By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
In the waning months of Haley Barbour’s administration, politics watchers speculated about how his presence might still be felt after he left office.
Little did they imagine just how much and how quickly.
Phil Bryant was inaugurated as Barbour’s successor Tuesday, but the overshadowing story of the week was the outgoing governor’s pardon barrage. It was truly one of the most perplexing political developments in Mississippi in years, and it almost immediately turned into a national story.
It gave Barbour’s longtime political nemesis and the state’s only Democratic statewide elected official, Attorney General Jim Hood, an opportunity to get in a few last licks as Barbour exited. Hood sought and got a judge to issue an injunction to halt release of the relatively small percentage of those Barbour gave outright or conditional pardons, based on the apparent lack of proper public notice under the state constitution. And he didn’t hold back on the rhetorical jabs in the process.
Few Republicans, much less Bryant, could bring themselves to defend the pardons. The new governor promised he’d never do anything of the sort.
In releasing convicted murderers who lived and worked at the Governor’s Mansion, Barbour did what other governors have done in the past. But the 200 or so outright and conditional pardons he issued – even if they mostly involved people already out of prison – were considerably more than the end-of-term norm.
Barbour issued a brief clarifying statement Wednesday night emphasizing that “more than 90 percent” of his decisions were based on recommendations of the Parole Board and that most of the affected people were no longer in jail. But that didn’t calm the firestorm, so he called a news conference at the Ridgeland office of the law firm he just joined to explain himself further.
What came out of that was remarkably free of political spin, though there was some pushback at Hood. Obviously, Barbour had nothing to gain and a lot to lose politically with his actions. So even if he’s through running for political office, why would he do something that would stir such anger and make some people remember his governorship less fondly?
Because these people, as heinous as some of their crimes were, deserved a second chance, he said at the Friday press conference. He’d seen inmate redemption in his own life experiences, and these people had demonstrated they were capable of a turn-around. It’s the Christian thing to do, he said.
Agree with it or not, it was an extraordinary position for a politician – current or former, out of office or not – to take. For once, Barbour’s vaunted political instincts weren’t paramount. There was no way to make what he had done politically palatable, which suggests that his explanation was sincere.
The political result could well be some kind of limitation on future gubernatorial pardons. But there were no political explanations, just a personal statement from a usually masterful politician. That in itself made it a most unusual political event.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or firstname.lastname@example.org.