At first, it was only black Democratic Party candidates in the Delta who sought the favor of Mississippi’s first legitimate African-American political kingmaker. Then, as his stranglehold on his congressional seat grew and strengthened, black politicians across Mississippi sought his support.
Today, any Democrat who wants to run credible statewide race not only wants his support, they need it. And during President Barack Obama’s two terms in the White House, the federal patronage path in Mississippi increasingly ran through his office.
Second District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Bolton, the senior Democratic official in the state’s congressional delegation – and in recent years, the only one – has emerged as a political kingmaker the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the days of the late “Big Jim” Eastland.
Thompson’s endorsement is sought by Democrats not merely in federal elections or statewide elections, but in local races as well. Irascible Clarion-Ledger political cartoonist Marshall Ramsay hit the nail on the head in recent weeks when he asked the rhetorical question of who the next mayor of Jackson would be following the death of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba and answered it: “Whoever Bennie says.”
What was Thompson’s endorsement of a fellow black candidate worth in 2008? In 2008, Thompson’s support at the grassroots level was critical in helping Obama attain a Mississippi Democratic primary win over his chief rival, Hillary Clinton. Obama won the primary with 265,502 votes, or 61.2 percent. Clinton placed second with 159,221 votes, or 36.7 percent.
Thompson is a shrewd and disciplined politician. He is also not afraid to play hardball with white Democrats who court the state’s African-American vote but then fail to reciprocate that support when African-American candidates are standing for election.
And if Thompson engages Mississippi Democrats in a significant way, what about the state’s Republicans?
Few politicians are a more reliable political lightning rod for conservatives than Thompson. He is an unapologetic liberal who is pro-labor in a “right-to-work” state and who is a proud national Democrat in a state where many in his party hide behind the label of “Mississippi Democrats.” Thompson supports abortion rights in a state when that stance will beat most every other politician in a state or federal election.
It’s interesting that … Thompson is unintentionally a strategic help to the current 3-1 split the GOP maintains in the state’s four U.S. House districts.
Thompson has fought to keep black voting age population or BVAP high in the Second District to protect his political base. The demographic shifts necessary to make that political math work conversely serves to protect the conservative Republican majorities enjoyed by Republican U.S. Reps. Alan Nunnelee, Gregg Harper and Steven Palazzo in their districts.
Suffice to say that Congressman Thompson’s 2014 election night stress level will be somewhere south of that of the vaunted Maytag repair man.
With $1.346 million in his campaign coffers, Thompson is going to win re-election handily. A key test of Thompson’s political reach will come in the special election in Jackson to choose a successor to Lumumba. Thompson is supporting Jackson City Councilman Melvin Priester Jr., the son of one of the congressman’s closest political allies.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (601) 507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.