By Bill Minor
JACKSON – When Gulf Coast Republican neophyte state Rep. Steven Palazzo was suddenly hoisted by the 2010 tea party revolt to a seat in the U.S. House, a veteran Mississippi lawmaker commented that an “empty suit” had just been sent to Congress.
Palazzo, whose short state legislative tenure was, according to some colleagues, marked by his steady stream of preachments about social and fiscal conservatism, but no legislative achievements, last week lived up to his “empty suit” forecast.
The 41-year-old accountant from Gulfport, a city ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (and still in recovery mode with bundles of federal aid sent down from Washington) amazingly was among few members of Congress to vote against a $9.7 billion down payment on massive flood insurance relief for homeowners in New York and New Jersey swamped by mega-storm Sandy in August. He callously claimed the money to help Sandy victims should be offset by spending cuts. Funny that nothing was said about offset in 2005 when some $23 billion in federal Katrina relief was funneled into the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Even two other Republican House members from Mississippi supported the Sandy relief money, although the two – Rep. Alan Nunnelee and Rep. Gregg Harper – two days earlier had refused to join Speaker John Boehner and other GOPers to pass the fiscal cliff package. Harper and Nunnelee showed they had no intention of ending the two-year House gridlock that branded the 112th as the worst legislative body in history.
At least the state’s two Republican senators – Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker – who had previously hued to the party line and opposed everything that came out of the Obama White House – voted in the showdown in favor of the cliff package crafted by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell. As Wicker later admitted, to do nothing and let the Bush-era upper income tax cuts expire would cost taxpayers more than the Biden-McConnell plan.
How the state’s Republican-dominated House delegation came to Washington in January, 2011 was actually a major transition in Mississippi political history. Traditionally, the state House delegation, (now only four seats as compared to six seats 40 years ago) was dominated by elected Democrats, some of whom were often not loyal to the party leadership. With momentum from the government-shrinking, anti-incumbency tea party movement, both Palazzo and Nunnalee unseated Democratic incumbents in the First and Fourth districts.
Most notable was upset of Gene Taylor, the maverick and archly conservative Democrat from Bay St. Louis who represented the Mississippi 4th for 21 years. Taylor became a major military defense advocate in Congress, pushing the naval ship-building industry located in his district. Other than spending on national defense, Taylor was among the most fiscally conservative Democrat in Congress. A Catholic, Taylor was staunchly anti-abortion and became a folk hero during Katrina when, though his home was destroyed by the storm, spent hours working on the ground to get food, water and vital help to his constituents.
Obviously Gene, once a controversial reformer of the long-unchanged legislative rules as a state senator, didn’t see the tea party revolt coming, and did not wage a full-bore campaign against the well-funded Palazzo.
Nunnelee had unseated freshman Democrat Travis Childers in the First district, branding Childers as not a “true conservative” although he caucused with the conservative Blue Dog Democrats. The National Republican Party saw Childers as vulnerable and poured big money into Nunnelee’s campaign to downplay the Tupelo insurance man’s negative personality image from when he chaired the state Senate Appropriations Committee before running against Childers.
Harper more or less inherited the Republican-safe 3rd District seat after Chip Pickering unexpectedly resigned in 2007, but had to beat several GOP contenders in 2008. No Democrat has contested him the last four years.
As for Mississippi’s lone Democrat left in the U.S. House, 2nd District’s Bennie Thompson has become unbeatable for 10 terms in what may be called the state’s guaranteed African American/Delta seat to reflect its 65 percent black population.
Columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.