I shall always deeply regret that a bad cold kept me from visiting Bill Allain about three months before he passed away.
Father Mike O’Brien, my pastor at Saint Richard Catholic Church told me months earlier that Allain was in declining health and he occasionally took Holy Communion to him at a private care facility only a mile or so from my home. Allain, he said, had asked him to bring me along next time he came. I had learned from other sources that the former governor was losing his eyesight and was having caregivers read my column to him.
One morning last summer, Father Mike unexpectedly called me, saying he was on his way to visit Bill and he would pick me up. I had to tell him I was leaving momentarily to see a doctor at the VA and had to beg off. “I’ll go with you next time,” I told my genial Irish pastor. Sadly, there was no next time.
Allain and I – he the politician, and I the hard-driving newsman – were never particularly close during his governorship from 1984 to 1988 or as the state’s attorney general the four previous years. Somehow in recent years we were drawn closer, possibly due to our shared Catholic religion. But I suspect that once relieved of political pressure, he gained a new respect for what I wrote. When I had an important birthday (the big 80) and sent him an invitation, he showed up for the party at my house and really enjoyed himself, especially the jazz quartet led by longtime Jacksonian Howard Jones tooting his trombone. A couple years later when we had a setback in our family, Allain, unannounced, showed up at our doorstep to offer his moral support.
Viewing Allain’s time in elective office from my 66 years as a journalist covering this unfathomable state, I would say his major contribution to improving public policy came when he was attorney general from 1980 to 1984. His four-year term as governor was only moderately successful, highlighted by his appointment of Reuben Anderson as the first African-American to sit on the state’s highest court. I wrote in 1985 that Anderson’s appointment was chiefly a dramatic act to repay the black community for pulling him over the winner’s line in his 1983 governor’s race when four oilmen-leading supporters of Republican candidate Leon Bramlett raised scurrilous charges that Allain had consorted with black transvestites.
Allain’s 1970’s separation of powers lawsuit removing state legislators from executive boards and commissions was certainly historic. But I firmly believe his unprecedented (and successful) fight to break the entrenched utility companies’ power to raise their rates, virtually unobstructed, was his most courageous battle.
When Mississippi Power & Light Co. (now Entergy) sought to push through a $64 million rate hike, Allain stood up to the battery of attorneys the corporate giant assembled before him. “He decided the people needed protection against the big monopoly and set out to do it,” said Frank Spencer, then Allain’s chief assistant. Just imagine, the AG is charged by state law to represent all state agencies, and Allain winds up suing his own client, the state Public Service Commission, when it recommended giving MP&L a $48 million hike. Allain lost his suit against the PSC in the lower court, but the Supreme Court ruled for him. Out of Allain’s fight with the PSC came creation of a public utilities staff, independent of the commission to investigate requested utility rate increases before the PSC acts on them.
Getting the Legislature to call a convention to rewrite the state’s 1890 Constitution is about as easy as making the Mississippi River flow north. But that didn’t keep Allain from trying, half-hearted as it was. He created a broadly based study commission made up of some of the state’s brightest academics and some everyday working people. The commission had no power to call a constitutional convention, only to recommend. The final report was a tad ambivalent but recommended calling one. Allain could have called a special session of the Legislature to act on it, but he didn’t, and so another governmental reform study wound up gathering dust.
Although the constitutional amendment providing for governors to seek a second term was adopted by voters during his administration, Allain did not propose or campaign for the amendment. Other than not wanting to subject himself to another lurid Republican campaign of sexual harassment, Bill Allain simply did not like being governor, and said as much during a visit from his predecessor, William Winter.
Allain asked him, “How could you stand this job for four years?” Winter told me the other day.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.