The announcement of former Mississippi Gov. Bill Allain’s death this week at the age of 85 brought back memories of the time 30 years ago when Mississippi and the rest of the nation waded through one of the more bizarre chapters in the state’s political history and perhaps the dirtiest campaign seen in this state before or since.
The 1983 gubernatorial campaign between then Democratic Attorney General Bill Allain, Republican nominee Leon Bramlett, and independents Charles Evers, Billy Taylor and Helen Williams was rocked when two weeks before the November general election, Allain was slammed with allegations of misconduct.
Simply put, Allain was accused 30 years ago of what was thought at the time to be conduct that no mainstream politician could survive. Yet Allain did.
Allain – a divorced Natchez attorney and U.S. Army infantry combat veteran of the Korean War – was leading Bramlett by 25 points in popularity polls before a group of his Republican opponents unveiled allegations that Allain had engaged in sexual liaisons with three black, transvestite prostitutes.
Allain vehemently denied the allegations. Bramlett challenged Allain to take a lie detector test and Allain eventually complied – releasing results that indicated that he was telling the truth.
The allegations set off a state and national media circus – bringing in an appearance by Geraldo Rivera – who interviewed the three prostitutes and aired a story in which all three recanted their prior accusations against Allain.
But after absorbing the allegations and watching the media circus unfold, Mississippi voters simply didn’t buy the allegations. Not only did voters reject the allegations against Allain, but they also politically rebuked the Republicans who made them.
Allain won the election – carrying 74 of the state’s 82 counties – and went on to serve a productive term as governor despite complaints that he served the term somewhat cloistered in the Governor’s Mansion after the raucous, raunchy campaign.
Among Allain’s greatest contributions and one that led to his election as governor was a lawsuit he filed while serving as attorney general that fundamentally changed state government.
The lawsuit asked the state Supreme Court to stop members of the Mississippi Legislature served on boards, commissions, and agencies in the executive branch. Allain argued that Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution required a separation of powers and that legislators could not serve in the executive branch.
The court sided with Allain, strengthening the office of governor. Also during Allain’s term came passage of gubernatorial succession and a restructuring of the state Board of Education.
The low point of Allain’s term as governor was his unsuccessful 1987 veto of the AHEAD highway program. The state desperately needed the road program and Allain’s insistence that the program be funded through bonding rather than taxes fell on deaf ears.
Despite the personal campaign attacks and the national media attention it engendered, Allain remained active as long as his health enabled him to do so.
Did he or didn’t he? Was he guilty of the allegations or the victim of a vicious smear? As a journalist, I didn’t know 30 years ago and I don’t know today.
But I do know the majority of Mississippi voters had faith in Allain – faith enough to elect him governor and faith enough to reject the campaign tactics that threatened his election.
As governor, Allain was aloof and distant with many in the media and certainly with me. But from the standpoint of public policy, Allain deserves to be remembered as an effective governor who left a positive mark on Mississippi. And 30 years after the dirtiest gubernatorial campaign I ever covered, may Gov. Allain rest in peace.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org (601) 507-8004.