Where have the state’s good Republicans gone – the Gil Carmichaels, the Jack Reeds or even the testy Clarke Reeds or Wirt Yergers?
They’re the party stalwarts who built Republicanism in Mississippi from a token opposition to traditional Democratic power into a formidable political force.
In my long career of covering the political scene I’ve traced the evolution of the Mississippi Republican Party from a virtual phone booth organization to the dominant force it has become in recent years.
At least 10 newspaper pieces I wrote, collected in my 2001 volume “Eyes on Mississippi…a Fifty Year Chronicle of Change,” mark the transition of the state’s GOP. I made a point of personally covering four Republican national conventions.
Gil Carmichael, a highly successful Meridian businessman and preservationist, became the Republican gubernatorial nominee in 1979. He offered a progressive platform that attracted many Democrats. He even advocated increasing the state’s oil and natural gas severance tax which for 40 years remained unchanged even while the petroleum industry reaped increasing profits.
He lost to Democrat William Winter, the former lieutenant governor and state treasurer, in the general election. However, Winter later adopted Carmichael’s idea of increasing the long-untouched oil and gas severance tax to fund his major education reform program. The powerful petroleum industry, helped by key legislators, forced Winter to abandon his plan and reach for other revenue sources to finance his historic education reforms.
In 1987, Jack Reed, Tupelo businessman, statewide civic leader and noted educational achievement advocate – whom I described as a “raging moderate” compared to Ronald Reagan – came within five points of becoming the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Funding public education wouldn’t normally become an issue in a race for a U.S. Senate seat, but it has become one in the nationally watched Republican senatorial runoff. Reelection of veteran Sen. Thad Cochran is in jeopardy from 42-year-old State Sen. Chris McDaniel of Jones County. McDaniel, allied with the far-right Tea Party wing of the GOP, opposes federal educational subsidies.
McDaniel has been able to mask from voters how far to the right he really is. Investigative magazine Mother Jones in 2013 had reported that McDaniel was the featured speaker for a neo-confederate, pro-secessionist conference in Jones County at which many attendees wore Confederate uniforms.
The New York Times has sent two reporters into Mississippi to cover the Cochran-McDaniel runoff. Last Saturday one Times reporter interviewed Carl Ford, a 77-year-old lawyer in McDaniel’s hometown of Ellisville. Ford, a staunch McDaniel backer, admitted he was active in the county’s Sons of Confederate Veterans, which holds annual dinners on Robert E. Lee’s birthday.
What The Times didn’t know is that in 1998 Ford had been a defense attorney for the late Sam Bowers of Laurel, who in the 1960s and 1970s was Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The White Knights was a Mississippi-born group which the FBI said plotted several brutal terrorist murders during Mississippi’s celebrated 1960s “Freedom Summer.”
Bowers was three times prosecuted as the mastermind for violent racial crimes – once in federal court and twice in state court. In 1998, with Ford on the defense team, Bowers was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the Dahmer murder. Bowers died in prison in 2006.
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.