BILL MINOR: Mississippi lacks U.S. Senate clout of old

By Bill Minor

JACKSON – Gone are the days when in Washington the state had two powerful, though quite different, U.S. senators – Jim Eastland, the powerbroker who headed the state’s last major faction that transcended political party; and John Stennis, the scholarly, respected ex-judge, a cornerstone of national defense.
They were never bothered by the Senate’s party divide and though labeling themselves Democrats they unreliably voted along party lines. In fact, in presidential elections, it was often difficult for us inquiring reporters to get a definite answer whether they were supporting the national party’s ticket.
It was also a time when back home they had to navigate the tricky waters of white supremacy enforced by such highly-organized groups as the white Citizens Council. For Eastland, that was no trouble because being a Delta planter, he easily bonded with the CC. But behind the scene in Washington he cut deals with the Mississippi-hated Kennedys and pushed their court nominees through the Senate.
Stennis, unlike his Mississippi colleague, was admired for his statesmanship and entrusted with building America’s military forces at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That’s, of course, why today you see the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the CVN-74 John C. Stennis, patrolling the Persian Gulf as America’s watchdog at the Strait of Hormuz sea passage to troublesome Iran.
Now, Republican Roger Wicker, formerly a so-so state senator from Tupelo, occupies the U.S. Senate seat Stennis held for 42 years. Wicker certainly can’t be said to “fill the shoes” of John Stennis – for he doesn’t come close to that.
But I have a particular beef with Wicker: he poses as a fiscal/anti-tax hawk in Washington and according to his re-election campaign ads he boasted of support from powerful business organizations that lobby against taxes. Yet when he was a state senator in 1992 he didn’t mind voting to raise Mississippi’s sales tax from 6 to 7 percent, and putting the full 7 cent rate on groceries – bread and milk etc. – necessities bought by the poorest people in America. The point here is that many states, but not Mississippi, that have a sales tax either exempt food or have a reduced rate.
Wicker may claim Mississippians solidly re-elected him last Tuesday over his Democratic opponent, Albert N. Gore (no relation to the former VP) of Starkville, an 82-year-old retired minister and Green Beret veteran. But how solid was it? Wicker only won by 57-43, over a candidate who rarely ventured out of Oktibbeha County and bought no TV or radio ads. But get this: Wicker spent $7 million to vanquish his stay-at-home foe. Wonder where the seven mil came from?
Thad Cochran makes up the second part of Mississippi’s dynamic (?) duo in the 100-member Senate. Thad’s a nice guy with 34 years Senate experience and six in the House. But as he nears probable retirement in 2014 at age 77, Cochran has joined the ranks of party liners and no longer is a sometime-moderate he once was. Besides, he’s lost his GOP sparring partner, Trent Lott, with whom he often clashed. Now stripped of earmarks (dubiously billed as “king of pork” by his GOP colleague, Sen. John McCain of Arizona) Cochran can no longer inject really valuable federal funds into Mississippi’s financially-starved universities. Besides, Cochran, who did his best work when Republicans controlled the Senate, will face a Democratic-controlled Senate throughout the rest of his present term.
So Mississippi moves on – the happy (?) village with a weak voice in what is called “the most deliberative” body in the world. A state more or less dragged into Obamaland.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.