By Sid Salter
STARKVILLE – Gov. Haley Barbour leaves office next month with a powerful legacy that means different things to different people. Democrats will remember Barbour as a political warrior who over his two terms in office led a political revolt that robbed them of the last bastion of power they had in state government – the state House of Representatives.
Advocates for the poor and for the teacher unions will remember Barbour as cold and indifferent to their causes. Many members of the state’s Public Employees Retirement System will remember Barbour as one who tried to take the retirement security they believe they were promised in exchange for some of the lowest state employee wages in the nation. The state’s hospitals will remember him as their worst nightmare.
Trial lawyers will remember him as one led the charge to break up the “magic jurisdictions” bring sanity to mass tort litigation in the state while victims seeking to hold big business accountable when they sought compensation in the courts will remember Barbour as one who ignored their interests.
But the majority of Mississippi – a majority that twice elected Barbour governor – will remember Barbour much as the rest of the country remembers him. They will remember strong, decisive leadership in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other disasters – and they will remember Barbour who left the state’s Republican Party not merely competitive in the two-party system, but dominant.
Here’s one writer’s take on Barbour’s two terms in office: Mississippi was fortunate in the extreme to have Haley Barbour – the consummate Washington insider and one of the world’s best lobbyists – as our governor after Hurricane Katrina. Barbour knew where the spigots were in Washington to turn on the federal dollars and knew how to turn them on fast and to get the maximum amount of money possible headed to Mississippi.
That is not to discount the fact that U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee at the time or the contributions of the rest of the state’s congressional delegation. But Barbour’s mastery of the federal bureaucracy and his personal relationship with former President George W. Bush that put Mississippi ahead of the game in terms of relief and recovery from Katrina.
There is an intrinsic value in the governor of a small, poor state knowing exactly what relief to request and to whom to make that request – and to have a relationship in place to ease the transaction. That was Haley Barbour’s great gift as Mississippi governor in times of crisis.
From a political standpoint, Barbour was a force of nature in Jackson, more often than not winning political battles that he didn’t have the constitutional power as governor to win. But Barbour understood party discipline and how to bring pressure to bear against friend and foe alike.
Two moments during his tenure I will remember – first, I remember the quiet rush of tears to his eyes when surveying the enormity of the damage on the Gulf Coast after Katrina from the air. Second, I remember the cold resolve in those same eyes during a particularly contentious moment during the “hospital tax” fight when a political foe threatened dire political retribution if Barbour didn’t relent on a key policy point.
Barbour said: “Look, you be for what you’re for. I can assure that’s exactly what I’m going to do – and we’ll still be friends when this is over with.”
As in most cases over his eight years in office, Barbour won the policy point.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.