By Charlie Mitchell
OXFORD – “Marsha says it’s time for me to make some money.” And with that, Haley Barbour will hitch up his own britches and head back to the nation’s capital, the place from which he cometh.
The portly man from Yazoo City, I remain convinced, returned to his native Mississippi about nine years ago to get his “bona fides.” He left (or took a leave of absence) from Barbour, Griffith and Rogers, one of D.C.’s most successful lobbying firms, with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on his mind.
If the stars had aligned just right – and they almost did – Barbour would parlay his masterful strategic skills in politics and raising money into a bid for the White House. But without a record of effective public service in elective office, running for president would have been folly.
Haley Barbour needed success in Mississippi, preferably across party lines, to create bragging points if he entered the national contest. We were his guinea pigs, and most say we’re better off as a result.
As we all know, the two-term governor made his decision not to run months ago. After working behind the scenes as a mastermind in the Republican gains in the U.S. House and Senate in November 2010 – a shakeup from which President Obama has yet to and may not recover – it’s clear Barbour’s brand of fiscal and social conservatism has been on the rise. But again citing family, Barbour withdrew his name from consideration as a possible Republican nominee.
So the summer and fall have been a victory lap of sorts for one of the most popular governors ever.
At the Neshoba County Fair in July, hundreds of red, white and blue placards waved as he addressed his fans. “Thank you, Haley,” is all they said.
The signs reappeared in several places, including the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi in October when Barbour sat for an hour and talked with students and locals about his two terms.
It has been a busy eight years, but there were three crucial challenges.
The first came immediately after Barbour unseated Democratic incumbent Gov. Ronnie Musgrove. The state’s economy was reeling due to national factors and the fact that state legislators had created but not funded new programs all through the flush 1990s.
The budget was $700 million out of whack and the 2 percent budget reserve was empty. Barbour said he could achieve a balance with no tax increase. Few believed him. But that’s what happened.
Then came Katrina. Barbour still calls the 2005 storm that nearly wiped South Mississippi off the map the worst natural disaster in American history. While Louisiana politicians defined “dysfunctional” and engaged in opportunism at the highest levels, Barbour went to Washington seeking unprecedented amounts of aid, but with a pragmatic plan. Finding the money and commencing the rebuilding, he said in Oxford, fit his “skill set.” He was right. The state’s two Republican senators were in position to help, too. And it was during that time when Barbour bragged the most about the state’s people, telling anyone who would listen that Mississippians wouldn’t have a post-Katrina pity party – but would “hitch up their britches” and get to work.
The third challenge has been the U.S. and state economy since 2008.
Barbour showed no mercy in blaming Musgrove for the state’s money mess eight years ago, but has artfully dodged any responsibility for job losses, tax shortfalls and reduced funding for education and other state responsibilities since 2008. And while so doing he has prevailed on legislators to go slow in allocating bailout funds and draining the state’s reserve, which was replenished starting in his first budget year.
Long-time acquaintances of Haley Barbour, back to his high school years, describe him as both a loyal friend and the go-to guy who could make things happen. “Lobbyist” is a cuss word, at least until you or your industry needs one. Then their services become invaluable.
In Oxford, Barbour said he really doesn’t see himself ever in elective office again. Certainly not the House and probably not the Senate. A cabinet post, perhaps – but he candidly described the Oval Office as the only job he’d see as a promotion.
So it’s back to courting clients, back to billing them market rates for services provided – and making money – for Haley Barbour.
Mississippi’s second Republican governor in memory leaves the soon-to-be third set up with the good will of the public and a Legislature realigned as never before.
And he leaves able to make a claim that few who serve in office are able to make: He did what he said he would do.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.