Partisan politics taking root in state Legislature

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 17, 2004

As the strength of the Republican Party in Mississippi has grown, GOP leadership across the state has sought a more partisan approach to legislating in an attempt to break the Democratic stronghold on state government.

Two realities exists in Mississippi politics. The first reality is that of state politics, where Democrats still hold the majority of elected positions, including majorities in both houses of the Legislature. The second reality is that of federal politics in Mississippi, where our state routinely backs the Republican presidential candidate and where four of our six congressmen are Republicans.

The dichotomy here has always fascinated many, and it is what has caused a surge in Republican popularity on the state level. By nature, most state voters seem to be both fiscally and socially conservative. Therefore, the national Democratic Party continues to march farther away from our mainstream ideas. In return, it has become increasingly harder for Democrats in Mississippi to win a national election because Republicans tie Democratic candidates to the ultra-liberal Democrats of the nation.

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In recent years, Republicans have found what works on one level will also work on another. When Rep. Chip Pickering, R-Miss., handily whipped former Rep. Ronnie Shows, D-Miss., by tying Shows to the likes of Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Republicans decided to use the same strategy in last year’s statewide elections.

It should be noted that Gov. Haley Barbour’s nephew, Henry Barbour, ran both Pickering’s and the governor’s campaigns, so using the same approach could partially be attributed to having the same political mind running both shows. Still, it is more likely that the younger Barbour has learned much from his uncle as it relates to politics. The idea of bringing Washington politics to the local level can only benefit Republicans in Mississippi.

Or can it?

With the election of Gov. Barbour and the re-election of Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck &045; a Republican in control of the state Senate &045; the political landscape of legislating has changed. What Republicans have sought for so long &045; a true, viable two-party approach to state government &045; is now a reality. And Barbour has brought the Washington way to Mississippi.

Immediately, Barbour did what every governor would have done, he cleaned house at the state party and installed his people. This is par for the course, but the result has been more than expected. The state Republican Party under the direction of Barbour’s people has been an attack dog against Democratic missteps during the legislative process.

In the past, Mississippi Republican Party Chairman Jim Herring and Mississippi Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole have kept most of their political bickering to the campaign trail or the largest legislative issues.

Republicans and Democrats are now pulling a tighter line behind the scenes. In the Senate, it is very clear that individual Republicans are either &8220;with us or against us,&8221; so say the GOP leaders. Under House Speaker Billy McCoy, the same is true of House Democrats to some extent, though he was given a wake-up call as to the influence of the Black Caucus.

So what will happen as state politics evolve into the partisan politics of the national level? It all depends. Perhaps we’ll see more diversity in legislative ideas, or perhaps we’ll see more stalemate.

But one thing is for certain: if Republicans can continue to increase their numbers, they will change the tide of state-level politics in Mississippi. If they slip in their attempt, however, they will hand back to the Democratic majority the complete balance of power.

Sam R. Hall

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