JACKSON – Alan Nunnelee sits in the living room of an Olive Branch home and explains, “I’m not running against anybody. I am running for a job.”
“We like positive,” says Scottie Davidson, a retired business owner.
Nunnelee eases into a seat on a comfortable couch after a recent day on his feet in DeSoto County, where he toured government offices, met with potential voters and visited a company luncheon where he tried to shake every hand but did not stay to eat.
As he rests on the couch, he engages in a conversation that touches on nearly all topics that Southerners view as important – the graduation of the woman’s granddaughter from Ole Miss, other family matters and even advance burial arrangements.
The only thing missing was iced tea.
But the conversation also had a little of the feel of a job interview.
Asked about his plans if he wins the 1st Congressional District seat, the Tupelo Republican speaks of cutting taxes.
What taxes? Davidson inquires.
Income and estate taxes, Nunnelee replies. His answer seems to please her.
It was only last month that Nunnelee was plying his legislative trade not in Washington, where he wants to be, but in the Mississippi Capitol, where he serves as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and where he has been a senator since winning a special election in late 1994.
In April, Nunnelee was not looking to cut taxes as he helped craft a budget that will lead to fewer teachers in schools, layoffs of state employees, furloughs and an increase in the amount government workers must contribute toward their retirement program.
Nunnelee said the budget agreement, while not one he liked, was the best that could be accomplished during a period when state tax revenue has taken a dramatic downturn.
Some say Nunnelee, Gov. Haley Barbour and other budget negotiators left too much money in the state’s reserve accounts – funds that could have lessened the blow for the upcoming fiscal year.
But Nunnelee defends his actions, saying it’s prudent to save funds for upcoming budget years.
“Mississippi families have been forced to tighten their belts. I believe government should do the same,” said Nunnelee, part-owner of Allied Funeral Associates. “That is why I led the fight to cut millions in state government spending.”
Nunnelee says he will take that same conservative philosophy to Washington if he wins the Republican primary on June 1 and defeats incumbent Democrat Travis Childers in November.
At Southaven City Hall, at least one key public official likes Nunnelee’s philosophy.
“I am supporting Sen. Nunnelee,” said Southaven Mayor Greg Davis, who was the Republican nominee defeated by Childers for the 1st District post in 2008.
Before talking about Nunnelee, Davis opened a National Day of Prayer ceremony. Nunnelee stood quietly at the back of the ceremony singing the hymns and said only “thank you” when Davis acknowledged his presence.
After the ceremony, Davis said, “I think Sen. Nunnelee will do well in this area. He is known by a lot of people. He has helped us as appropriations chairman.”
Not natural, but sincere
From the prayer service, Nunnelee quickly heads to a field in a rural part of the increasingly suburban county where B&P Enterprises, a railroad contracting company, is having a luncheon for employees and friends.
“We are going to try to go up there and change the way things are being done,” Nunnelee tells one potential voter who is taking a break from a crawfish lunch to speak with the candidate.
Nunnelee is not a natural campaigner, but he brings a certain sincerity and graciousness to the endeavor. And he has a handy supply of stories – often about baseball – to help carry the conversation.
He cites Babe Ruth who, when asked why he made more than the president, responded that he had a better year. He also mentions boxing legend Joe Louis, who proclaimed he didn’t like money “but it quiets my nerves.”
Nunnelee is led on a tour of Olive Branch by Fran Britt, a member of Republican Party executive committees on the city, county and state levels, and by Milton Nichols, the former longtime mayor.
Britt said she will support the Republican nominee against Childers, whether it’s Nunnelee, Angela McGlowan or Henry Ross. But her first choice is Nunnelee .
“Unless he has me badly fooled, I think he is an honorable man,” Britt said. “I think he is a true conservative. I think he is a true family man. I think he has done a good job in Jackson all the years he has been down there. I think he is a man of his word.
“I really don’t find much wrong with him.”
Unlike Britt, Joy Kellum of Tupelo has known Nunnelee for a long time – from the time they were in youth programs together at Calvary Baptist Church, through school together at Mississippi State until the present day, where the Kellums and Nunnelees remain close and have children of roughly the same age.
“What you see is what you get with Alan,” Kellum said. “He is the same behind closed doors as he is to your face. He is a true man of integrity. I think the world of him.”
While viewed as a Republican stalwart, Nunnelee would not put party or political expediency over what he thinks is right, Kellum said.
His deskmate in the Senate also commends Nunnelee’s skills.
“I think he is a good legislator,” said Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus. “He will listen to you. He is not dogmatic like I am. He is a good compromiser.”
Nunnelee, former chair of the Senate Public Health Committee, might be considered a compromiser, but he also is known as a strong advocate for conservative causes. He has authored numerous pieces of legislation that make Mississippi one of the most difficult states in the nation to get an abortion.
In other areas, he has on occasion broken party rank. In 1997, Nunnelee, still in his first full term in the state Senate, voted to override Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice’s veto of the landmark Adequate Education Program, which provides more funds for the operation of local school districts with an emphasis on aiding poorer districts.
But in recent years, Nunnelee has seldom bucked Republican Gov. Haley Barbour, particularly on budget issues. Nunnelee, with the governor’s support, has in recent years fought efforts to fully fund the Adequate Education Program, saying the state could not afford it.
Senate leaders “are not going to do anything the governor does not want them to do – period,” House Appropriations Chair Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, said last year in the midst of a budget impasse.
In making his decision to run for Congress, the 51-year-old Nunnelee said he debated long and hard whether he would want to be one of 435 members of the U.S. House or remain state Senate Appropriations chair, where he wields tremendous influence in Mississippi.
He said he ultimately decided that he could do more good in Washington, but said he would not have pursued the office if his three children had not graduated from high school and were now out of the family home.
When his children were younger, Nunnelee coached his two sons in youth baseball, despite a series of eye problems.
In college, an eye disease left Nunnelee blind until his eyesight was restored in the early 1980s after two cornea transplants. Then on Easter Sunday 1995, while throwing a baseball with his son, Nunnelee suffered an eye injury that resulted in nine surgeries.
While recovering from those surgeries, at the suggestion of his wife, Tori, he spent time at King Intermediate School as a math tutor. Unable to drive after the surgery, Nunnelee would ride the bus home with his son, who was a student at King.
The vision trouble has left him particularly sensitive to bright lights.
As Nunnelee steps back out into the bright May sun in Olive Branch, he puts on big, dark glasses to protect his eyes.
But at the next stop, the glasses come off and Nunnelee is ready to talk politics, baseball, family or whatever is on the mind of his new acquaintances.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal