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The once powerful rural white Democrat is a dying breed in the Mississippi Legislature

Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, reviews a print out of a vote from 2018 at the Capitol in Jackson.
Rep. Jay Hughes, D-Oxford, reviews a print out of a vote from 2018 at the Capitol in Jackson. AP

For 24 years, the speaker of the Mississippi House hailed from a district that included a portion of rural Prentiss County in northeast Mississippi – first Tim Ford for 16 years and then Billy McCoy for eight years.

It could be argued that the end of McCoy’s tenure as speaker in 2011 marked the last hurrah for the so-called rural white Democrats, who for so many years ruled the legislative roost. In November 2011, Republicans garnered majorities in both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature and they have been increasing their numbers ever since.

The increase in the number of Republicans in the Legislature has basically coincided with a mass shift of northeast Mississippi legislators – the power base for both Ford and McCoy – from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

There is a long list of northeast Mississippi legislators who have switched parties during the last two terms or so. Other northeast Mississippi Democrats were replaced with Republican.

The latest switch came hours before qualifying deadline on March 1 when the office of Republican Speaker Philip Gunn sent out a news release announcing Rep. Nick Bain of Corinth, one of the few remaining rural white Democrats, was qualifying to seek re-election as a Republican.

Hank Zuber would like to see half as many general sessions of the Mississippi Legislature.

Three other rural white Democrats from northeast Mississippi – Sens. Russell Jolly of Houston, J.P. Wilemon of Belmont and Rep. Preston Sullivan of Okolona – are not seeking re-election. House Democratic leader, David Baria of Bay St. Louis, also is not seeking re-election. The conventional wisdom is that those four districts are toss ups and that a Democrat could actually win some or all of them.

Time will tell.

Most likely, the electoral success of northeast Mississippi Democrats and their unwillingness to change parties slowed for a term or two the Republicans’ takeover of the Mississippi Legislature.

It could be argued that for much of Ford’s four terms as speaker the rural white Democrats did not govern much differently than Republicans. They governed conservatively, but partisan politics was not yet a major force in Mississippi. The Legislature operated on the building of coalitions that were much more fluid, more apt to change from issue to issue.

By the time McCoy was elected speaker, partisan politics was a real force. McCoy’s coalition, particularly during his final term, was built solely from Democrats. And the biggest bloc in that coalition was not rural white Democrats, but African Americans.

As a result, McCoy named an unprecedented number of black legislators as chairs of many of the most powerful committees in the Mississippi Legislature. Not since reconstruction had African Americans had such influence in state government.

During McCoy’s second term, opponents produced and circulated a flyer with photos of all of the black committee chairs he had appointed. The flyer did not say anything racist, just the photos with the explanation that these were legislators appointed to important committee posts by Speaker Billy McCoy. The flyer did not have the photos of the white committee chairs McCoy had appointed.

The connotation was clear that there were still enough people in Mississippi who would look negatively at those committee appointments.

Publicly, McCoy, who never backed away from a fight, defended those appointees as quality individuals who deserved the opportunity to chair committees. In addition, McCoy was astute enough to understand his power was derived not from rural white Democrats, but from African Americans.

But privately, McCoy, perhaps the paragon of the rural white Democrat, who did not come to the Legislature from rural Prentiss County in the early 1980s as a leading voice on race relations, lamented the fact that some people still thought such a flyer would be effective, and worse yet that it was effective with some people.

This column was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.

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