By Marty Russell
The last e-mail I received from Norma Fields, the Daily Journal’s longtime Capitol correspondent who passed away Sunday at the age of 86, was typical Norma. She may have officially retired from reporting but she always remained a reporter. The e-mail came during the 2008 presidential election.
“Why in good green jumping hell,” Norma wrote, “aren’t you columnists raising sand about John McCain’s wife?”
She was referring to the insinuations raised by Republicans in the previous election over John Kerry’s marriage to the heiress of the Heinz fortune while no one was saying anything about McCain’s marriage to the heiress of the Coors beer fortune. And, of course, she was right. There did seem to be a double standard at play in McCain’s case.
Norma scared the hell out of me as I’m sure she did many politicians over the years she covered the Legislature. To say she was tenacious when she got the scent of a story was an understatement. She was like a cat relentlessly pursuing a mouse and she always won. After years of failed attempts to get an open meetings law passed in this state to prevent public bodies from meeting behind closed doors, it may very well have been Norma who finally devised a scheme to get it passed.
In an interview with her for my master’s thesis, she recounted how then Speaker Buddie Newman had repeatedly shot down attempts to pass open meetings legislation. So Norma went to Butch Lambert, who was then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
“I invited Butch Lambert to be the guest speaker at the (Society for Professional Journalists) meeting and we adopted a resolution in favor of an open meetings bill,” Norma told me in the interview. “He had apparently never heard of that thing but he did ask a lot of intelligent questions. (Jim) Simpson was chairman of the Rules Committee and supported open meetings, or at least he had given us lip service. Newman owed him a lot of political debts so Lambert went to Simpson and Simpson went to Newman and said, we’re going to pass it and not to oppose it and he didn’t. … Until then it was just one of those bills that was always introduced and then never heard of again.”
When the bill finally did pass in 1975, Norma captured it in her own style.
“Numerous senators took up that ‘press ban’ amendment and ran with it, complaining about news media in general and being misquoted in particular. Paradoxically, it was during that part of the debate that several senators misquoted Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. … Eventually, at 4:30 p.m., the final vote was cast. While it was being tabulated, the public address system blew a vacuum tube, emitting a long, slow sigh and blowing a quick cloud of smoke. Without the PA system, those senators trying to get the attention of the chair were shouting. Lt. Gov. William Winter was pounding his gavel for order. The heavy gavel broke, its head flying off with a bang as it hit the wall behind Winter’s head. It was one of those weird and wonderful days.”
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org