By NEMS Daily Journal
When a political action group last week admitted in a full page ad that it mailed “false and defamatory” statements in an attempt to defeat Rep. David Baria in 2011 legislative races, it provided a vital clue to how Republicans won control of the Mississippi House.
Unprecedented in state politics, Advance Mississippi Political Action Committee printed a public apology to Democrat Baria, who was one of 15 House Democrats targeted by the GOP for defeat in 2011. AMPAC had spent some $300,000 on a direct mail and ad blitz using similar smear/false mailings to voters.
Enough targeted Democrats were defeated in 2011 to give Republicans a slight majority of House membership. It marked the first time since the 1870s that identifiable Republicans took control of the Legislature.
Actually, for decades after Reconstruction – until Republican Haley Barbour became governor in 2004 – Mississippians were not aware of any partisan divide in the Legislature. After arriving on the state political stage, Barbour began driving a sharp wedge dividing lawmakers along party affiliation and then ran GOP interests with an iron fist to push his top-down governing style.
Many political observers believe that Barbour’s parting gesture in 2011 was to install a Republican majority in the Legislature. Many financial contributors to AMPAC were also Barbour campaign backers.
Full page apologies to Baria appeared in two Gulf Coast newspapers, the Sun Herald and Bay St, Louis’ Sea Coast Echo, published by board Members of Advance Mississippi Political Action Committee and the group’s top officers.
“Absolutely,” said Baria, a Bay St. Louis attorney, when I asked him if his experience was part of a broader pattern to take down enough Democrats to give Republicans a majority in the House.
That is also the view of Diane Peranich, the outspoken Democratic veteran from Pass Christian who was defeated after AMPAC waged a smear campaign against her. She is particularly bitter that the mailings (including one that she had accepted spa privileges from a lobbyist) came at a time when her mother was gravely ill. Her mother has since passed away. “I’m proud of David exposing how these people (AMPAC) used such scurrilous tactics,” said Peranich, adding: “Thankfully, David is a lawyer and could fight back while the rest of us could not.” Several other defeated Democrats targeted by AMPAC told me how the political PAC “grossly twisted facts” to confuse voters who are largely uninformed on how legislation is crafted.
Publication of the apology came as settlement of a defamation lawsuit Baria filed in Hancock County Circuit Court. The lawmaker said he did not want monetary damages, only the published apology whose wording he approved.
Steve Simmons, a longtime lobbyist who is AMPAC’s executive director, last week issued a lame statement contending that the anti-Baria mailings were a “honest mistake.” However, Baria said he tried to get Simmons on the phone immediately after the first false ad appeared to tell him it was a “flat out lie” but got no reply. The ad wrongly said Baria had voted for a legislative pay raise bill in 2011. Baria who was then a member of the Senate, said “no such bill came before us.” Also cited in Baria’s lawsuit was a personally defamatory ad involving family members.
Overall, the AMPAC attack seemed to target several Democrats loyal to then-Speaker McCoy, the scrappy Democratic veteran who largely stopped Haley Barbour from totally dominating the legislative branch during Barbour’s two gubernatorial terms. McCoy would doubtless have been a prime target, but surprised everyone by not seeking reelection to his House District 5 seat. Of note, McCoy’s successor is a minister with Tea Party ties who the GOP recruited to run.
If Barbour orchestrated the money-driven legislative takeover, as many believe, its ultimate goal seems to have been the destruction of the Democrats’ agrarian roots, especially in the Northeast Mississippi hill country. Who could be closer to the soil of this mostly rural state than McCoy, who when not fighting legislative battles in Jackson, was growing fishing worms and doing small farming?
Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at email@example.com.