By Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal
BILOXI – He called it his “valedictory address” to the Mississippi Press Association, and Gov. Haley Barbour used his final appearance before a convention of state newspaper editors and publishers on Friday to burnish his legacy a bit.
His take could be summed up, in the words of the first President Bush, as “the vision thing.” Bush the elder admitted he wasn’t very good at it. Barbour touted it as the essence of his contribution to the state over two terms.
The Legislature, he said, can’t have a vision because that’s impossible for 174 people. “The way our system works, the person who gets that responsibility is the governor,” Barbour said.
He said it in the context of his description of a long-term role for the state Port of Gulfport, a multi-year project he would discuss with officials later in the day on the Coast and which he sees as potentially the single biggest economic development project in state history.
From the beginning, Barbour’s vision was always about the state’s economy – about Mississippi competing with the best for the best. Clearly, that is how he hopes to be remembered, and in spite of the job losses of the recent recession years, Barbour has helped spur new confidence in Mississippi’s ability to attract the type of economic development projects any state would be glad to have.
In this focus, he has been relentless. Whatever else may be said about his governorship, Barbour has never wavered from promoting the state – often successfully – as a place to do business and in combating the stereotypes that would keep investment away.
Barbour’s self-described goal has been to break Mississippians of the notion that if we’re just not 50th, we’re OK. So much of a state or a community’s capacity for development has to do with its own self-image and self-confidence. Mississippi’s self-doubt and insecurity have at times been masked by a defiant defensiveness. Success stories like Toyota – and Nissan, which occurred in the Musgrove administration – help beget more success by building confidence both within the state and outside.
Immediately after Barbour departed the podium, four men competing to succeed him came forward for a campaign forum and all dealt with that “we can do anything we set our minds to” theme in one way or another. The two Republicans, Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant and Gulf Coast businessman Dave Dennis, overtly claimed the Barbour mantle. Several times Bryant, in discussing economic development, began a sentence with “Gov. Barbour and I,” and Dennis continued to push his credentials as Barbour heir as the private sector CEO who could best represent the state in similar fashion.
Even the Democrats, Hattiesburg Mayor Johnny DuPree and Clarksdale lawyer-businessman Bill Luckett, avoided any direct criticism of Barbour and were equally eager to tout what Mississippi is capable of doing economically.
It was an appropriate juxtaposition, with Barbour on his way out and his would-be successors jousting for advantage. An observer couldn’t help but wonder just what Barbour would be up to when one of these four is in office.
“I don’t expect to run for anything ever again, but I don’t expect to retire,” Barbour said when asked, and of course he earlier ruled out a presidential run. He speculated he might write a book, but not a political memoir, “because I’d have to tell the truth about my friends.” Instead, he might write a book about crisis management based on his Katrina experiences, he said.
Friends and adversaries might both say he could write a primer on how to leverage the limited powers of Mississippi’s governorship for all they’re worth, and it could be voluminous. But long-term, the “vision thing” on economic development could be the Barbour theme that transcends political boundaries.
Lloyd Gray is executive editor of the Daily Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (662) 678-1579.