By Bill Minor
JACKSON – “I would,” Haley Barbour told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer when asked if GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney should release his income tax returns.
During his eight-year reign in Mississippi, Barbour refused to make public his income tax returns, hiding behind what he called a “blind trust,” something that didn’t exist in state law. In 2008, a patched-together law with little teeth was enacted, only after Barbour vetoed a stronger version.
Recently, Barbour notified the State Ethics Commission that he was withdrawing his blind trust. What a relief. We were worried how Barbour made ends meet on just his $122,000 state salary as governor. Not to worry, though.
We have learned from quarterly asset reports required by the 2008 blind trust law that in 2009 and 2010 Barbour was sitting on substantial wealth – like $3.3 million – and was being paid $25,000 a month from the blind trust. This from the man who said at the outset of his governorship he had severed all ties with BG&R, his old lobby firm, and disposed of shares of Interpublic Group that had become its parent company.
Now back to the present: If you want to get hold of Haley Barbour, you don’t call Yazoo City. You call the District of Columbia and BGR Group, his old money-producing, influence-peddling factory.
Last Sunday’s New York Times’ Magazine carried a long article by Mark Leibovich, about the opening in Olive Branch of a plant that will turn out small electric cars. You wouldn’t think the mighty Times would be covering such an event. But it did, for who owned the plant and who showed up for the sweltering opening – a bipartisan trio of political heavyweights. Terry McAuliffe, the affable former Democratic National chairman and party moneyman, was there as plant owner. With him were two happy political pals – Bill Clinton and Haley Barbour, who need no introduction.
Which begs the question: Did Mississippians really get to know Haley Barbour when he camped out down here as governor for eight years? For eight years he built a top-down Republican machine throughout state governance. When he returned to D.C., Haley left Mississippi in the hands of not-too-swift leadership. However, he left a strong bench of promising younger ideologues, should he want a new lineup in 2015.
Probably I have pinpointed Haley Barbour’s rise to political power in Mississippi longer than anyone. I watched his climb up the Republican ladder, dropping out of Ole Miss in 1968 to work in Richard Nixon’s campaign, then becoming the state GOP’s office manager after finishing his law degree at the university. In 1976 he ran Gerald Ford’s campaign in Mississippi and several other Southern states. After taking the beating for the party against John Stennis in 1982 he was yanked up to the nation’s capital and hired on to Ronald Reagan’s White House staff in 1985, putting him on track to become RNC chairman and found his own powerful lobby group. There he emerged as one of the party’s most effective fundraisers.
Along the way, Barbour had become the unlikely drinking buddy of McAuliffe, his Democratic counterpart. Thus, when the Macker wanted to start up a green energy car (the MyCar) factory, he thought of Barbour and Mississippi as an ideal low-tax, generous subsidy place to put it. So the odd trio happily showed up at Olive Branch. Leibovich quotes Barbour as saying, “Washington has been good to me.”
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.