BOBBY HARRISON: Sen. Collins’ election highlights need for more women in office

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Whether one agrees or disagrees with her political philosophy, Nancy Collins’ victory in last week’s Senate District 6 special election was in at least one way a good thing for Mississippi.
Quite simply, there are not enough female elected officials in state government.
People might think Collins’ victory is not that significant. It will not change the dynamics of the Senate.
She is a conservative Republican, who it appears will place a special emphasis on social issues, replacing another politician of the same stripe – Alan Nunnelee. Nunnelee resigned after being elected to the U.S. House in November, resulting in the need for the special election in the Senate district that covers a portion of Lee and Pontotoc counties.
Collins’ victory is significant because it increases the number of women in the 52-member Mississippi Senate to five.
Now, in most cases, Collins probably will vote like Nunnelee did during his tenure in the state Senate. But all politicians are affected by their personal experiences. No two experiences are the same, of course, but the experiences and the perspectives of a man and a woman are different.
Because of those differences, Collins’ votes might be different than Nunnelee’s would have been from time to time. And how she operates behind the scenes with her colleagues and for her constituents also might be different. The work of a legislator behind the scenes often is what determines whether he or she is effective. The viewpoint she brings might make a subtle difference in legislation that is never known except for those who are familiar with the background of that bill.
This is not to say that it is better for Lee and Pontotoc counties to have Nancy Collins representing them than Nunnelee. This is not to say that it is better for the people of the Tupelo area that Collins won rather than businessman Doug Wright and her other opponents in last week’s special election.
It is to say that it is good to have government represented by the diverse demographics it serves.
In a state with an African-American population of about 37 percent, it is good to have blacks represented in state government – as they are in moderately significant numbers in the Legislature. In a state where women are a little more than half of the population, it would good to have more than 25 females in the 174-member Legislature. There are 21 women in the 122-member Mississippi House in addition to the five in the Senate.
Mississippi has eight statewide elected officials. All of them are white men.
In the history of the state, there have been two (that’s all) statewide elected women. Evelyn Gandy served in three statewide offices, including lieutenant governor, and lost bids for governor in both 1979 and 1983. After her, Amy Tuck was elected to two terms as lieutenant governor, starting in 1999.
Many believed that Tuck would one day run for governor. And she still might, though she has given no indication that she would in recent years since taking a post at Mississippi State.
Not only has there been a lack of statewide elected females. There also haven’t been many candidates. Lynn Fitch of Madison County, executive director of the state Personnel Board, is a likely candidate for treasurer this year. There has been speculation that others might run.
The same can be said for African-Americans. Since Reconstruction, Mississippi, with the highest percentage of black population of any state in the country, has had no statewide elected black official. Even Massachusetts with an African-American population of about 7 percent has had black statewide elected officials.
There is currently one black member of the Mississippi Supreme Court and one female member on the nine member court. The three-member Public Service Commission and Transportation Commission are both all white males.
I am not saying Mississippians should elect a person because of gender or skin color. There is much more that goes into being a good politician than that.
But I am saying that Mississippi, any state, any entity, is stronger when its diversity is represented. How do we factor the importance of that diversity against other issues, such as political party and philosophy, is a judgment each voter must make.
An item in a recent edition of USA Today pointed out that only four states had never elected a female to the U.S. House of Representatives – Mississippi, Delaware, Vermont and Iowa. It is interesting that at least two of those states – Vermont and Delaware – are normally Democratic states in national elections and Iowa often is.
It is also is interesting to note that when then-state Sen. Roger Wicker of Tupelo was elected to the U.S. House in 1994, Nunnelee won a special election to replace him. And when Nunnelee won the U.S. House seat once held by Wicker, Collins won a special to replace him in the state Senate.
Could a pattern be developing?

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.