Political stress erupting at Mississippi Capitol

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Three months into the Mississippi legislative session, nerves are fraying and tempers are flaring at the state Capitol.

Two Democratic House members scuffled last week after voting opposite ways on a workers’ compensation bill.

A Tea Party member angrily confronted state Rep. Reecy Dickson this week after she voted to kill a charter-school bill.

And, after the Senate Public Health Committee approved a bill to put new restrictions on abortion clinics, a bill opponent glared at the committee members and called out: “Liars! You’re all liars!” A security officer stepped between her and the committee members. Few lawmakers glanced her way, and no one responded.

Stress is normal at the end of every legislative session, and random exchanges result in fisticuffs a couple of times each decade.

“Civility really comes into question at the end of all sessions,” longtime Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said Wednesday. “You don’t have to go to Barnum and Bailey. Just come to the Legislature.”

Others say the tensions in Mississippi reflect increased polarization at state capitols over everything from President Barack Obama to the socially conservative agendas being pushed by Republicans who now control more state legislatures.

The Mississippi House changed from Democratic to Republican control in the general election last November, for the first time since Reconstruction. Holland, who’s been in the House since 1984, said the change might be adding to the stress.

“With the 130-year sea change, it might be worse than ever because we’re polarized, far-left and far-right,” Holland said. “It would be good for all of us — all of us — to pay more attention to the middle.”

Tensions occasionally run high at statehouses and at the U.S. Capitol, renewing a discussion about civility in legislative chambers. The most notorious incident in congressional history came in May, 1856, when South Carolina Rep. Preston S. Brooks used his walking cane to attack Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner over Sumner’s criticism of Brooks’ cousin, Sen. Andrew P. Butler. Sumner was beaten unconscious and couldn’t resume his duties for three years. More recently, in a non-violent episode, Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina was widely criticized for shouting “You Lie!” at Obama during his 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. Wilson was later formally rebuked by the then-Democrat-controlled House.

In Mississippi, one altercation followed the House’s passage last week of a bill that critics said would weaken workers’ rights if they get hurt on the job — a bill now on hold because of procedural moves. After last week’s vote, Rep. Bob Evans of Monticello said he saw Rep. Bennett Malone of Carthage waiting by a Capitol elevator. Evans said he made a remark that implied Malone would gain campaign contributions for switching a vote on the bill from “no” to “yes.”

Malone said that Evans loudly called him “a no-good piece of s—” in front of a crowd of people.

“When he said that, emotions got out of hand and I went after him,” the 68-year-old Malone said.

Malone said nearby lawmakers grabbed him and Evans. “I got one lick in,” Malone said.

“I really resent anybody thinking I would sell a vote,” he said, explaining that he changed his mind after being lobbied by his county supervisors and county development group. Malone said that after close study, he concluded “it’s a good bill for the worker.”

Evans, 62, said he did not try to hit Malone.

“Obviously I was really upset,” said Evans, who had earlier given a speech against the proposal. “I had spoken to Bennett a couple of times before the vote and I knew he was waffling on it.”

Witnesses give different accounts about what happened to Dickson on Tuesday after her vote to kill the charter school bill. While Dickson herself is not discussing the incident with reporters, some witnesses say the Tea Party woman shoved or spat at the longtime lawmaker. Others say the woman simply used harsh words to criticize Dickson’s vote.

Two Tea Party officers went to the Capitol on Wednesday to apologize to Dickson. They would not identify the woman involved but acknowledged she’s a Tea Party member.

“It got out of line yesterday and I am truly sorry that it did,” Mike Bostic of Flowood, chairman of the events committee for the Central Mississippi Tea Party, told Dickson. “I hope you can just forgive us. We need to work together.”

Dickson shook hands with the tea party officers and said she accepted their apologies.

“Mississippi is a very diverse state. No one knows this better as I do that we need each other in order for this state to succeed,” Dickson said. “I only wish that the opportunity in my lifetime will afford us to sit down across the table and discuss our different views and not to be attacked.”

After the charter-school vote, about the time Dickson was confronted, a Mississippi Public Broadcasting reporter caught a woman telling Rep. Wanda Jennings, who also voted against the bill: “You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You’re nothing more than a prostitute.” It was unclear whether it was the same woman who confronted Dickson.

Jennings, R-Southaven, later said she didn’t hear the name calling, and she wasn’t bothered by it.

Lawmakers in this tradition-bound state are unlikely to find inner peace by, for example, taking group yoga classes. But some say they could brush up on “love thy neighbor” lessons by reading Bibles that the Mississippi Baptist Convention handed out at the Capitol this week.

The Bibles arrived Tuesday, as they do near the beginning of each four-year term. Each leather-bound volume has a lawmaker’s name embossed in gold on the cover.

“We like to let them know we’re praying for them,” said Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. “We encourage them to have a walk with the Lord.”

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Associated Press writers Laura Tillman and Jeff Amy contributed to this report.