OPINION: Capps held vast legislative powers with a velvet touch

Few, if any, Mississippi political leaders in the last quarter-century wielded more power and influence over the total realm of state government in Mississippi than the late former House Appropriations Committee chairman Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland, who held the state’s purse strings as closely as he held his trademark cigar.
Capps, 84, died Friday at Bolivar Medical Center in Cleveland. He served a total of 24 years on the Appropriations Committee – eight years from 1980 to 1988 as vice chairman and 16 years from 1988 to 2004 as chairman.
It was my good fortune as a young reporter to gain the trust of Mr. Capps. He was a frequent and trusted source for more news stories and column than I can count and we developed a friendship. His ability to remember the most minute details of the state budget without notes was a source of constant amazement to me.
But it really shouldn’t have been. Whether the topic of conversation was state government or SEC football, Capps listened earnestly – as if life itself depended on what he heard and understood. It was an art he said he learned in the very early years of his political career in a cornfield.
The time is the mid-1960s. The place is a rural Bolivar County cornfield deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
A group of prisoners from the nearby Sunflower County jail are on the loose and a lone deputy radios for backup when he thinks he spots the escapees hiding in a field of ripe, head-high corn surrounding an empty amp”shotgunamp” house.
Summoned by the anxious deputy, Capps, the high sheriff of Bolivar County arrived at the scene accompanied by a friend with whom the first-term lawman had just attended a funeral. The sheriff was holding a loaded shotgun and the scene was tense.
A third deputy – an older veteran armed with a Thompson machine gun – arrived at the cornfield. The sheriff announced, loudly enough to be heard two cornfields away: “Deputy, I want you to take that Thompson machine gun and give this corn a good spraying!”
Almost four decades later, Capps took a measured puff on his trademark stogie and recalled in a Delta drawl as deep and cool as a spring-fed water well: “From out of the corn, I heard a voice calling ‘Please don’t shoot, Sheriff, we’re coming out!'”
Capps would only serve one term as Bolivar County’s chief law enforcement officer – but he ranks today in the minds of many Mississippi political observers as the most powerful and effective legislators ever to serve in the Legislature.
Capps was a former president of the Delta Council. “That was a tremendous influence on my life and helped me better understand the need to work together for the greater good of the Delta region and the state as a whole,” he said.
Former House speaker pro tempore and longtime legislative colleague Robert Clark said of Capps in a 2002 interview: “Since Charlie has been in the Legislature, he’s fought for the Delta – not for white folk or black folk – but for the Delta. He’s an excellent steward of the people’s money and property and Mississippi’s lucky to have a man like him overseeing our state’s budget.”
Charlie Capps was a great man who truly looked after the state’s money. As Clark said, he had a strong sense of place and the Delta was his place. He loved the region and did all he could to make it better. I shared my last laugh with Mr. Capps earlier this year at an appropriate venue – the 2009 Delta Council meeting in Cleveland.

Contact Perspective Editor Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com. Visit his blog at clarionledger.com. His talk radio show, On Deadline with Sid Salter, is broadcast on the SuperTalk Mississippi network.

Sid Salter