By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal
JACKSON – State Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersvlle, says once Billy McCoy, his legislative deskmate for the past 28 years, went weeks without speaking to him because, “I made a bad vote. Everybody is entitled to one mistake.”
Finally, Holland, who is not known for his tact, confronted McCoy and essentially said they could talk or fight.
Holland said McCoy slowly bent forward in his chair, pulled out a pocket-size booklet on the legislative rules out of his desk, flipped through the pages and said dryly, “I don’t see anything in here saying I have to talk to you.”
Such is the legacy William J. McCoy leaves behind after 32 years in the Mississippi House. He is known for his stubbornness, yet he has played a major role in crafting some of the most important legislative compromises during the past 30 years.
When the Legislature convenes Tuesday to start the 2012 session, the effusive Holland will be breaking in a new deskmate. McCoy, who has served the past two terms as speaker of the House, presumably will be back home in his beloved Rienzi in the foothills of the Appalachians tending garden or perhaps reading his favorite poet, Robert Burns.
“I am 100 percent sure. I have no regrets,” said McCoy of his retirement. “I read Ecclesiastes that said there is a time and place for everything. As usual, it was a joint decision with my wife and my family. We decided it was a time and place to do something else.
“There are different phases in life. This has been a tremendous 32-year phase. Nobody could have asked for more opportunities than I had to work with people across the state and for the people in my district.”
McCoy, 69, will leave office as arguably the most impactful legislator of his generation, but as somewhat of a controversial figure – often belittled by Republicans and especially various Republican media outlets. Many see him – like his poet hero Scotland’s Robert Burns – as the friend of the working man. But the legislation he championed ranged from efforts to improve highways and education to provide tax breaks to lure major industry (like Nissan and Toyota) to the state.
Through most of his legislative career, he made his living as a farmer, and found a real niche as a worm farmer. Though he often was described as a worm farmer in an attempt of belittlement, he took great pride in his entrepreneurial effort that led to finding a productive cash crop. Though he no longer tackles the considerable physical rigors of worm farming, the operation is still in the McCoy family.
“We will never see his likes again,” said Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley. “He has been a tireless friend of the working people of Mississippi. They will never see a better defender, better fighter for them even if they did not always know it. He has never forgot where he came from.”
Considering his role in passage of key pieces of legislation, Presley said, “he has had more impact in 32 years than most governors.”
McCoy was elected speaker in 2004 without any opposition. By 2008 he was viewed as the chief obstructionist to Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, and he was re-elected 62-60 with all House Republicans voting against him. He then made the controversial mood of naming only Democrats to committee chairs – including a record number of black members.
Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton, a key member of the Legislative Black Caucus, said McCoy’s inclusion of blacks in leadership posts makes his speakership historic.
While his tenure, because of opposition to some of Barbour’s policies, such as changes to the civil justice system to make it more difficult to sue businesses, has put him the crosshairs of some, Rep. Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said McCoy always tried to bring honor to the House and its members. Gunn, who often butted heads with McCoy and is his likely successor as speaker, said after he was elected, but before he took office, McCoy spoke at an event in his district.
“We are on the other side of the aisle. We don’t agree on much politically, but he took the opportunity to promote me,” he said to the crowd at the event.
House Clerk Don Richardson, a former member of the House who served as McCoy’s first deskmate, said people now see a 69-year-old man dealing with some limitations caused by a series of mini-strokes he suffered in his first year as speaker, but, “Billy was one of the best athletes to ever serve in the House.”
Richardson said another member challenged him to a foot race. “He took off his shoes and beat him. And he was in his late 50s then.”
Richardson, referring to a quick, but legendary fight at the Capitol where McCoy decked a fellow House member in the 1980s, said, “He was almost as quick with his fists as he was with his feet.”
For his part, McCoy explained the member came at him first, but after the altercation the pair became close.
“When Billy McCoy befriends you, it is for life,” Richardson said at a recent event where McCoy’s portrait was unveiled in the House chamber. It now hangs next to other recent House speakers.
McCoy, as he stated, is entering a new phase of his life. He said that will include traveling in his beloved Mississippi, but also nationally and perhaps internationally. He said he would like to visit Ireland because of family ancestry and perhaps Scotland.
“God has given me the opportunity to enjoy retirement and all of its fringes, and I plan to do that,” he said one day sitting behind the desk in the speaker’s office he has occupied for the past eight years.
But on Tuesday, McCoy won’t be found there or sitting beside Holland in the House chamber. But who knows, he might be found at the Burns Cottage in Alloway, Scotland, or even on some back road in Mississippi where some believe he truly made a difference.
Major legislation Bill McCoy has played major role in passing:
1987 – Four Lane Highway over governor’s veto.
1992 – Education Enhancement Act over governor’s veto.
1997 – Adequate Education Act over governor’s veto.
2000 – Advantage Mississippi Act, which led to successful recruitment or Nissan, Toyota and other industries to the state.