CATEGORY: COL Columns (Journal)



JACKSON — Like everyone in the state Capitol, Speaker Tim Ford was sitting down in front of the television Saturday afternoon to watch the Mississippi State-Syracuse NCAA Final Four basketball game.

In his office with him were Rep. Jim Simpson, R-Gulfport; and Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville. Simpson’s wife and small child also were part of the group.

“Come on in and watch the game,” Ford said.

I did for a few minutes, but told Ford I needed to ask him a couple of questions about what was funded and what was not funded during the all-important conference committee process that was just completed in the Mississippi Legislature.

“All right,” Ford said.

As I talked to him, it became apparent Ford could answer general questions, but not specific inquiries.

“I don’t know how that turned out,” Ford said. “Let me call and check on it.” It was his response to my questions more than once.

He explained that scores of conference committees had met, and while he had general knowledge, he could not keep up with every piece of legislation.

On that day, Tim Ford sure did not sound like the “most autocratic legislative leader in the country” which is how he was described last week in a Wall Street Journal editorial. In simple terms, Tim Ford, D-Tupelo, was personally attacked in the editorial.

He was accused of storming into committee meetings and assuming control. The editorial claimed he had “absolute power over legislators.” In my short tenure here, I have yet to see that “absolute power” over House members over whom he presides — much less state senators over whom Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove presides.

I have seen countless times in the House where Ford’s wishes were not followed. I have seen times where people who would be considered his “top lieutenants” went against his will on votes.

This hardly sound likes the “Sun King” who was described in the Wall Street Journal editorial. I asked John Fund, the writer of that editorial, how he came to the conclusions he reached about Ford.

During the telephone conversation, Fund said his sources included a magazine article, which he could not identify, and people at the Capitol. He said he had a general knowledge of all state legislatures.

I asked him if that general knowledge included the history of the post of speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives and the tremendous power that position used to have? At times, I am told, previous speakers refused to even recognize people they disagreed with during debate of bills on the House floor. It is my impression that Tim Ford goes out of his way to be fair during floor debate.

Fund said he understood the power the speaker used to possess, but he still maintained Ford was the “most autocratic” legislator in the country. If that is true, I asked, who could he compare Ford to.

He did not have an answer. This seemed odd to me. If a person is deemed the best or worst at something, doesn’t there have to be a point to start the comparison? For people to say the Dallas Cowboys are the best football team in the county, there has to be a point of reference. The best compared to whom? If Tim Ford is the most dictatorial legislator in the country, who would be No. 2? The Wall Street Journal editorial writer could not answer that.

He couldn’t answer that even though he had written only days before that Tim Ford was the “most autocratic” and that the speaker was referred to as a Sun King. He said that was a common term in the cloak rooms of the state Legislature even though he told me he was not sure he had ever visited the Mississippi Legislature during session.

All this was stated as the beliefs of what many say is the nation’s leading newspaper. It is obvious what is going on here. There are groups trying to paint Tim Ford as the bad guy for their own gain.

Let me try to explain. The Wall Street Journal editorial was about the state Legislature’s attempt to tighten up Mississippi’s initiative process. Under this process, people can gather petitions, bypass the Legislature and get issues placed on the election ballot. People used the process last year to get on the ballot a term limits proposal that was defeated. Term limits supporters want to get the issue on the ballot again through the initiative process. Under the bill tightening up the initiative process, this might be harder to do.

I expect to see more attacks on Ford. Term limits proponents need a whipping boy — someone to stick out front as a good reason to support term limits. They have selective Tim Ford. What other reason could the Wall Street Journal have for worrying itself with an initiative bill in the Mississippi Legislature and with what type of authority Tim Ford possesses?

It served the purpose of the term limits supporters for the Wall Street Journal to say Ford concocted the plan to limit the initiative process. For the record, Ford did not author the bill that placed the limits on the initiative process. And it came out of a committee chaired by a Republican appointed by Ford.

As Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, pointed out, if not for Ford, there would not have been an initiative process. Ford appointed the Constitution Committee members who let the initiative proposal come to the floor for a full vote of the House of Representatives in 1991. He did not try to find initiative opponents for the committee as purely autocratic speakers of the past have done.

Many things can be said about Ford. Some might say he does not use his considerable influence enough for legislation he believes in. Others could say he should not have accepted a third term as speaker after being elected under rules that at the time would have limited him to two terms. Other can criticize him for the speaker’s fund that comes from donations from private individuals to pay for the expenses of his office.

And, yes, Tim Ford has tremendous power. His position is the most powerful in the state. And, yes, he does have supporters in the House who try to carry out his wishes.

But that is the legislative process. Ford was elected speaker. That gives him the right.

He uses his power. But to say he is a dictator when compared to past speakers is completely off base.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief.

Click video to hear audio