Most Mississippians back in the 1960s and ’70s took for granted the vast amount of power its two long-serving Democratic senators, Jim Eastland as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and John Stennis as Armed Services chairman, wielded. And at the same time, veteran Rep. Jamie Whitten from the state’s Northeast country, was a powerhouse in the lower chamber as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, noted for keeping his cards close to his vest as he quietly shuffled money down to his home state.
In the view of this writer, who has closely watched Mississippi politics for six decades, the state’s present delegation, overall, is the weakest and least influential of any I have seen. Why?
Partly, the size of the delegation in the House has substantially decreased due to state's lack of population growth the last 50 years, costing the state three House seats and the loss of years of seniority during that time.
But beyond that, the makeup of the delegation has seen diminution of power as result of self-inflicted blows: two sudden resignations the past two years that wiped out some 30 years of seniority. And in one instance – the downfall of one longtime lawmaker – by saying the wrong thing publicly and bringing down strong disciplinary action from his own party.
Sometimes being caught on the wrong side of the political fence when a new administration takes over has also been costly to Mississippi’s delegation. But face it: none of the state’s present six-member delegation has shown so-called star power that might be rewarded by being boosted up their party’s leadership ladder.
Just think: two of the state’s four House members – Democrat Travis Childers and Republican Gregg Harper are green freshmen, who traditionally are assigned to back benches. At least Childers has years of county government under his belt, while Harper has none. You might also say newly-appointed Republican Sen. Roger Wicker is also a Senate freshman because his previous 14 years on the House side don’t count in the Senate.
The state’s other two House members, Democrats Gene Taylor, the 20-year veteran from the Coast, and Bennie Thompson, who holds the “safe” black seat from the Delta, are a sharp contrast. Taylor, who marches to his own drummer, rarely votes with his national party leadership, while Thompson is a reliable party loyalist. Supposedly Thompson was rewarded by being given chairmanship of the new Homeland Security Committee. Nice, but a far cry from the agriculture-rich Delta he represents.
The case of ex-Sen. Trent Lott is the most interesting of all, marked by a sudden fall from grace of party leaders. The ambitious Lott had climbed from being the junior senator from Mississippi behind his colleague Thad Cochran to become GOP majority leader in the Senate, cajoling fellow Republicans and building a reputation as a good vote-counter. In 2002, he blew it all in just a few seconds by his remarks at Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that sounded like an endorsement of Thurmond's 1948 segregationist Dixiecrat platform.
Lott was quickly pressured out of his majority leader post and the whole episode seemed to have blown over after Lott was returned to his Senate seat in the 2006 state elections. Then in December, 2007, Lott out of the blue announced he was resigning for vague reasons. Very soon it became evident he was joining an old Senate colleague, John Breaux of Louisiana, in a ready-made lobby firm.
Imagine the clout Mississippi had in the late 1930s when Franklin D, Roosevelt was president and his good friend, Byron P. “Pat” Harrison was the senior senator from Mississippi, and also chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Life Magazine did a poll of 53 Washington correspondents and Harrison was number five on a 10-member list of the “ablest U. S. Senators.” In 1937, Harrison was unanimously elected president pro tempore of the Senate, a position which Mississippi newspapers proudly boasted made the senator “two heartbeats away from the presidency.”
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at email@example.com.