Both were born in the same district in the same year as the eldest sons of two young families. They suffered personal tragedies at a young age but still managed to graduate college the same year.
They married women with similar names – Childers to Tami; Nunnelee to Tori – and started raising children while running small businesses.
Both men are Baptist. Both also held elected positions about 15 years before running for congressional office. And both have filled seats vacated by Roger Wicker – Nunnelee grabbed his former state Senate slot while Childers took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Childers, a Democrat, wants to keep that seat; Nunnelee, a Republican, wants to take it away. The men face off in the Nov. 2 general election.
And while they acknowledge their similar backgrounds, they also firmly believe they’re no more alike than oil and water.
“Our difference is highlighted our very first day in office,” said Nunnelee. “Congressman Childers voted to put Nancy Pelosi in the third-most powerful elected position in America, and I’m going to vote to fire Nancy Pelosi.”
Much of Nunnelee’s campaign has focused on Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House who decides which legislation comes up for a vote and which gets buried. Nunnelee blames her for the liberal tone he says dominates Congress and promises that a vote for him is a vote against Pelosi.
He said his campaign isn’t about him, or even about Childers. Instead, he called it “a crusade to save America.”
Childers, on the other hand, said his campaign is about north Mississippi. He’ll vote for bills that benefit the 1st Congressional District and vote against those that don’t – regardless of whether they’re backed by Democrats or Republicans, he said.
He called himself Congress’ third most independent member and said he’s proud to have bucked his own party on key legislation, including the Wall Street bailout and the health care reform bill.
“Both parties love to jump to the extremes – one to the right, one to the left,” Childers said at the pair’s only congressional debate, held Tuesday at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. “And it leaves north Mississippi people like me out.”
Childers said Democrats and Republicans need to work together; Nunnelee said Republicans need to take back the House.
The eldest of seven children, Nunnelee was born in Tupelo in October 1958 to Pat and Sandra Nunnelee, a deeply religious family active in the Baptist community. His father sold life insurance and moved the family to Clinton during Nunnelee’s youth.
After graduating from Clinton High School in 1976, Nunnelee attended Mississippi State University. While studying there, he lost most of his sight to a degenerative eye disease.
The tragedy didn’t prevent him from continuing his education, though. Nunnelee persevered, going to classes and doing his work even though he could barely see.
A cornea transplant later restored his vision.
Nunnelee eventually earned his bachelor’s degree in 1980 and went to work for Amory-based American Funeral Assurance Co., which also had employed his father since 1977.
Father and son moved up the ranks of the company together. Nunnelee eventually became vice president of sales and marketing; his father rose to president and CEO of the multimillion-dollar group in 1992.
The company, which later merged with Liberty Corp., is largely credited for having pioneered the pre-need insurance concept. Pre-need involves selling policies that let people pay for their funerals ahead of time, thereby locking in the price.
But a rash of pre-need scams across the nation have tainted the industry and triggered outright bans of the practice in several states, including Florida.
When asked about the legitimacy of his industry, Nunnelee responded: “There is no difference in our company and any other large life insurance company; they sell million-dollar policies and we sell small policies. What we do is highly regulated by the Mississippi Department of Insurance.”
Although they no longer work for American Funeral, Nunnelee and his father continue their work in the field. They hold top positions in the pre-need firms they founded in Tupelo in 1996 – Allied Funeral Associates, Inc., and Allied Funeral Associates Insurance Co. – selling their product through small funeral homes throughout the state.
In December 1994, Nunnelee won Wicker’s old state Senate seat in a special election runoff against Claude Hartley. The Republican took office the next month and has been there since, serving on more than a half-dozen committees and chairing the powerful Appropriations Committee since 2008.
The candidate is married to the former Tori Bedells and the couple have three children – Reed, Emily – who married recently – and Nathan. They attend Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo, and Nunnelee also is active in the Chesterville Baseball Association.
Childers was born in Booneville in March 1958 to Betty Sue and John Wayne Childers as the older of two children. The family’s life was steeped in the Baptist faith, and his father supported them all through his automotive repair business.
But tragedy struck early and often.
John Wayne Childers committed suicide when his son was 16, leaving his wife and children emotionally and financially strained. As the new man of the family, young Childers took a job at a convenience store to support his mother and sister while still attending high school.
Then a car accident severely injured his teenage sister, Tammy, leaving her with recurrent seizures. They ultimately led to her death of a brain aneurysm at age 23.
After high school, Childers attended Northeast Mississippi Junior College and finally the University of Mississippi. He continued to work throughout college – first at the convenience store and then in real estate.
When he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1980, Childers and his business partner Robert Davis opened Davis and Childers Realty in Booneville. Later, the candidate launched a solo firm, Travis Childers Realty and Associates.
His first taste of public office came in 1991 when Childers became Prentiss County’s Chancery Court clerk, a position he held for 17 years.
While serving as clerk, Childers and his wife Tami purchased and renovated the old Booneville High School building and turned it into an assisted living facility called Landmark Community. It opened in the mid-1990s. A few years later, they opened Landmark Nursing Center, an 80-bed facility and Alzheimer’s disease unit.
Complaints about the nursing center surfaced during Childers’s 2008 congressional campaign. An ad by the National Republican Congressional Committee at the time accused Childers of not caring about seniors and, instead, profiting from them.
It cited a 2003 inspection that found 12 health deficiencies at Landmark. The gravest were the facility’s failure to write and use policies forbidding the mistreatment, neglect and abuse of patients and its lack of patient surveillance.
But Landmark consistently ranks better than the state average, which is about 19 deficiencies per facility, according to HealthGrades, a national health care ratings organization.
In 2007, HealthGrades issued a report saying the Booneville center had no deficiencies at all. The number has varied since. Landmark racked up four inadequacies in 2008, 10 last year and six this year. Each time, it has placed better than the state average.
Despite the negative ads, Childers won the May 2008 special election to fill Wicker’s old congressional seat. The Democrat won the general election in November the same year.
Childers and his wife have two children, Dustin and Lauren, and the family attends East Booneville Baptist Church.
Party and values
Although Childers is a Democrat and Nunnelee a Republican, both men share core north Mississippi values. They oppose abortion, support gun-owners’ rights and legislate as fiscal conservatives.
Neither liked the ban on offshore drilling, the Health Care Reform bill or the Wall Street bailout – Childers voted against them in Congress. And neither wants to privatize Social Security.
Both want to reduce federal spending, create more jobs in the 1st District and extend tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 annually.
“Both Nunnelee and Childers are from the exact same ideological family, cut from the same close-knit, rural, conservative and church-going cloth. It makes it very hard to differentiate,” said Marty Wiseman, executive director of the Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. “If you look at everything on both sides, it’s a dead heat. They’re both conservatives.”
So, what’s the difference?
Childers, even though he’d prefer a more moderate speaker of the House, likely will vote with his party to keep Pelosi in that position. Nunnelee, along with other Republicans, will vote against her.
Childers wants to extend the Bush tax cuts one additional year and then re-evaluate, while Nunnelee wants them extended permanently.
Childers voted for the $800 billion stimulus bill in 2009 and a $26 billion federal stimulus package this year to bolster cash-strapped school districts nationwide. It brought $180 million to Mississippi and helped keep teachers here employed.
Nunnelee has sharply criticized both bills – along with Childers’ support of them – saying that this year’s education-related stimulus burdens today’s school children with the debt of their own education. Nunnelee would have voted against the bill, he says.
Childers has called Nunnelee “hypocritical” for criticizing the 2009 stimulus while using it to plug holes in the state budget he helped fashion.
On the Health Care Reform bill, Nunnelee says he'll vote to repeal it if elected to office. Childers, who didn't vote for it, hasn’t gone so far as to call for its repeal.
And while Childers will stand firm on his opposition of FairTax – which proposes a 23 percent national sales tax to replace income taxes – Nunnelee won’t commit either way. The Republican did say, however, that he hasn’t signed on in support of it, either.
Beyond the issues, backers of each man note differences in personality and approach.
“Travis Childers has a heart,” said Jamie Franks, chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party and former state representative. “He’ll do what’s in the interest of working families ... he has a record of protecting those people.”
Franks said that in the eight years he served with Nunnelee in the Legislature, he saw a man who toed the Republican Party line no matter what the issue or the consequence. If Nunnelee is elected to Congress, Franks said, he won’t serve north Mississippi, he’ll serve the Republican Party.
Nunnelee will serve both, countered Brad White, chairman of the Mississippi Republican Party. And it will be easy for him to do so given that the GOP best represents the values of the 1st District.
“Sen. Nunnelee, being a Republican, can stand here in Mississippi and state what he believes and his view on how government should operate and do so with confidence that his party will turn those ideas into law,” White said. “It won’t be double talk. His party will align itself with what he believes.
“Travis Childers can’t do that. He can’t stand here and say he’s a proud Democrat. He says he’s pro-life, but his party’s not. He says he’s pro-gun, but his party’s not.”
White also dismissed claims that Childers is among the most independent members of Congress, saying he votes against his party only after enough Democratic votes are secured to win passage of a bill.
“He has voted with Nancy Pelosi 87 percent of the time,” White said. “I don’t see that as independent.”
But Childers isn’t the only congressman to vote with Pelosi a majority of the time. A story published Wednesday by Washington newspaper The Hill reveals that House Republican leader, Rep. John Boehner, also votes with Pelosi more often than not.
So do several other staunchly conservative GOPers, like Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, and Rep. Pete Sessions, head of the GOP’s House campaign committee.
“The explanation for the elevated voting percentages is simple,” the article explains. “While hotly disputed legislation on health care, climate change and government spending command the public’s attention, the vast majority of congressional votes occur on more mundane and non-controversial items, like the naming of post offices or designating weeks or months to cancer awareness and other causes.”