House chamber, where seniority matters, Buck is the only second-term House member to chair a committee.
While the Universities and Colleges Committee is always important, this session it will get extra attention because of Barbour’s proposal. That means Buck, who has said he will not bring up a merger bill for consideration, also will be closely watched.
“Rep. Buck and I enjoy a good working relationship,” said Senate Universities and Colleges Committee Chair Doug Davis, R-Hernando. “I admire the time and dedication he puts in. He takes education policy very seriously.”
Buck was one of the sponsors of the Children First Act, which is designed to give the state more authority to help and to take over struggling school districts.
Referring to Buck’s firm statements about the mergers, Davis, a close Barbour ally, said, “That is his opinion. I would just say from my standpoint it is too early to take anything off the table. But that is his prerogative.”

From vice chair to chair
Buck became chair of the committee earlier this year when Charles Young, D-Meridian, died after an extended illness. This will be his first full session as chair.
Buck was vice chair of the committee, and at times Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, has skipped over the No. 2 person to fill a vacant chair’s slot. But McCoy said he knew early on that Buck was the right person to fill the slot.
“Mr. Buck has the right stuff,” McCoy said recently. “His resume is one to be studied – his education, his training. He was a Marine. His leadership skills make him a tremendous asset to the people of Mississippi.”
Buck served in the Marine reserves. He trained troops in North Carolina for the first Iraq war in the early 1990s and was scheduled to be deployed himself when the conflict ended.
He obtained his bachelor’s degree in mass communications at Rust College in Holly Springs, where he chose to settle. He commuted to Memphis, where he worked as as coordinating news director for the ABC affiliate.
He entered municipal politics with a successful bid for the Holly Springs Board of Aldermen. He lost a race for mayor to his fraternity brother, Andre DeBerry.
In 2003, he chose to run for the open House seat.

Romance blooms
In his second term, he was persuaded to go on a luncheon date with a new member of the House – attorney Kimberly Campbell. Shannon native Camille Scales Young, now a Jackson lobbyist, played matchmaker.
A romance soon blossomed. They were married within a year and now have two children as well as the three who still live in Tupelo.
“We have similar interests,” Buck said. “She’s a smart, beautiful lady who has added a lot to our lives.”
In separate interviews, both cited education as a top priority and both said they want to be seen as working across partisan divides.
“A good idea is a good idea whether it comes from a Democrat or a Republican,” Buck said.
Both Bucks said their commuter relationship is not that difficult. He maintains his residence in Holly Springs; she lives in Jackson. They see each other a good bit during the week when legislative business takes him to Jackson, and they see each other most weekends.
“We have what is called a commuter marriage,” said Buck, whose wife represents parts of Madison and Hinds counties. “It is fairly common these days.”
Their relationship, said McCoy, has not caused any problems in the House.
“They are a tremendous power couple,” he said.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.

Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal