OPINION: Governors don’t have to be weak

The 1890 Mississippi Constitution eviscerated the office of governor. It was an entirely deliberate act, designed to protect the re-entrenched Bourbon planter interests from the Yankee Carpetbaggers of the Reconstruction era or some crazy populist from the hill country.
Governors had very little power and could not succeed themselves. They could raise hell, and some did, and they could push a program, and a few were forceful enough to succeed, but the Legislature was where the power was. That was always clear, and the Legislature loved to make the point whenever it could.
Things changed slightly in the 1980s when a gubernatorial succession amendment was finally submitted to the people and passed decisively. Governors now at least had the leverage of a possible second term.
The first governor to have the opportunity to succeed himself, Bill Allain, chose not to run for re-election but he had already made his contribution to a more equitable balance of power. As attorney general, he took the Legislature to court for violating the state constitution’s separation of powers. Lawmakers routinely served on boards and commissions in the executive branch – supposedly the governor’s share of the three-legged government stool. The Supreme Court stopped that; it was one rare victory for gubernatorial powers.
Still, the deck remained stacked against governors in Mississippi, and even the first governor to be elected to consecutive terms – Kirk Fordice – couldn’t convert his popularity with the voters into effectiveness with the Legislature.
Through the years gubernatorial irrelevance was attributed to Mississippi’s “weak governor” system with its constitutional and statutory restrictions on the power of the office. It was structural, the conventional wisdom went. The Legislature would always have the governor where it wanted him.
Then came Haley Barbour. So much for the “weak governor” theory.
Elsewhere in today’s paper are stories about this governor’s still powerful sway as he nears the final quarter of his eight-year tenure. Not only has Barbour turned the truism of gubernatorial weakness on its head, he is positioned to avoid the lame duck syndrome in his final two years.
No one with the political skills of Haley Barbour has likely ever occupied the Mississippi governor’s mansion, certainly not in modern times. If there’s an opening for political advantage, however narrow, he will find it and exploit it.
For six years now he has exerted unprecedented influence over the legislative process by a combination of hardball partisan politics and party discipline never before seen in Mississippi and effective control of one chamber of the Legislature, the 52-member Senate. However determined or ornery the House may be, it takes two legislative chambers to pass a bill or a budget. Barbour has managed to hold one of them in tow all these years.
In six years, he has never had a veto overridden – that in a Legislature that still has Democratic majorities in both chambers. And in the one case when his usual Republican coalition fell apart – on the issue of eminent domain – Barbour managed to talk some otherwise politically unfriendly Democratic senators into sustaining his veto. It was an amazing political moment.
Of course Barbour couldn’t do this if he weren’t popular among the electorate. But plenty of governors have been politically popular yet ineffective, so popularity doesn’t guarantee anything.
What Barbour has is instinct, smarts and charm, and a relentless determination to bend people to his political will. It’s a powerful combination.
His successes in economic development, the current tough times notwithstanding, in leadership after Hurricane Katrina and in budgetary battles have been undeniable. He’s gotten mixed marks in other areas, particularly health care and education.
But there is one absolutely certain legacy he will leave when his governorship is over: A Mississippi governor can have as much power as his personal makeup and political abilities will allow, the 1890 constitutional straitjacket notwithstanding. Even with little more than two years to go, it’s still a legacy in progress.

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

Lloyd Gray/NEMS Daily Journal