SID SALTER: A woman for agriculture?

By Sid Salter

STARKVILLE – The year was 1984. New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic vice presidential nominee on the ticket with former Vice President Walter Mondale of Minnesota against the GOP ticket of President Ronald Reagan and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
During a campaign visit to Mississippi, the feisty, savvy Ferraro encountered former commissioner of agriculture and commerce and state political institution Jim Buck Ross of Pelahatchie. During the visit, Ferraro’s campaign appearance got sidetracked when Ross initiated a discussion of emerging crops in the state including crawfish, catfish, and muscadines. The congresswoman told Ross that while she didn’t know much about those crops, she knew a lot about blueberries.
Ross is no longer with us to answer whether his next question to Ferraro was patronizing or sincere, but the national press had a field day with both his question and her response. “Can you bake a blueberry muffin?” asked Ross. “Sure can,” Ferraro shot back. “Can you?”
Ross rather stammered: “Down here in Mississippi, the men don’t cook.”
In essence, that’s the last time that Mississippians confronted the notions of agriculture commissioner and a female candidate in the same conversation. But in the 2011 campaign, that’s no longer true.
State Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Brookhaven, is mounting a serious campaign for the post that the late Ross held for decades. With the retirement of current Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell, there’s an open seat for the post and Hyde-Smith – a two-term Senate Agriculture Committee chair, cattle farmer and stockyard owner – at this juncture appears to be turning the notion that the job is a “man’s job” aside.
In the GOP primary, Hyde-Smith faces the strong challenge of former agriculture teacher and farmer Max Phillips of Taylorsville. Phillips ran unsuccessfully for the post as a Democrat in 1995, was the GOP nominee who lost to then-Democrat Spell in 2003 and lost the 2007 GOP primary to Spell after he changed parties in the 2007 race. State Rep. Dannie Reed, R-Ackerman, is also seeking the nomination.
The Democratic nominee is Pickens Mayor Joel Gill. Reform Party candidate Cathy L. Toole of Biloxi will also be on the ballot in November.
Hyde-Smith’s strength comes from handling most of the agriculture and property rights legislation that has required heavy legislative lifting and from her strong relationship with the Mississippi Farm Bureau – which has named her Agriculture Legislator of the Year .
Phillips will benefit from prior statewide campaigns and from laboring in the GOP vineyard after converting from the Democratic Party. Reed earned fans by working hard on ATV safety legislation. Both Phillips and Reed have talked about the fact they have degrees in agriculture.
But Hyde-Smith’s appeal to working Mississippi women and to the state’s agriculture lobby for her proven record of success on behalf of their issues makes her the candidate to watch in the GOP primary.
Gill is running a serious campaign for the Democrats and has national acclaim in cattle farming circles. The GOP nominee won’t be through battling when the primary is over.
But we have come a long way from talking about “baking blueberry muffins” when this state confronts the idea of a woman holding the agriculture commissioner’s office. The majority of voters in the state are women – and they have little trouble embracing that vision.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-325-2506 or ssalter@library.msstate.edu.