LLOYD GRAY: Billy McCoy’s career refutes the caricature

No Mississippi politician has been caricatured more in recent years than Billy McCoy. Talk radio hosts led the charge, making fun of the House speaker’s non-legislative occupation as a worm farmer and otherwise mocking his country demeanor. Opponents painted him as a big-spending, anti-business liberal and partisan obstructionist.
McCoy became the object of these characterizations because of his frequent battles with Gov. Haley Barbour, especially on funding for education and health care. But when McCoy released a statement last week saying he wouldn’t run for re-election to the Mississippi House of Representatives, even Barbour called him a friend and a frequent supporter of the governor’s economic development programs.
McCoy was, indeed, a worthy and sometimes successful adversary for Barbour on matters that have always been close to the Prentiss Countian’s heart, especially education. But McCoy’s 32-year legislative career has been about so much more than the last few years of partisan standoffs. And it certainly hasn’t been about tearing down business in Mississippi.
Yes, McCoy is a populist in the sense that he identifies with and is an advocate for the common folk and their concerns. That’s the root of his decades-long focus on improving Mississippi’s public schools and thus the chances for a successful life for Mississippians of all backgrounds.
It’s also been the foundation for his leadership on some of the most important jobs-producing legislative initiatives in recent state history, including the 1987 four-lane highway program that transformed the economic landscape of Northeast Mississippi and the 2000 Advantage Mississippi program, which was a critical vehicle in securing Toyota for this region. In these and countless other instances, McCoy’s populism drove him to seek and support legislation that would enhance the job prospects of average Mississippians who might not otherwise have had much in the way of economic opportunity.
The major way McCoy’s populism – his concern for the little guy – evoked the consternation of many in the business and medical communities was in 2004 when he opposed Barbour’s tort reform efforts before eventually relenting. But using that experience to brand McCoy as “anti-business” ignores a career of supporting business-enhancing legislation.
Billy McCoy has been called stubborn by his opponents, and even some of his friends, and that he could be. Relentless might be a more fully descriptive word, though.
The scrappy, sometimes fiery and, yes, temper-prone McCoy used those characteristics as a legislator to champion the causes he felt passionate about. He would keep pushing, keep pressing the cause. Without such tenacity on issues like highways and the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, success might never have been achieved.
The combative elements of McCoy’s personality probably served him better as a legislator and committee chairman than as speaker of the House, but in that position he found himself where no speaker had before him. A powerful, party-oriented governor set about to organize Republicans in the House as a voting bloc, to bring what McCoy derisively termed “Washington-style politics” to the state Capitol. McCoy’s response was basically, you want a fight, I’ll give you one.
While others saw him as obstinate, McCoy saw himself as only responding in kind to the new political dynamics he felt had been forced upon him. When he barely held on to the speakership in 2008 without a single Republican vote, he responded by naming no Republican legislators to committee chairmanships. It wasn’t the best way to ensure a smooth four-year tenure, but it communicated that McCoy had gotten the message. He would have loved to have seen bipartisanship, McCoy insisted, but it wasn’t coming.
Could McCoy have won re-election as speaker next January? It likely would have depended on the outcome of just a handful of legislative races. It would have been far from certain.
Whether that uncertainty factored into his decision or not, McCoy made the right call. He is leaving more or less on his own terms. In doing so, he leaves a legacy of accomplishment that makes the caricatures painted by the McCoy mockers look mighty lame.

Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at (662) 678-1579 or lloyd.gray@journalinc.com.

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal